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Bo Jackson: Facing the Unknown

Mention the name Bo Jackson today in any professional sports clubhouse and you’ll hear the same sentiment over and over: He could have been the best athlete to ever play the game—any  game.

It is that missed opportunity, albeit through no fault of his own, that seems to define Jackson’s two-sport playing career nearly 20 years after he last suited up for a game. And yet the mythology surrounding him is as strong as ever. Could he really have been the very best running back in football history and the best power hitter to ever play baseball? We’ll never know for sure. A debilitating hip injury led to his premature exit from both sports. But despite being unable to continue on the path he seemed born to follow, Jackson has picked up the pieces and made something entirely different of himself, realizing new kinds of success.

He dabbled in acting for a while, though it wasn’t for him. He headed a health care company’s sports medicine council. He invested time and money into growing a food distribution company, as well as a bank, of which he still owns a piece. Over the years he has become a serial entrepreneur, today devoting most of his time to Bo Jackson’s Elite Sports, which holds an 88,000-square-foot indoor athletic training facility in suburban Chicago, and is building another location outside Columbus, Ohio. The facilities’ mission is to help kids train and play sports the right way while also nurturing them off the field.

Jackson is married to a clinical psychologist, Linda Jackson, and has three adult children—two sons and a daughter. And while it might seem a foregone conclusion that the offspring of Bo Jackson would themselves be star athletes, ironically, none of Jackson’s kids played college sports. All three attended their dad’s alma mater, Auburn University.

Along with business pursuits, Jackson’s life after athletics has been devoted to his children.

“I didn’t push them. I let them make decisions,” Jackson said, “If they wanted to play a sport, great, but we wanted to educate them on life lessons. One thing I know I can give is the confidence to be responsible adults and the avenues to learn from examples.”

Perhaps the most important lesson Jackson could teach his kids, or anyone, is perseverance. A Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn in 1985, he was the first athlete to be named an all-star in two major professional sports, playing football for the Los Angeles Raiders and baseball for the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox and California Angels. Stories traveled coast to coast in an age before the Internet, growing the legend—did you hear what Bo did to that linebacker trying to tackle him? Did you see him break a wooden bat over his head or run straight up the outfield fence to snag a would-be home run? Did you hear that Bo shoots target practice with a crossbow in the Royals’  clubhouse?

In January 1991, though, the tall tales of Jackson’s greatness stopped spinning, and his legacy changed in a flash. Running with the football for the Raiders in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Jackson was tackled and came down somewhat awkwardly, though it was hardly a gruesome play. But what seemed like a rather minor injury, when Jackson hobbled off the field mostly under his own power, was actually Jackson’s hip popping free from its socket.

One of the fastest men ever clocked by NFL scouts, Jackson was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a condition that limits the blood flow to bones—in this case, the femur. He underwent surgery and never again played football—his better sport, most fans would agree. No one is supposed to return to athletics of any kind following such an injury, let alone pro ball, but Jackson always defied the odds anyway. That became a new part of the mystique: Jackson didn’t see limitations. If he wanted to play, new hip and all, he would play.

Except for a brief stretch during the pennant race in 1991, Jackson missed essentially two full years of competition. He came back to the Major Leagues in 1993 with the Chicago White Sox, and although sapped of his raw speed, still hit 16 home runs with 45 runs batted in to help the White Sox reach the  playoffs.

Shortly before that season began, Jackson’s mother died of colon cancer. Upon his return to the game, he wanted to do something great for her and, sure enough, he promptly hit a home run in his first at-bat of 1993. That’s what Jackson was all about—calling his shots. Soon, though, his injury caught up with him, preventing Jackson from rewriting the record books. His baseball career ended in 1994, and Jackson was left to find something else to do with his life.

The next year, he fulfilled another promise to his late mother by earning his degree from Auburn. Almost 15 years later, he returned to the eastern Alabama campus to deliver a commencement speech, explaining the mentality needed to move on from the roadblocks of life.

“My coaches, my professors, my teachers… one thing they taught me was to step outside your comfort zone and do things you wouldn’t normally do,” Jackson said. “That’s what I ask you all to do—step outside your comfort zone. Take chances—not foolish chances—but take chances because you never know what the world has for you out there. There is a place out there in this big world for each and every one of you, and it’s up to you to go out there to grasp it. You’ve got to go out there and grab hold. You’ve got to take control of your life.”

In recent years, Jackson has found a niche helping youngsters with far less natural talent than he possessed to improve their athletic skills. In addition to the Bo Jackson’s Elite Sports brand—which has received overtures to build more training complexes in communities from Florida to California, Jackson says—there is his charitable platform, the Give Me a Chance Foundation, which seeks to attract disadvantaged Chicago-area youths to baseball. The program offers elite-level instruction alongside efforts to instill discipline, leadership, community involvement and a quest for personal growth.

In some instances, Jackson explains, kids are pushed too hard by their parents, which can eventually stunt their progress. But some parents aren’t hands-on enough. “It’s not about sports. It’s all about life lessons, too. It’s about education,” Jackson says.

“My personal drive toward our goals for these kids continues to get stronger and helps me give back to others much less fortunate than I have been,” Jackson explains on the foundation’s website. “When kids leave here, we want them to be well-rounded. We don’t want them to be one-dimensional. That’s our goal here.”

That’s a phrase—one-dimensional—that could never be ascribed to Bo Jackson. It just seems right that one of the greatest all-around athletes in history is focused on helping kids from a new generation better themselves as a whole.

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