Saturday, December 8, 2012
Printing the Legend: You Don't Know Bo
Let's be honest: as the 1980s became the 1990s, none of us had a clue why we suddenly needed "cross-training" shoes. But there was never any doubt that Bo Jackson was the right guy to sell them — whatever they were exactly. Bo Jackson was a two-sport star in baseball and football, and after Nike crafted its "Bo Knows" campaign there seemed to be no limit to what he could do. Basketball, tennis, cycling, soccer — the ads, and Jackson's physique, convinced us that, yeah, he'd probably succeed at those sports, too. It was the perfect marriage of a spokesperson's abilities and a company's commercial cunning. To see a "Bo Knows" ad was to never forget it, which could also be said of seeing Jackson himself. So it's only appropriate that Michael Bonfiglio's documentary on Jackson, You Don't Know Bo, would include a section on that famous ad campaign, because all these years later it's a perfect encapsulation of both Jackson's allure (he was one of the most famous athletes on the planet) and our habit of romanticizing his potential to the point that it inflated our perception of reality.
Yeah, I'm something of a Bo Jackson skeptic. Always was. Sure, he was a damn impressive athlete. Other than Deion Sanders (conveniently not mentioned in the documentary — nor is Brian Jordan, for that matter), no other athlete in my lifetime could have found a place in the starting lineup of every professional baseball and football team in America. Jackson was a truly awesome figure — powerful, graceful, fast, strong and possessing a knack for doing the sensational with an air of nonchalance. But during Jackson's too-brief career, we were so awestruck by his multi-sport talent and tendency for SportsCenter-friendly spectacle that we often ignored his limitations and inflated his successes. I've felt this way for years, so I approached You Don't Know Bo, the final episode in ESPN Films' second "30 for 30" volume, hoping it would change my mind. Instead, the very resume that Bonfiglio uses to convey Jackson's greatness confirmed my skepticism.
Here's what I mean: If you saw Jackson play, it'll take you no more than 30 seconds to come up with the highlight-reel feats that Bonfiglio features in this documentary. Jackson going over the top to beat Alabama as a freshman running back at Auburn? Check. Jackson streaking down the sideline for a 91-yard touchdown and then continuing up a tunnel behind the end zone in a Monday night game against the Seattle Seahawks? Check. Jackson running through Brian Bosworth a while later in the same 221-yard performance? Check. Jackson homering to lead off the 1989 All-Star Game? Check. Jackson gunning down Harold Reynolds at home plate from deep left field on a throw that never hit the ground? Most definitely: check! Jackson scampering up an outfield wall and snapping bats over his head? Yep, that stuff is here, too, along with some undeniably dazzling gridiron runs and leaping outfield catches. They're fun highlights, all of them. But what do they tell us about Jackson's greatness?
In the case of his victorious plunge against Alabama — a landmark win for the program but, let's be honest, a fairly typical play — it might not tell us enough: Jackson set a then-SEC record with 6.6 yards per carry over his four-year college career. But that 91-yard touchdown against Seattle? Jackson broke one "tackle" on the play (if you can call it a tackle: the defender got one hand on Jackson's hip as he blew by) and then ran straight down the sideline — and then colorfully but needlessly coasted into the tunnel. It was awesome to see a guy of that size with such speed, but that was a touchdown produced by great blocking, not great running. And the Bosworth play? It might be Jackson's most famous but ultimately least impressive feat. Indeed, Bosworth had been a great college linebacker, and an injury shortened his NFL career, so we'll never know how good of a pro he might have been. But take away the retrospectively overblown hype around Bosworth, fueled by his bad-boy haircut that made him a villain we were itching to see destroyed, and here's what happens on that play: a 225-pound man with a head start runs into a mediocre NFL linebacker who brings the running back to the ground but is knocked back 3 yards in the process, which is enough for the ball carrier to score a touchdown. "It was the validation of the greatness of Bo Jackson," Boomer Esiason says of that showdown in the documentary, which is true in terms of capturing our national response that moment. But in hindsight, if that's all it takes to be validated, greatness comes cheap.
