Even if Bo's tale has sad end, it's a romantic one


March 20, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

The great and terrible and, ultimately, sad lesson of Bo Jackson is that all things are not possible.

But that does not mean Bo blew it, although there is a great stampede now to tell him otherwise. You've heard what they're saying. He wanted too much. He was greedy. He thought life was like a commercial and that he really could play guitar.

Music aside, Jackson could have been a great baseball player. Or he could have been a great football player. But, because he insisted on trying to be both simultaneously, there's now a great chance he won't be either.

Why couldn't he have settled for what anyone else would gladly have settled for?

That's easy. Because he's Bo. And my guess is that even as he stands on crutches, a bone in his hip fractured, his career in jeopardy, his future in the balance, Jackson wouldn't have had it any other way.

Whatever Jackson's failures -- and there haven't been many -- they were never of imagination. Not only did he always take the road less traveled by, he took roads that no one else even knew existed. With every step he took, he broke new ground. And if that meant also breaking a hip, well, there's a price to be paid for adventure, just as there's a price for 88-yard end runs. But consider the cost of playing it safe.

Jackson tried. That's the main thing to remember and to understand. He didn't accept anyone else's limitations.

I don't know if Bo would see it this way, but his quest was pure romance, certainly as romantic as any knight facing down a windmill. In the days when money seems to be the only defining currency in sports, when kids are heard reciting the dollar value of baseball cards, we need all the romance we can find.

That's what I've found so intriguing about Cal Ripken's assault on Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game record. There is audacity in even the idea of the chase. It is a record that is seemingly impossible to break, and yet Ripken might actually do it, and yet people keep saying he shouldn't even try. I don't understand that point of view. Sure, there's some self-indulgent behavior involved, but what great feat doesn't demand a degree of selfishness as a component?

When Jackson came out of college and said he wanted to play both sports professionally, he was not, at first, taken seriously. And when he did play both, he ran into a barrage of criticism, which, it turned out, had about as much chance of stopping him as a 160-pound cornerback. He said football was a hobby, and people hooted him down. He was rushed into the major leagues, and people said he had no business being there.

He struck out too much, and he was injured too much, and he tried to do too much. Eventually, he won us over, although much of the credit for that transformation goes to Nike. The commercial made Bo into a national icon. That says more about the power of advertising than that of heroics, but it was an invitation to sign on to Bo's sports-across-America tour, and everyone seemed to.

And even if he never plays another game in any sport, he was a success. Because the truth is, he was great in both sports, if you define great as spectacular. It was Bo who electrified baseball with a 448-foot home run in an All-Star Game. It was Bo who, with a 221-yard rushing game, convinced people he could possibly be the greatest running back of all time.

He had wonderful, defining moments -- the monstrous home run against Nolan Ryan, for example -- that we can keep, and in two sports. How many other athletes can make that claim in one?

Even when he strikes out, he's worth seeing. His fumbles are exciting. He may never make it to anyone's Hall of Fame, but he's a legend, and I don't think Billy Williams or Herb Adderly can say that. Paul Bunyan can. So can Bo Jackson, who is probably as strong and, I'm guessing, faster, although Paul probably would have made a great offensive lineman.

It was a shock, of course, when the Kansas City Royals let Jackson go, and it suggests that the hip injury is career-threatening, and that no one is invulnerable. The injury can't be blamed on blind ambition, however. If Jackson had chosen to play football alone, he would have had the same injury. And he might have had it earlier. He might have had no career at all.

Bo talks loudly about not counting him out, but that's just what the Royals did, and I doubt they let him go because they were unhappy he wanted to continue to play football or because they were unwilling to eat $2 million this season. You gladly eat the millions if you think you have a healthy Jackson in your future. Their doctors must think otherwise.

So now, there may be nothing more to see of Bo except his commercials, which would be an irony of a kind. If Bo is through, it's our loss as well as his. He may become even more of a Nike-inspired legend, but that won't matter so much. He's more than a shoe salesman, after all. What matters is that he risked it all on an adventure, on a chance to make a special kind of history, and that we were able to go along for the ride.

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