Bo doing fine out of the spotlight

Bo Jackson (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
Bo Jackson doesn't have time to watch football or baseball these days.
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Bo Jackson wanted to talk about health and safety. His PR agent set up an interview, and I hoped he’d provide a headline.

“Jackson Accuses Goodell of Feminizing NFL.”

“Bo Knows His Son Won’t Play Football.”

Either one would do. But this is one game Jackson won’t play.

“I really don’t keep up with it,” he said.

He said a friend texted him last week and asked what he thought about the new rule prohibiting runners from leading with the crown of their helmets. Jackson swears he had no idea what the guy was talking about.

If it were anybody else, you’d think it’s a dodge. He doesn’t want to get thrown in the boiling pot of Roger Goodell’s safety reforms.

But this is Bo Jackson. When he says he’s thinking about other things, you can believe it.

“I found out early that family and friends are way more important than running up and down a field,” he said.

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That’s why he wanted to talk about something else. The two-year anniversary of Alabama’s darkest day. It was April 27, 2011. Jackson was in Arizona on business and turned on the TV.

“It looked like somebody had taken part of the state and dropped it into a blender,” he said. “I felt I needed to do something to let people know they weren’t forgotten and we are all fellow Alabamians.”

Jackson’s lived in Chicago since retiring with the White Sox 20 years ago. He’s a banker, motivational speaker, gym owner, hunter, fisherman and full-time legend.

Being Bo is as demanding as when he was the two-sport superstar, especially now that ESPN Sports Science named him the greatest athlete of all time. But the greatest has never really left little old Bessemer, Ala.

Jackson’s hometown outside Birmingham was brushed by the carnage. Other towns virtually disappeared as 55 tornadoes spun from the sky.

Since 1874, Alabama had only six F-5 tornadoes with winds topping 200 mph. There were three that afternoon. Only five percent of homes had basements, so people huddled in bathtubs and under porches.

“Hiding in your closet when you’ve got an F-4 or F-5 tornado outside, that doesn’t help,” Jackson said.

He had to do something, so he came up with Bo Bikes Bama. It was a 300-mile ride through the region last April. A year had passed since the tornadoes, but the scenery was still raw. Then over a hill appeared a bulky figure in black tights and a helmet. Bo was the Pied Piper, leading about 1,500 of his closest friends on a tour of hell.

People came out and told him their stories. Like the 80-year-old woman who survived as her home disintegrated around her. The father who lost three children. Everybody hugged and cried. Some healing had begun.

“I’ve seen a lot of things in my lifetime,” an old man told Jackson. “But those bicycles coming through town and stopping has to be the most exciting thing that has ever happened.”

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They wound through the state for five days, ending in Tuscaloosa. You may have heard people take their football seriously in Alabama. Whoever thought Auburn’s greatest player would ever be welcomed like a conquering hero as he rode into Bear Bryant’s town?

“It was the first time in a very, very long time I’d seen people wearing crimson and cream and orange and blue come together as one and sit and talk and laugh,” Jackson said. “We’re all about the same thing, and that’s putting a little sunshine in people’s lives that have been shattered.”

The ride raised more than $400,000. It went so well they’re doing it again on the second anniversary of the storms. This time it’s a 20-mile ride and a 60-miler.

The goal is $1 million, and the money will go to building community tornado shelters. When hell spins down, fewer people will have to hide in bathtubs and closets.

That’s what Jackson wants to talk about these days. His only problem is getting in shape for the saddle.

“I don’t run anymore unless my wife is pissed off at me,” he said.

Chicago’s weather has been predictably rotten for training rides. But the Pied Piper says all he needs is about 10 days to get ready. After all, he is Bo Jackson, Tour de France winner.

Okay, turning the Alps into Brian Bosworth was about the only thing Jackson didn’t do. It ended all too soon, when he a Cincinnati linebacker dragged him down in a 1991 playoff game.

Jackson never played football again. Artificial hips don’t work in the NFL. What almost nobody knew was the end was already near.


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His oldest child was going to start school the next year. Jackson and his wife decided a few days before the game that the dual-superstar life was too much.

He was going to live and work in one place, and that place would be Kansas City. It would have been shocking news. Then again, nobody ever thought the No. 1 draft pick would shun the NFL to become a Royal in the first place.

I hoped he’d changed, at least enough to give a juicy opinion on how football is changing. If anybody should say it’s overdue, it’s the guy went from world’s greatest athlete to invalid in one play.

Then again, he also lowered his head and made Bosworth a national punch line. Whatever Bo had to say on the topic would generate a lot of traffic. Now I sort of know how the Boz felt.

“My life is so busy I don’t have time to watch sports,” Jackson said. “I watch golf and hunting and fishing shows. That’s what I’m into. I don’t watch football, basketball and baseball, period.

“So as far as the rules and the NFL, hey, I don’t really have a comment.”

As great as he was at everything, Bo still knows what really matters. That’s why he’d rather talk about April 27 and putting a little sunshine in people’s lives.

David Whitley was a national columnist at AOL FanHouse and Sporting News

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