He lived for moment, and it's those moments we should savor

Ken Rosenthal

March 19, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

This was the chance he took: Play two sports, risk playing none. Bo Jackson ignored the past, disregarded the future. It was always, "Bo Knows." As he said, "I live for the present, and the present only."

Maybe Jackson could have avoided his career-threatening hip injury by choosing between baseball and football. But such talk misses the point. Bo never pondered consequences. He simply followed his imagination.

An active imagination it was, too, inventing this comic-strip folk hero, this one-of-a-kind creation in an athletic landscape that already was cluttered with a Magic, an Iron Mike and a Great One.

Alas, it could only end this way, with the Kansas City Royals no longer employing Jackson to play baseball because of an injury he suffered with the Los Angeles Raiders while playing football.

Bo insists, "Don't count me out," but the Royals never would have released a player who hit 109 homers in just over four seasons unless they believed something was seriously wrong.

Yet, even if the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Jackson never crushes another baseball or steamrolls another linebacker, it will be senseless trying to determine what might have been.

Bo played for today, right here, right now.

That's what defined him, what made him special.

Yes, he's only 28, but this was the path he chose: No waiting, no whining, no wondering. The Royals knew his double fantasy could end in disaster. The Raiders knew it meant paying full wages for part-time work.

Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz held the same position with Kansas City when the club first asked, "To Bo or not To Bo?" in 1986. He knew then there was only one possible answer.

"It was a risk both sides always took -- both the club and the player," Schuerholz said last night. "From the club's standpoint, we had to take the risk in order to get him signed.

"We tried on several occasions to convince him that it was in his best interests to forgo football and concentrate on baseball -- for longevity, and for safety. But he chose to continue both."

And everyone went along for the ride, mouths open at each turn. Jackson's Nike commercials indicated he was capable of anything, and no one -- least of all Bo -- dared suggest otherwise.

If anything, he fed his own myth, chuckling along when he was drafted for the 6-foot-4-and-under International Basketball Association. "I don't know basketball," he said. "But if they talk money, I'm interested."

In his autobiography, he said he even intended to try bobsledding along with NFL teammate Willie Gault. "I can fit it in between spring training and the Super Bowl and spring training," he wrote. "I could be the best bobsled pusher ever."

It was all great fun, and anyone who ever saw Jackson play both baseball and football would have thought twice about sacrificing that privilege in order to see him achieve supreme excellence in only one sport.

This was always the burning question, especially for the baseball people, who believed Jackson could become an all-time great if he devoted more time to his craft.

Bo, of course, never saw it in those terms. He'd take his 10 days off after baseball, then shift to football. Of course, he was always getting hurt.

What if he only played baseball?

Then he never would have produced that wondrous game at Seattle in 1987, when he gained a club-record 221 yards and scored three touchdowns in only his third NFL start.

He never would have become the only running back to make news by getting caught from behind, when Cincinnati's Rod Jones tackled him after an 88-yard gain last Dec. 15.

And Raiders defensive end Greg Townsend would never have said, "He reminds me a little bit of Earl Campbell, Jim Brown and Tony Dorsett. He reminds me a lot of everybody. Bo is everybody wrapped in one."

What if he only played football?

Then he never would have hit that mammoth 448-foot homer leading off the All-Star Game in 1989, the one that prompted Tony Gwynn to say, "Who else in baseball can do that? Who else on earth can do that?"

He never would have hit a 461-foot homer off Nolan Ryan after striking out the first six times against him. He never would have broken a bat over his knee. And he never would have thrown out a runner at the plate, on the fly, from 300 feet, with one foot on the warning track.

Bo hit a career-high .272 with 28 homers and 78 RBIs for Kansas City last season, but played only 111 games. He was selected to the Pro Bowl by his NFL peers, but didn't survive the second round of the playoffs against Cincinnati.

The way it looks now, he'll never know what might have been, and neither will anyone else. Really, it doesn't matter. Bo Jackson played for the moment. And oh, what a moment it was.

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