Vahe Gregorian

Bo Jackson, the lens of time and his surprising favorite sports memory

Bo Jackson tells Kyler Murray to follow his heart and chase his dreams

Former Kansas City Royals outfielder Bo Jackson doesn't want to give advice to Kyler Murray, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who was also drafted by the Oakland Athletics team, but he does tell him to follow his heart and chase his dreams.
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Former Kansas City Royals outfielder Bo Jackson doesn't want to give advice to Kyler Murray, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who was also drafted by the Oakland Athletics team, but he does tell him to follow his heart and chase his dreams.

Bo Jackson is 56 years old now, and Father Time keeps on keeping on even when it comes to one of the greatest athletes who ever walked the earth. So, no, Bo doesn’t break baseball bats over his knee anymore.

“I pulled a muscle lifting a toilet seat this morning,” he said with a smile on Friday at Royals FanFest at Bartle Hall. “I’m not trying to break any bats. No. No.”

For that matter, as a self-described “horrible spectator,” Jackson doesn’t even watch baseball or football anymore. So he hasn’t been witness to the most exhilarating, promising phenomenon to play for a local franchise since he did from 1986-1990.

“Now, I’ve heard of Patrick Mahomes. He’s the quarterback of the Chiefs,” he said. “And from what I hear, he has done an outstanding job.”

It’s a vastly different world now, too, than when Jackson was making the astonishing routine as he became the only man to play in All-Star games in both the NFL and Major League Baseball and was the subject of Nike’s “Bo Knows” campaign.

“He was the athlete of the century, really,” said Art Stewart, the scouting icon who drafted Jackson and will turn 92 next month. “I’ve never seen raw talent like that in my life.”

If he knew then what he knows now about head injuries, he said in a 2017 interview with USA Today, he wouldn’t have played football and may have well become one of the eternal Royals — instead of having his career essentially snuffed out by the devastating hip injury he suffered on Jan. 13, 1991, in a playoff game for the Raiders.

Without getting into that aspect of it Friday, Jackson also reckons it would be far more difficult today to try to play at the top levels in both baseball and football, a point he made through the example of Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray. Never mind that Jackson apparently hasn’t seen him play, either.

“I know he’s the kid from Oklahoma who won the Heisman Trophy, because I voted for him,” said Jackson, who won the Heisman in 1985 at Auburn and, like all Heisman winners, gets a vote.

Murray signed with the Oakland Athletics last year after they picked him ninth in the MLB draft, but he is projected as a first-round NFL pick now and weighing his options.

Jackson said he would not give Murray any advice beyond what he considered: “Follow your heart, chase your dream, whatever it may be,” he said. But he had a firm opinion that the terrain for such an endeavor has changed “100 percent.”

“The athletic pool is so rich and deep with talent till it’s not funny; it’s ridiculous how talented the kids are,” said Jackson, who today is “always busy” on a speaking circuit that will have him in Alabama and Chicago over the next 48 hours. “If you try to be great in both sports, you’ll end up being mediocre in both. Probably end up second string in both.

“Not saying that I was better than somebody else. But at the time that I came up, the baseball team didn’t look like a team going to the Super Bowl. All the baseball players now are anywhere from (6-foot-3) to 6-8, 260 pounds. They all look like linebackers.”

All these years later, though, Jackson is flattered that his two-sport success is remembered enough that Murray struck a pose like Jackson once did: with a baseball bat over his shoulder pads.

After joking that “I’m going to call my lawyer and sue (to) get some of his money,” he said, “It makes me feel good that somebody thought enough of me to imitate that.”

Imitated, sure, but never duplicated, as he demonstrated dozens of times and was put best in 2012 by Sam Mellinger — who was enchanted by Jackson as an 11-year-old and perhaps as much 30 years later.

“Bo became a superhero. Frank White called him ‘Superman.’ Bo hit the longest home run in Royals Stadium history in his first week on the job with someone else’s bat. He beat out routine grounders to second base. Years later, Bo said that when he was born God gave him ‘a built-in steroid.’

“He ran up the outfield wall, hit 450-foot home runs in batting practice left-handed, became the most dynamic running back in the NFL in his spare time and, after an absurd, flat-footed, 300-feet-in-the-air rocket that is simply remembered as The Throw nailed Harold Reynolds at the plate in the 10th inning, heard Reynolds joke, ‘You need to pee in a cup.’ ”

Jackson had never led off an inning in a major league game before the 1989 All-Star Game, Sam added, when he watched a pitch before hitting the next one 448 feet over the center-field fence. “Luckily,” Jackson said then, “I got a piece of it.”

Luckily, Kansas City got a piece of his superhuman presence, too. That includes a recent re-engagement surge with the franchise, from FanFest to being a guest instructor at spring training and taking part in fantasy camp and the MLB draft last year.

It includes his deep ongoing affection for the delightful Stewart, who said in a phone interview Friday how thrilled he was that Jackson made a surprise visit to see him in Wisconsin at Thanksgiving. He knew Stewart was contending with a variety of health issues that he joked put him on the disabled list for the first time in 68 years in baseball. (Stewart is hopeful he will be able to return to spring training this year).

And it includes what Jackson now calls his favorite sports memory: intentionally taking a called third strike so he could be ejected from a 1990 game — back when players didn’t miss games to be at the hospital for the birth of a child.

“I figured I’d get over that getting thrown out of the game on purpose,” said Jackson, adding that his daughter (Morgan) had been born that morning.

As he drove to the hospital in his Corvette, he broke out his “big, block” cell phone and called his wife, Linda, who asked him to stop at Popeye’s for chicken on the way. When he was walking toward the hospital in the rain, he saw a white van approaching and a puddle nearby and anticipated what was about to happen.

“He sped up on purpose and (doused) me with water,” he recalled. “But I had the sense enough to cover up the chicken.”

Dripping wet, he entered the room, gave Linda her chicken and put on scrubs. He pulled the baby bassinet over near the bed, got in with Linda and watched the Royals win.

Just another moment in a unique legacy that never gets old no matter how the years pass.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.