Q&A with author Jeff Pearlman
By Mark Nagi
From time to time we like to catch up with a newsmaker in the world of sports. Recently The Knoxville Focus spoke with New York Times best-selling author Jeff Pearlman about his new book, “The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson.”
The Knoxville Focus: Why did you want your latest book to be about Bo Jackson?
Jeff Pearlman: I’m very nostalgic and when I was thinking of the next book to write, I was thinking about being a kid and having Bo Jackson posters on my wall. Loving Bo Jackson and the mystique and intrigue of playing two sports at the same time and then him vanishing. He was Michael Jordan, and then he was gone and there is something interesting and mystifying about a guy that owns the world and then vanishes. I thought it was a cool subject.
KF: Bo Jackson grew up in a small house in Bessemer, Alabama with a single mother and 10 siblings. How did that upbringing set the stage for his life?
JP: It was hugely important. Brett Favre, Walter Payton and Bo Jackson each had athletic training that was beating up their friends and throwing rocks and jumping over ditches. Bo was a physical phenomenon and trained like a self-guiding Marine. There was no IMG Academy to nurture him.
His Dad lived across town and had nothing to do with him. That motivated him. “Screw the world. I’m gonna do it on my own.” And he had a disciplining Mom. That all added up to who we ended up seeing.
KF: Bo Jackson played against Tennessee twice. In 1985, the Vols upset Auburn in one of the few games he didn’t dominate. Why was that the case?
JP: Tennessee coach Johnny Majors said he knew the secret to stopping Bo Jackson, which was to beat the #$%^ out of him and then Bo will cry uncle. That defense swarmed Bo Jackson. Coaches on the Auburn staff were frustrated but he was standing on the sidelines. The Tennessee defense knew they won when they saw him on the sidelines. And that game gave us the emergence of (Tennessee quarterback) Tony Robinson. He lit Auburn up. ABC play by play announcer Keith Jackson said, “You don’t think that is a natural quarterback, huh?” Remember at this time Robinson was one of only a few African American quarterbacks. So, Bo’s time against Tennessee coincided with the brief emergence of Tony Robinson, and started a sort of game plan that SEC teams used that if you hit Bo hard, he takes himself out, whether that was true or not.
KF: That game was a shocker because Jackson and Auburn handled Tennessee fairly easily the previous season…
JP: Johnny Majors guaranteed to Ed Hinton of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Tennessee would win. He truly knew. It’s funny because in hindsight, Tennessee was loaded. That was a really good team. Was it really that big an upset? Those guys were stacked, and these were evenly matched teams. (Writer’s note: Tennessee would go on to win the SEC in 1985 and upset Miami in the Sugar Bowl).
Herschel Walker took hits and kept coming. But I think Bo was savvier than that. He was aware of self-preservation.
KF: When Bo Jackson started talking about playing baseball, did most people think it was simply a ploy to get a better situation out of the NFL?
JP: No one took Bo seriously. Baseball was not going to be a factor at all. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers screwed up his baseball eligibility by flying him in for a physical. Then Bo said he’d never forgive the Bucs and that he was open to playing baseball. Bo had been drafted by the New York Yankees in high school and the California Angels in college, and he never considered it. He was gonna be the number one in the NFL Draft, but the Bucs set him on a different path.
KF: So many moments are the stuff of legend with Bo Jackson. Is it better now we can see everything we want, or a shame that narrative is forever gone?
JP: It’s better because we can watch anything, but we don’t leave anything to the imagination anymore. If LeBron eats a hoagie the size of five heads, someone will be shooting that and it’ll be on Instagram. I think a lot of sports is mythology. Did Babe Ruth call his shot? I don’t know. That’s kind of fun.
I write in the book about Bo’s first night game at Georgia in baseball when Bo was a junior. This was the first game lights in Athens and in the second at bats, Bo hits a home run that hits the lights. But there’s no video of it. There’s no twitter. There’s something cool about that.
KF: Bo Jackson had a memorable ad campaign with Nike. For a few years he was like Michael Jordan…
JP: He was at that same level, but Bo was not charismatic. MJ flew, but Bo captured the imagination of fans doing two sports. The iconic “Bo Knows” commercial? He says nothing in the ad. Probably took a half an hour of his time.
KF: Bo got hurt in the 1990 NFL playoffs and was never the same after that. Is Bo’s story the story of what might have been? Or more the seven-year period when he was the modern day Jim Thorpe?
JP: I think it is up to interpretation of the reader. To me, he was lighting in a bottle, and it is the celebration of lighting in a bottle, and this magical run of physical dominance we’ve never seen before or since.