Bo Jackson enjoys going to the supermarket much more these days.
Back when he was a two-sport pro athlete and pop culture star more than two decades ago, the family cook couldn’t do his grocery shopping without being mobbed by fans. Perhaps surprising for a guy who was once everywhere on TV in a classic ad campaign, not everyone knows Bo anymore.
“It really doesn’t bother me that people don’t know who I am,” said Jackson, who turned 50 on Friday. “It’s kind of nice in a way.”
An admittedly private person who long struggled with stuttering, Jackson has taken on a more public persona recently. In the spring, he biked across his native Alabama, recruiting other celebrities to raise money for victims of the 2011 tornadoes that ravaged the state. Jackson was part of the four-man search committee as his alma mater, Auburn, hired Gus Malzahn as its new football coach Tuesday.
And he agreed to participate in a documentary about the only man to be selected for both the NFL’s Pro Bowl and baseball’s All-Star game.
“You Don’t Know Bo,” about the 1985 Heisman Trophy winner, will premiere Saturday on ESPN after this year’s Heisman ceremony. The title, a play on Nike’s famous “Bo Knows” commercials, was partly inspired by a conversation director Mike Bonfiglio had with his two teenage cousins, both big sports fans. They didn’t know Bo.
“That was a very interesting thing to me, that this guy who was so incredibly famous for a brief period of time – he was one of the most recognizable names and faces in the country,” Bonfiglio said on a conference call with Jackson on Wednesday.
But even older fans who vividly remember Jackson’s outrageous athletic feats might not really feel as if they know Bo.
“I think he’s still an enigma,” Bonfiglio said.
Jackson thinks everyone makes his legacy more complicated that it was. Teammates called him a freak of nature, he recalled, but “I’m just being me.” As a kid, he played multiple sports and played them well; the way he sees it, he simply kept doing that as an adult.
“As far as doing the dual sports thing, that was just a way to keep me out of trouble,” he said. “Idle time with me is the devil’s workshop, and if my mother was still alive, she would tell you.”
He played running back for the Los Angeles Raiders and outfield for the Kansas City Royals until injuring his hip in a 1991 NFL playoff game. He briefly returned to baseball after hip replacement surgery.
“Back when I was playing, that was my job,” Jackson said. “I never saw it as, ‘Hey, I’m transcending an era here and I’m a pop icon or whatever or I’m this person.’ I’m not blowing smoke here: I saw what I was doing – it was my job. ... It was my source of employment. It was my way of keeping a roof over my family’s head, putting food on the table for my family.”
Bonfiglio said the film would have gone on even had Jackson declined to participate – and at first it wasn’t clear if he would. But Jackson said he was happy to help as long as it didn’t take too much time from his business commitments.
“What surprised me the most about Bo is what a good story teller he is,” Bonfiglio said. “He’s just really, really eloquent and just spins a good yarn, and he’s fun to listen to.”
Those Nike commercials celebrated Jackson’s versatility as other stars from Michael Jordan to Wayne Gretzky list all the sports Bo knows. As clever as the ads were, Jackson doesn’t consider his fame a marketer’s creation.
“You have to perform to get that notoriety,” he said. “You just can’t go and put your name on a shoe and become an overnight sensation. You have to prove it.”
And as normal as Jackson’s feats felt to him, they were extraordinary to the fans following them.
“When people watched the things that he did on the field, it expanded their imaginations,” Bonfiglio said. “When you see something that you don’t think is humanly possible, it makes you dream differently, and that’s what Bo did. When people saw him, it completely captured their imaginations and expanded their consciousness in a way, and that I think is the main reason why he was such a phenomenon that transcended athletics.”
Jackson laughed and interjected: “You could say that.”