Review by Budd Bailey
I loved “The Last Folk Hero” at hello, as the line from the movie “Jerry Maguire” goes.
The hello in this case is the introduction. Author Jeff Pearlman writes that he was in the Atlanta airport one day, going through security. He is stopped, predictably enough, because he has a brick in his carry-on bag. That’s right, a brick. The security agents have a predictable response: You can’t take a brick on to the plane with you.
Pearlman explains that this isn’t just any brick. It’s from the first house of Bo Jackson, a legendary athlete. The house was abandoned and allowed to crumble, but there were a few bricks still on the ground. Pearlman, deep into this writing project, thought he needed to have a brick for his inspiration of a biography. It took some convincing, but eventually someone at the airport who knew about Jackson decided that taking a brick from Bo’s home wasn’t a bad idea at all … and let it through.
Speaking as someone who has a brick from Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium in the garden, I immediately identified with Pearlman’s quest to explore Jackson’s life – brick by brick. The finished building, er, product, is “The Last Folk Hero,” and I doubt you’ll read a more interesting and thorough biography this year.
Most of us known the skeleton of Jackson’s story. He grew up poor in Alabama, and sports became something of a refuge for him. Eventually it was on to Auburn University, where he won the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best player. But Bo also was a heck of a baseball player, giving him some options when it was time to choose a career. He stunned everyone by signing with baseball’s Kansas City Royals, even though he was the first overall NFL draft choice by the bumbling (at the time) Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Bo was a raw baseball talent, but seemed to have skills far beyond those of mortal men. He hit baseballs so hard and far that observers were simply left speechless. On the basepaths, he was essentially a truck. I happened to be at the game in Kansas City in which Jackson was a baserunner headed home, and Rick Dempsey of the Orioles was waiting with the ball. Bo put his shoulder down and tried to ram the catcher so hard that he’d drop the ball. It was a collision straight out of the NFL, as Dempsey wound up halfway between home plate and the dugout. But he held on to the ball, and Jackson was out.
Baseball wasn’t quite enough activity for Bo, and he decided he wanted to play football in his spare time. Who does that? He was occasionally sensational, even though he wasn’t particularly interested in such aspects of the game as blocking and catching passes. But when he took off on a long run, it was breathtaking.
Alas, the story was shortened by a hip injury suffered during a football game. Hip replacement surgery was needed, and that ended the football side of Jackson’s career. He tried coming back to play baseball, but couldn’t match his own high standards.
Skeletons only reveal so much, even to forensic scientists. It’s the seemingly ridiculous episodes of Bo’s life that make this book so fascinating. Pearlman tracked down more than 700 people for interviews, and it only seems as if they all had a “Did you see that?” moment when it came to Jackson. This was a man who picked up a discus as part of high school track meet, and with a few minutes of coaching threw it 20 feet farther than the Section champion. This is someone who could jump completely out of a swimming pool and land on his feet. (OK, it was the shallow end. But still.) He could throw out baserunners from more than 300 feet away, and he could leave football tacklers either grasping at air or left clobbered on the ground. He once ran the 40-yard dash in 4.13 seconds. Add that up, and it was hard to know with the person ended and the legend began.
That all made him one of the top celebrities in the country when it came to endorsements. You might remember Nike’s “Bo Knows” campaign, which featured a commercial with him playing a variety of sports … plus the guitar, with Bo Diddley. That’s impressive for someone who had to overcome a childhood stutter and thus didn’t talk in public much.
Still, all of those sources help to fill in the stories around those incidents. What comes across quite clearly is that Jackson was a man who always did what he wanted to do. That could mean he would report to a team when he wanted to do so, and not when the team wanted him. That could mean he would be distant and rude to teammates and to the public and its proxies. But he also could be generous to a fault with others. Jackson seemed to mellow as he went along. Now he doesn’t have much unwanted contact with others, as he’s happily living with his family in the Chicago area.
It’s quite a life story, and Pearlman tells it completely. It checks in at around 500 pages, but it’s never boring along the way. If you want to read about the man who could be summed up as Paul Bunyon in cleats, “The Last Folk Hero” will be the place to go.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)