In 1999 ESPN compiled a list of who they believed were the 100 greatest athletes of the century. Their top 10 included the likes of Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky, and Jack Nicklaus. Their top 10 was a great look at the athletes who were the most popular or who achieved the most accomplishments but being a great athlete isn’t just about accomplishments. While Babe Ruth can hit homeruns at will, I would never argue that he is a more gifted athlete than Willie Mays. Jack Nicklaus might be the best golfer of all time, but is he really a better athlete than Jackie Robinson or Hank Aaron? It can be argued that Michael Jordan dominated the sport of basketball unlike anybody in any other sport, but when he tried baseball he failed miserably. So shouldn’t someone like Jim Brown who mastered several sports be considered a better athlete? If they had taken into consideration just athletic ability alone, which is what the list suggests, then the list would look a lot different. If the list ranked players on just their athletic ability then I think ESPN’s seventy-second choice should jump all the way up to number because the greatest athlete ever is Bo Jackson.
I’m sure everyone remembers Bo Jackson for his “Bo Knows Bo” Nike ad campaign when he was playing baseball for the Kansas City Royals while also playing football for the Oakland Raiders. Well Bo Jackson was playing multiple sports long before then. Jackson was born in Bessemer, AL and attended
where he first showed off his athletic abilities. In addition to baseball and football he also was on the track team in high school and claimed two state decathlon championships. As a senior, Bo ran for 1,173 yards on 108 carries, an average of 10.9 yards every rush, and scored 17 touchdowns. Meanwhile he also hit 20 home runs in just 25 games on the baseball field. Bo was so impressive on the baseball field that the New York Yankees wanted to draft him out of high school but Bo declined and instead went to college at
At Auburn Bo ran for 4,303 yards and scored 43 touchdowns in the regular season. His senior year of college he had four 200 yard games on his way to 1,786 rushing yards which earned him the Heisman Trophy. His best year on the
baseball team was his junior season when he batted .401 and hit 17 homeruns and 43 RBI in only 42 games. In 1986 The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Bo Jackson as the first overall pick in the draft but Bo rejected their offer saying that “My first love is baseball” and “football is just a hobby”. So Bo waited until the baseball draft where the Kansas City Royals selected him in the fourth round. Bo would mow through the minor leagues going from Single A all the way to the Majors in just 53 games. On September 2nd, 1986 Bo Jackson made his debut and in his first at-bat got a single off of future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton.
Since Bo Jackson turned down the Buccaneers offer to play football, Bo’s named went back into the 1987 draft. The Raiders’ owner Al Davis decided to take a chance on drafting Bo Jackson in the seventh round. But
realized that Bo wanted to play baseball so Al Davis offered Bo a contract that was worth as much as a full time player, but told Bo he could join the Raiders after the baseball season was over, which meant missing the first month of the NFL season. Bo agreed to the deal and signed a four year contract. Now playing both sports Bo Jackson would go on to make the Major League baseball All Star team in 1989 and would get invited to the Pro Bowl in 1990. His invitation to the 1989 All Star game and the 1990 Pro Bowl made him the first athlete in history to be an All Star in both the MLB and NFL.
I said earlier that accomplishments aren’t everything, and they aren’t. While all those numbers of Bo’s were impressive what was more impressive was the way he played. When Bo Jackson hit a homerun he didn’t get cheap homeruns and he didn’t hit line drives that barely made it over the fence. When Bo Jackson hit homeruns they were towering blasts and you could hear the crack of the bat from anywhere in the stadium. Bo Jackson’s mammoth home run in the 1989 All Star game, with Ronald Reagan doing play by play in the commentator’s booth, is one of the most famous homeruns of all time. On the field he was just as impressive; he had the speed to match his strength. He could get to any baseball hit his way, even if he had to run up the side of the wall or catch a ball bare-handed. On the football field his combination of strength and speed was deadly. He had the ability to out run defenders for 90 yard touchdowns but at the same time had the strength to run over people, just like to did to Brian Bosworth on Monday Night Football in 1988. Not bad for a football player who was only playing as a “hobby”.
Of course we all remember Bo for his “Bo Knows” television commercials. The “Bo Knows” commercials were ads in 1989 and 1990 for a Nike cross training shoe. Since Bo was the first modern dual sport player he was the obvious choice to promote them. In the first “Bo Knows” commercial, Bo Jackson is shown playing baseball and baseball player Kirk Gibson says “Bo Knows baseball”. Then we would see Bo Jackson playing football and Jim Everett would tell us “Bo knows football”. Then we would see Bo playing basketball, tennis, and hockey and see players from each sport vouching that he can play those sports. The ad ends with Bo trying to play the guitar and blues legend Bo Diddley proclaims, “Bo, you don’t know diddley.” Eventually his ads would include Bo mastering cycling, soccer, cricket, surfing, weightlifting, auto racing, and horse racing. While Bo never actually played these sports professionally he was a good enough athlete that I’m not sure many people would deny he could if he tried. Bo Jackson was also featured in a Nintendo game called Tecmo Bowl. Bo Jackson was such an incredible athlete that the programmers for Tecmo Bowl made Bo Jackson by far the best player in the game. There is even a video going around the internet in which a player playing as the Raiders purposely returns a kick and goes out of bounds on his own one yard line. He then uses Bo Jackson to run 99 yards to the opposite goal line. Then he stops, turns around and runs 100 yards back to his own end zone. He once again stops, turns around and then runs another 100 yards for the touchdown, a feat that the real Bo Jackson probably could’ve done too if he really tried. At one point, Bo was even featured in the cartoon called ProStars along with Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. The three of them would fight crime and every episode Bo would use his catch phrase and tell us about something he knows. Bo provided the muscle of the team and during the opening credits pulled a tree out of the ground and used it to smash a robot. Who knows, he can probably really do that too.
The main reason Bo isn’t mentioned higher on ESPN’s list is probably due to the length of his career. While Bo was the best athlete in both sports while he played, he only played on that level for a few seasons before a hip injury in January of 1991. Nobody knew at the time but the hip injury would eventually result in the end of his career. The injury led to avascular necrosis which led to the deterioration of the cartilage and bone around his hip join. Eventually the deterioration was so severe that Bo had to have the hip completely replaced. After his hip replacement doctors figured Bo would never play sports again.
However, Bo had other thoughts. Bo Jackson once again showed us not only his incredible athletic ability but also his incredible heart. While recovering from his hip injury his mother who raised him died of cancer. Bo Jackson promised that despite doctors telling him he would never play again, he would play again, and his first at bat was dedicated to his mother. In 1993 the Chicago White Sox invited Bo Jackson back on the team. In the home opener against the
Yankees Bo didn’t start but in the sixth inning they called on Bo Jackson to pinch hit. It was his first at bat back in the Majors. After taking called strike, Bo smashed the next pitch over the right field fence.