One day about 10 years ago -- a no-good summer day that turned as hot and rank as old meat long before the dew had time to dry -- a young fellow named Vincent Jackson and some of his friends found themselves with a chunk of idle time, out near the foot of what everybody called "The Mountain" in Bessemer, Ala. By then people had taken to calling Vincent "Bo," a name that made sense because he was tough and had a tendency to run loose, something like a wild boar, his big brother and cousins liked to say.
You know how it is in those small country towns in the summer, when every other morning you look in the paper and read that some crazed farmer picked up a gun and shot his tractor 89 times when it started running hot. Or that some poor lonely heart took the bus up to Memphis and tried to talk the judge into marrying him and his hunting dog Ike.
In the summer, there are people and times like that everywhere, even down in Bessemer, where a young fellow like Bo Jackson, who would become one of the most celebrated athletes in the history of the Southeastern Conference, could play baseball, basketball or Ping-Pong down at the rec center. Or he could make up a cane pole and go fishing.
But what Jackson did in 1976, along with about 20 of his running buddies, he killed $3,000 worth of pigs.
"There was nothing else to do," Jackson said the other day. "Not in the summer. We were walking up the mountain when we saw this hog pen that belonged to a Baptist minister. It was out in the woods, and we just started beating up those pigs with sticks and bricks and whatever. Soon there came this shot, and we all cleared out. Didn't do any good, though. That preacher had hired a man to look after his pigs and this man saw me. Of everybody there, it was only me he saw. Spotted me running away."
It never was hard to spot Bo Jackson running away, even when it was in the wrong direction. As a kid, he was a bully, the worst kind. He'd take his shirt off and let his brother pound him in the stomach, just to prove how tough he was. His parents had never married, and his mother, Florence Bond, raised 10 children. Bo was No. 8, way down the line. After the slaughter of those pigs, his mother thought about sending him to reform school, but Jackson repented and worked hard to pay off the preacher.
"A lot of times," he said, "I had to take situations in my own hands. There came a time when I was 16, I had to straighten out or keep on being a bully and going bad. I just sort of told myself what I had to do and went out and did it."
Now, entering his senior year at Auburn, Jackson is an all-America running back and stands a good chance of winning the Heisman Trophy, although he admits to being "sick of thinking and talking about it. Everybody asks me about it, and not a day goes by when I don't have to hear that word. I hate hearing that word. The only one who doesn't talk to me about it is my mother. She keeps the faith."
After a remarkable sophomore year, in which he rushed for 1,213 yards and was compared to Herschel Walker, Walter Payton and O.J. Simpson, there was talk of Jackson winning the Heisman in 1984. But that dream died when he suffered a shoulder separation against Texas in the second game of the season.
Safety Jerry Gray slammed down Jackson on a stretch of artificial turf as hard as concrete. Jackson got up and continued to play for an entire quarter, feeling stiffness in his arm but not suspecting that he'd torn ligaments in the shoulder. Later, in the hospital, he said he "cried like crazy," not knowing what to make of the injury, how to understand it.
Jackson missed six games but played in the final four, then was named most valuable player in the Liberty Bowl after rushing for 88 yards and scoring two touchdowns against Arkansas. Jackson was tough, all right, and not once did he have to pull off his shirt and take punches in the gut to prove it.
The word on Bo Jackson is that he's simply the finest all-around athlete to play in the SEC in a long, long time, maybe ever. His football coach, Pat Dye, once said Jackson was the best player at his position in the country. In baseball last spring, Jackson, a center fielder, hit .401 with 17 home runs and 43 RBI, giving his coach, Hal Baird, cause to tell a New York Times reporter that "nobody in the modern era could run like he can or throw or hit for power like he can."
With those credentials, Jackson has a big decision to make, one that's left even his best friends and coaches wondering. He has to decide whether he wants to become a millionaire playing professional baseball or football. Although he now is saying that he'll "wait till the end to decide which way I'll go," he often has been heard to groan about riding the bus for three or four years as a minor league baseball player, then ramble on about playing football right away and making a lot of money.
"People talk about the Heisman," Jackson said, "or they talk about what I'm going to do. Baseball or football? I'm warped on it. It just gets to you."
In baseball last spring, the major league rating system gave Jackson the highest marks of any player eligible for the draft. Had he not announced plans to play football this fall, he no doubt would have been the first player picked in the spring draft. As it turned out, the California Angels selected him in the 20th round.
The Angels had hoped to get an injunction against an SEC rule prohibiting athletes from playing one sport professionally while retaining their college eligibility in another. Larry Himes, the Angels' scouting director, said they had hoped Jackson would play a few months of minor league baseball before returning to Auburn. But Jackson, who almost signed with the Birmingham Stallions of the U.S. Football League after his junior year, stood by his earlier decision to play football at Auburn in 1985.
"I think Bo didn't give the situation the serious attention it deserved," Himes said. "He never will know what money might have been offered . . . As far as losing a tremendous talent like that, not only will it affect the California Angels but it will affect all of baseball. He possesses all the ingredients of a great all-star type player. He's really exciting."
Jackson admits to coming by his extraordinary gifts "simply, I was born with a lot of blessings." He says he does not like to brag, but at practice, he must often work out at half-speed to keep pace "with those guys going full-speed. If I go full, it makes the others look like they're loafing."
Jackson runs the 40-yard dash in 4.22 seconds, by far the fastest on the Auburn team. He says he "never spends time in the weight room," but has bench-pressed 400 pounds. Not until he participated in organized sports did he realize that he was "a little different," as he once put it, than everybody else. As a ninth-grader in high school, he competed in the decathlon on the track team and placed 10th in the state meet. His sophomore year, he placed second. And as a junior and senior, he said, he "won it all so easily, I didn't even have to run the mile."
When he carries the football, he said, "The only thing on my mind is determination. I refuse to let myself believe anybody can stop me. In baseball, I've got it in my head that nobody can throw me out."
As a freshman at Auburn, Jackson once packed his bags, borrowed a friend's car and hurried down to the bus station. He said that after 13 weeks of practice, he was "just sick and tired of the coaches nagging, the players nagging, sick of everything." It was no secret that Jackson had not responded very well to the drudgery of practice and the awful compromises a young man only 19 had to make. He wanted to go home and start all over again.
"I spent about six hours in the station," he said, "and thought it all out. I realized I'd been given an opportunity and that I'd be letting a lot of people down if I ran away from it. I went back, I'm glad I did. Look at all the good that came my way."