Bo Jackson was drafted as the No. 1 overall pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1986 NFL draft, but he turned them down and decided to pursue a career in professional baseball. It was always believed that Jackson, who told the Bucs not to draft him, did not want to go to Tampa Bay because of all the negative things he had heard about the organization. But, as I learned on Saturday, Jackson also says that he did not want to play there because he believed they were a corrupt group that intentionally sabotaged his college baseball career.
Jackson was the subject of ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 program, “You Don’t Know Bo.” The program aired following the Heisman Trophy ceremony on ESPN Saturday, and it was the highest-rated 30 for 30 program yet.
In the program, Jackson elaborated on how and why he believes the Buccaneers sabotaged him.
“I expected to play football at the professional level, and I had taken a few trips to visit some teams during baseball season of my senior year,” Jackson recalled.
“I thought I had the OK to get on a plane that Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse set up. So I got on the jet and went to Tampa Bay for a visit. About four or five days later, I’m back at Auburn getting ready for my baseball game. My senior year, I am tearing the cover off the ball. I’m batting over .400*. I don’t know how many home runs I was sitting on then, but I was as hot as a bottle rocket in July,” Jackson said.
Jackson says he walked out onto the field and his baseball coach, Hal Baird, asked to speak with him. The coach asked if he had taken a trip to Tampa on Culverhouse’s plane. Bo told his coach that the Bucs told him they had checked and the NCAA had said it was OK to take the trip. The coach responded and said someone with the Buccaneers did not check with the NCAA, and that Jackson was being declared ineligible from college sports.
“I sat down there on the ground and I cried like a baby,” a disappointed Jackson recalled.
Baird described Jackson’s actions as innocent, and he said during the program that they felt the violation cost Bo first-round MLB draft status.
Jackson then explained that he felt the Buccaneers set up the trip to intentionally ruin his baseball career with the hope that it would sway him to play football.
“I was (already) thinking about not going to Tampa Bay,” Jackson said. “This — because the officials at Tampa Bay told me personally, ‘yes, we checked it, [the NCAA] said that it was OK,’ — I think it was all a plot to get me ineligible from baseball because they saw the season that I was having, and they thought that they were going lose me to baseball. (They thought) ‘If we get him declared ineligible, then we got him.’
“I told Hugh Culverhouse, ‘You draft me if you want, you’re going to waste a draft pick.’ I said, ‘I promise you that.’”
Though there was an overwhelming feeling at the time that Jackson would play football, Bo stayed true to his word and refused to sign with the Bucs. Instead, his agent reached out to the Kansas City Royals before the draft and asked if Bo could look around. The Royals were coming off a World Series win in 1985, so they were the top team in the league at the time. They were dubious that Jackson was seriously considering playing baseball, and they were wondering if it was worth spending a high draft pick on him.
The Royals decided to draft Bo in the fourth round, and he ended up signing. He started the season in double-A Memphis, and he was a September call-up where he hit .207 in 82 at-bats.
I knew Bo never wanted to play for the Buccaneers, but the story about him believing they had sabotaged his baseball career was new to me.
A July 14, 1986 Sports Illustrated article called “Bo’s Not One To Go With The Flow” touched on the matter. Here’s what the article said:
And keep in mind that Jackson simply did not like Tampa Bay and had no intention of playing for the Bucs. Privately, he ridiculed the Bucs’ offensive line. He went so far in the last days before making his decision as to tell both Toronto and California that he wouldn’t play for Tampa Bay. Those two clubs, and others, didn’t buy the act. K.C. did, although by selecting Jackson 104th in the draft—in the fourth round—the Royals revealed they weren’t sure.
According to Auburn baseball coach Hal Baird, Bo was especially miffed that he lost his remaining college baseball eligibility last season when Tampa Bay flew him to Florida on March 25 for a physical. The flight was in violation of SEC rules. Phil Krueger, a Bucs executive, insists that the team checked with the conference to make sure it was O.K. Further, he says it was Jackson who requested that a private plane be sent for him, and it was sent. Whatever the facts, Jackson has said he thinks the Bucs devised some convoluted scheme to drag him away from baseball.
Things ultimately worked out the way they were supposed to. Jackson became a Major League regular by 1987, and he was an All-Star in 1989. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders in 1987 and played four seasons for them before suffering a serious hip injury that ruined his football career.
Watching the program brought back all the great memories I had of Bo. The stories and clips of him reminded so many of us why we loved him so much. The man was truly great, and he was unquestionably the best athlete of the century.
On a personal level, Bo was my first sports hero. His shoes were the first pair of athlete shoes I ever owned. I was part of “Club Bo” and had a sticker and T-shirt to prove it. I read his book when I was younger. I was elated when he played his final MLB season with the California Angels.
Though he was such a troublemaker as a youth, Jackson matured into a fine person. He has never harbored resentment about his athletic career ending the way it did. He hasn’t forced himself to stay in the spotlight the way so many ex-athletes have. He talks about how great sports were for his life. He said he tried to learn as much as he could while he was in college.
Jackson was an exceptional athlete and remains an exceptional person. I’m glad that thanks to ESPN, he was the center of the sports world for at least another night.
For those who enjoy reading stories about Bo, I’ve included three links below that will keep you entertained for an hour. Start with the Posnanski link.
Recalling Bo Jackson’s days in baseball – May 30, 2007, an article by Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star that shares some of the greatest folk tales about Bo Jackson
Which Way You Gonna Go, Bo? – May 13, 1985, talks about what scouts saw in him.
Bo’s Not One To Go With The Flow – July 14, 1986, on the beginnings of Bo’s baseball career
*The 1986 SI article says Jackson batted .246 in 21 games that yearGoogle+