Some of Jackson's other big accomplishments are similarly flimsy. That towering home run to centerfield off Rick Reuschel in the 1989 All-Star Game? Massive blast. But was it, in the words of Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame director Curt Nelson, "the most amazing thing" we saw in that game? Well, I don't know: the very next batter, Wade Boggs, went yard of Reuschel, too. And what about that throw to nail Reynolds at home plate in the bottom of the ninth to send the game to extra innings? Alright, that was awesome. But Reynolds was trying to score from first, don't forget. And scampering up the outfield wall? That's graceful, but it's also as random as running up the tunnel after a 91-yard touchdown. And what about breaking those bats? Nifty trick, but it distracted us from the reality that Jackson so often connected his bat with his head or thigh because he struggled to connect it with the baseball. The only MLB category Jackson ever led: strikeouts.
Jackson played in the era of the highlight, when ESPN's "Plays of the Week" was must-see TV and the practice of focusing on the statistics below the flash was, for the typical fan, almost two decades away. Jackson's NFL stats are outstanding: he averaged 5.4 yards per carry over four abbreviated seasons. But his baseball stats — just focusing on his pre-injury Royals career — barely put him in the all-star conversation. His best season, 1989, when at 26 he hit .256, with 105 RBI, 32 homers, only 21 additional extra-base hits, 26 stolen bases and 172 strikeouts, is fairly comparable to the 2012 season of Mark Trumbo of the Los Angeles Angels, who at 26 hit .268, with 95 RBI, 32 homers, only 22 additional extra-base hits, 4 stolen bases and 153 strikeouts. The point isn't that Jackson was a poor player. Far from it. And it isn't lost on me that baseball was his second-best sport, even though he called football his "hobby," and that his best years were ahead of him, if not for his catastrophic hip injury. But what all this shows is that, even now, we have a tendency to think of Bo Jackson based on his imagined potential greatness, not his actual performance.
By focusing on the impact of Nike's ad campaign, and even devoting attention to the Jackson's unrivaled prowess in digital form in the 1989 "Tecmo Bowl" video game, Bonfiglio loosely acknowledges that our fascination with Jackson transcended realism. Yet for each instance in which You Don't Know Bo unravels the myth around Jackson (illustrating the absurdity of the tale that he once jumped 40 feet across a ditch, for example), there are a handful of times in which Bonfiglio seems to be doing his best to reinforce it — like failing to acknowledge Sanders, or Boggs' subsequent home run or the retrospective insignificance of Bosworth. Bonfiglio's "out" is beginning his documentary with the famous quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When legend becomes fact, print the legend," which if you know the film and understand the context is a tacit acknowledgement that our initial impressions of Jackson were oversized, as well as a disclaimer about the factuality of what's to come. But will viewers who don't know John Ford's 1962 film and didn't live through the Jackson experience pick up on such subtlety? Or will they accept this legend as fact?
If not for his hip injury, it isn't out of the question that Jackson could have lived up to the legend (realistically speaking), developing into a Hall of Famer in both baseball and football. Heck, if he'd just focused on football, where his disinterest in practicing didn't seem to be a hindrance, he might have built a legend based on his exploits in that sport alone. All the hype around Jackson wasn't baseless. It just managed to be bigger than Bo. You can hear in some of the documentary's interviewees an awareness that Jackson's legend was or is excessive (and I can't help but wonder if Chuck Klosterman, who most explicitly outlines the effect of Nike's campaign, might have been even more pointed than Bonfiglio cared to share). But most of the subjects who describe their encounters with Jackson are just as slack-jawed today as they were then. And while their awe might not always be earned, there's no doubting that it's honest, and so maybe that's the hidden genius of Bonfiglio's documentary. Seen from a rational point of view, You Don't Know Bo is as much a reflection of our irrational sentiment for Jackson as it is a profile of his unforgettable career.
You Don't Know Bo premieres tonight on ESPN at 9 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler hopes to review each new film in the "30 for 30" series upon its release.
See the Volume 1 and Volume 2 archive.