News of Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray declaring for the NFL draft reminded me of another Heisman Trophy winner caught between football and baseball.
No, not Chris Weinke, who won the Heisman at Florida State in 2000 after his bonus-baby baseball career fizzled in the minors.
No, not Tim Tebow, the 2008 Heisman winner from Florida who pursued pro baseball after his NFL career was finally, and mercifully, exhausted.
The Heisman I’m thinking about here is 1985 winner Bo Jackson of Auburn, who wrote Nike’s two-sport coin phrase with the Kansas City Royals and L.A. Raiders.
I was lucky to be the Raiders’ beat writer for the Los Angeles Times in 1990 when Bo arrived in October for what turned out to be his last season as a two-sport phenom.
“The baseball player’s here,” is how Raider teammates jokingly referred to Bo’s five-alarm arrival.
Let this serve as inspiration, or as a cautionary tale, for young Kyler Murray as he decides between the Oakland As and the NFL (Not For Long).
Bo Jackson played both sports and while that decision didn’t impair his enduring myth, it likely cost him a chance to be a hall of fame player in either sport.
Kyler Murray, you are not Bo but don’t worry—no one was.
Bo remains, to this day, the greatest athlete I’ve seen, covered or ever tried to interview (Bo didn’t like the media much).
A story to illustrate: Bo arrived at the Raiders, per his annual agreement, after the 1990 baseball season ended. He reported for practice Wednesday and ran for two touchdowns against the Chargers the following Sunday.
The 1990 Raiders had three world-class sprinters on their roster: Sam Graddy and Ron Brown ran the first two legs for the United States 4 x100 gold-medal relay team at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
The other speedster was Willie Gault, who owned a PB of 10.10 in the 100-meters and only missed the 1980 Olympics because of the boycott.
One of the thrills of my fly-on-the-wall career was getting to watch Bo race three track stars for fun at practice.
And here’s the deal: Bo beat those guys off the blocks for the first 60 yards, only ceding the final 40 for lack of conditioning and training.
Kyler, if you’re listening…
No one was ever going to tell Bo what to do, but football is a dangerous sport.
Bo remains the only player to make the MLB All-Star game and the Pro Bowl, but he paid a premium price.
Deion Sanders, of course, was the other famous two-sport star of that era. But Sanders was a fancy-footed cornerback who deftly avoided contact to preserve his body.
I caught Jackson in his prime. In 1989, for Kansas City, he hit 32 home runs with 105 RBI and 26 stolen bases.
In 1990, for the Raiders I covered, he made his only Pro Bowl.
In 10 games Bo rushed for 698 yards (5.6 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. He and Marcus Allen formed the most lethal tailback combo in NFL history.
But then it ended, on Jan. 13, 1991, at the Los Angeles Coliseum, in a playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Bo was tackled from behind, by linebacker Kevin Walker, at the end of a 34-yard run in the third quarter.
From the press box, I fixed binoculars on Bo as he limped off the field with what was called a “hip strain.”
After the Raiders’ 20-10 win, we waited for an update on Bo’s condition. I remember Bo being hauled away on a golf cart, with myself and NBC sideline reporter O.J. Simpson in hot pursuit.
Bo vowed to play the following week’s AFC title game at Buffalo.
“I want a ring,” he said.
Bo Jackson never played football again.
The Raiders kept his injury a secret all week before finally listing him as “doubtful.”
It was the week War in the Gulf broke out--we got word in the press room while the Raiders were practicing.
Local beat reporters were allowed to watch—but not opposing writers. A hockey writer supplementing Bills’ coverage for the Buffalo News that week was booted off the grounds in El Segundo for wandering away from his press-room post.
Anyway, I walked to the field and saw owner Al Davis watching practice knowing, pre-internet, that the only war in his mind that week was taking place in Buffalo.
I gave him the news and, typical Al, he advised strongly for a U.S. vertical attack.
“We need to bomb the (bleep) out of them,” Davis said.
Buffalo crushed the Bo-less Raiders, 51-3, in one-week advance of Scott Norwood’s historic Super Bowl field goal miss against the NY Giants in Tampa.
On March 21, 1991, quoting a secret source, I wrote a front-page story for the L.A. Times saying that Bo Jackson’s football career was over at age 28.
His injured hip had developed a condition known as avascular necrosis—a loss of blood supply to the bone.
My source said “he will never play football again,” and would need hip replacement surgery. The source said Bo could possibly return to baseball as a limp-a-long DH but that his superman days were over.
The source nailed it. Bo, heroically, returned to play three more seasons of baseball before retiring with the Angels in 1994.
He was, obviously, never the same player. Bo stole 81 of his 82 career bases before his hip injury.
Some experts, at the time, estimated Bo’s football injury cost him $100 million in future endorsements.
Kyler Murray has a decision to make—baseball or football?
My grumpy-old-man advice would be to give baseball a chance and use football as a fallback. Roger Staubach served five years in the Navy before joining the NFL, winning two Super Bowls and making the HOF.
Roger was a “dodger” who suffered numerous concussions along the way, but Murray, a 5-foot-9 running quarterback, stands to take even bigger hits in a bigger, stronger and faster NFL.
You only have two hips, one brain and one life.
Is a larger NFL signing bonus this spring worth the long-term risk?
Bo knew a lot—but I guarantee you he had never heard of avascular necrosis.
For what it's worth, Betonline.com just released odds on which NFL teams is most likely to take a chance on two-sport Kyler in this year’s draft:
The Raiders (3\1).