It’s one of sports’ greatest arguments: who is the greatest athlete ever? ESPN ranked Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Wayne Gretzky as their top five (in that order). Tiger Woods’ phenomenal run has columnists backing his candidacy, and Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France titles earned him nominations from bloggers and writers across the country. Dozens of other athletes – from Wilt Chamberlain to Jack Nicklaus to Mario Lemieux – can make strong arguments.
But it says here that the undisputed champ is the country’s greatest all-around athlete, the only player to make an All-Star Game and a Pro Bowl: Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson. Had Jackson’s career not been cut short by a freak injury, undoubtedly he would have ranked higher than 72nd (72nd!!) on ESPN’s SportsCentury Top 100 Athletes List. As it is, Bo Jackson’s accomplishments are simply staggering.
To repeat, Bo Jackson was the only player ever to be selected as an All-Star in two sports (he homered in the 1989 baseball All-Star Game, and was selected to the 1991 Pro Bowl but missed the game due to injury). In 38 NFL games, Jackson averaged an astounding 5.4 yards per carry (by comparison, Jim Brown averaged 5.2 ypc, Barry Sanders 5.0, Walter Payton 4.4 and Emmitt Smith 4.2) A quick YouTube review of Jackson’s highlight reel reminds us just how dominating Bo could be. (His most famous run, a 91-yard dash against Seattle on Monday Night Football his rookie year looked almost as impressive as his famous character in Nintendo’s Super Tecmo Bowl.) The only player with two touchdown runs over 90 yards, Jackson was one of the, if not the, most electric players in the NFL during his four-year career. His college career was equally impressive: over 4,000 career yards, capped with the 1985 Heisman Trophy and a place in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Bo Jackson was an equally spectacular baseball player. MVP of the 1989 All-Star Game, Jackson hit 107 home runs between 1987 and 1990, a phenomenal total for a center fielder in that day and age. While Jackson’s career batting average of .250 is pedestrian (although more common during the late 80’s and early 90’s, when league-wide batting averages were 10 to 15 points lower than over the past decade), and his strikeout totals high, he was one of the best center fielders in baseball. Even more amazing, Bo returned to baseball after his hip surgery, and hit 29 homers in 160 games while playing with an artificial hip, including a homer in his first post-surgery at-bat. While Jackson only lasted two seasons following his surgery, his ability to play in the major leagues at all with such a debilitating injury is a simply amazing feat.
What separate Bo Jackson from other athletes are the stories of his amazing exploits, and the seemingly superhuman tasks he made normal. Who can forget Bo running up and down the center field wall, almost parallel to the Earth, or snapping a Louisville Slugger over his thigh like a chopstick? We still remember Jackson almost single-handedly ending the myth of “The Boz” when he steamrolled Brian Bosworth on Monday Night Football. Then there are the stories: Jackson being the only man in history to hit the scoreboard at the Superdome with a football; Bo throwing out a runner trying to score on a single – from third base; Jackson hitting a 450-foot homer in batting practice left-handed; or throwing a laser beam from the warning track to home plate on the fly to nail Harold Reynolds at the plate. Jackson was supposedly clocked at 4.12 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, a speed almost never seen by players of any position, let alone running backs, and ran the 100 meters in 10.39 seconds. In high school, Bo won the Alabama state high school decathlon and pole vault competitions, according to Wikipedia. While players such as Deion Sanders, Brian Jordan, Danny Ainge, and even Michael Jordan have played two sports professionally, no player ever enjoyed Bo’s success. Nor did any player play two sports while playing such integral, yet distinct, positions.
Critics invariably point out that Bo never won a championship, never played a full season, and that his career was essentially over by age 29. Why should we hold that against him? We glorify musicians like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix (both dead at 27), whose early demise came as a result of their own decisions. A freak injury ended Bo Jackson’s career; without that injury, it is unquestionable that Bo would have ranked higher than 72nd in ESPN’s list.
The case for Bo Jackson being the greatest athlete ever is simple. No one, ever, anywhere, did what he did, for any amount of time, let alone four full years. He was a world-class athlete in two sports, an All-Star in two sports, and, for my money, the most electrifying athlete of our time. While his career was cut far too short, he still accomplished enough to garner my ranking as the greatest athlete ever.