Quarterback Cam Newton could become the fourth Auburn player chosen No. 1 in the NFL draft, joining Tucker Frederickson, Bo Jackson and Aundray Bruce. Today, we look at Jackson's career and legacy.
Bo Jackson goes over the top to beat Alabama in 1982
It was the summer of 1982, early in preseason practice. Randy Campbell, laying claim to the starting job, was at quarterback. A freshman was lined up behind him in the Wishbone formation.
“I turned around to hand him the ball, and he was already gone past me,” Campbell remembers. “I told the coaches ‘He’s lining up too close.’”
He wasn’t. Bo Jackson was that fast.
Jackson was painfully shy and didn’t talk often. But it wasn’t long before Campbell and his teammates knew there was someone special among them.
“You could tell he was different,” says Campbell, who is the founder of Campbell Wealth Management in Birmingham. “He was bigger and stronger than anybody we had who wasn’t a lineman. He was faster than anybody, period.”
Campbell says there was no jealousy as Jackson climbed rapidly up the depth chart.
“The thing is, he was so much better than everybody,” Campbell says. “Nobody went back to their rooms saying ‘I can’t believe they put that freshman ahead of me.’ It was like if I was playing quarterback and all of a sudden John Elway transferred to auburn. It was that obvious.”
Before his Auburn career was over, Jackson would become an Auburn legend. He did things it didn’t seem mortal humans could do on the football field and elsewhere. Scouts say to this day he was the most highly rated baseball prospect in history. Retired Auburn track coach Mel Rosen says Jackson, at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, could have been a medal-winning Olympic sprinter had he concentrated solely on track.
In 1982, as a freshman, Jackson scored the winning touchdown as Auburn threw off nine years of Alabama domination. In 1983, Jackson led Auburn to its first Southeastern Conference championship since 1957. In 1985, he won the Heisman Trophy. In 1986, the Tampa Bay Bucs made him the first player chosen in the NFL draft.
Auburn head coach Pat Dye and assistant Bobby Wallace lured Jackson to Auburn from McAdory High School in Bessemer. Jackson turned down a $250,000 bonus from the New York Yankees to sign with Auburn. Dye and Jackson developed a relationship that is still strong today.
“There was a lot of talk that he might sign with the Yankees,” Dye says. “I asked him, and he said he was coming to Auburn. I never asked him again.”
Over the next decade, Jackson became a sports icon. He jilted the Bucs and signed to play baseball with the Kansas City Royals. He later signed with the Oakland Raiders and became the first player to play in the Pro Bowl and the Major League All-Star Game. Nike commercials made “Bo knows” a part of American culture.
Fullback Tommie Agee was Jackson’s Auburn roommate. They became as close as brothers. On the football field, Agee says, Jackson was in a league all his own.
“He is, by far, the best football player I’ve seen in my life,” says Agee, who played eight years in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys. “It’s not just on the football field. He’d miss spring practice for baseball and wouldn’t miss a beat in the fall. He’d go in the weightroom and bench press 400 pounds like he’d been doing it all his life.”
Agee was on the opposite sideline in 1987 when Jackson made the most famous run of his football career against the Seahawks at the Kingdome. Jackson had a 91-yard run that day, his 25th birthday. But it was a 2-yard run that became legend. Jackson literally ran over big-talking Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth.
“He ran over him bad,” Agee says. “He knocked him flat on the ground and stepped on him. I don’t think Bosworth ever recovered.”
Today, Jackson lives in Chicago. He and his wife, Linda, have sent two children to Auburn. He is a loyal supporter of the Auburn athletic program. Early in Jackson’s Auburn days, he avoided interviews because he frequently stuttered. In 2009, he spoke at Auburn’s commencement.
"When I came to Auburn, public speaking was the last thing on my agenda,” Jackson told Auburn’s graduates. “I avoided it like the plague. I was afraid. After football games my freshman year, I was afraid to get up in front of a news camera to talk, because I was going to get nervous and start stuttering."
But Jackson never backed down. He fulfilled a promise to his mother and earned an Auburn degree.
"Step out of your comfort zone,” Jackson told the graduates. “You never know what the world has out there for you.”
Jackson’s rush toward sports immortality was slowed when he suffered an injury in 1991 that eventually led to hip-replacement surgery. His career was thought to be over in both sports, but he accomplished yet another first. With an artificial hip, he hit a home run in his first at-bat with the White Sox. Though his time in the spotlight was growing short, his legacy was secure.
Jackson was an advisor and confidant last season as Cam Newton joined him as an Auburn Heisman Trophy winner. He was there to offer a hug and congratulations when Mike Dyer broke his Auburn record for rushing yards by a freshman.
Regardless of records, Agee says he doesn’t ever expect to see Jackson’s equal.
“I tell guys I played with best player who ever played football,” Agee says. “I know Gayle Sayers was a great player. Larry Csonka, Franco Harris and Earl Campbell were great players. Bo could do it all.”