Bo Jackson, Brian Bosworth meet again - 27 years later

ByDavid Fleming ESPN logo
Saturday, May 16, 2015

"Hey, old man, what's up?"

These are the words that burst out of Brian Bosworth's mouth the moment Bo Jackson appears in a doorway of a small office inside The Hotel at Auburn University. As soon as a smiling Bosworth can extricate himself from behind a cramped conference table, Bo and the Boz embrace for the very first time since their infamous collision on the goal line in Seattle during an iconic Monday Night Football game some 27 years ago.

Heading into that night, Nov. 30, 1987, when the troubled and insolent Bosworth promised to shut down the explosive, electrifying Jackson, the game had spun into an epic showdown between two of the most popular rookies in NFL history. To some extent, it was good versus evil, talent versus talk, offense versus defense, the greatest athlete of all time versus the game's greatest villain.

After two storied carries, though, the great rivalry was over. In the second quarter, Bo blew past Boz in the open field for a spectacular 91-yard touchdown. In the second half, Jackson took a handoff near the goal line, moved to his left, cut toward the end zone and bulldozed Bosworth for his third score of the night on his way to a Monday Night Football-record 221 rushing yards.

That night was the birth of Bo and the end of the Boz.

Plagued by bad shoulders and other issues, Bosworth was a shell of the dominant player he had been at Oklahoma, and his NFL career lasted just 17 more games. Jackson, meanwhile, went on to become one of the greatest all-around athletes -- and marketing phenoms -- of his generation, before his career also was cut short by injuries.

Despite sharing that iconic sports moment, for the past 27 years, Bo and Boz had never actually spoken until May 1, when ESPN caught up with them in a tiny hotel conference room on the eve of the fourth annual Bo Bikes Bama charity bike ride, an event that in its first three years raised nearly $1 million and helped build 57 storm shelters throughout Bo's home state. Jackson started the event a year after a deadly outbreak of tornadoes wreaked havoc on Alabama in 2011.

ESPN: In 2012, when Bo Bikes Bama started, that must have been hard seeing that kind of devastation up close for five straight days.

Bo: Every day on that first ride, I shed tears somewhere along the route. But I wore shades, and I rode up front, so nobody could see me. It was just so emotional because everywhere I rode, I thought, "That could have been my family. That could have been people that I know and love." Go anywhere in this state, and talk to anybody, and they'll know somebody who lost their house or their kids or their business to the tornado. On that first ride, I stopped at one neighborhood, and there were four generations of a family sitting there on all that was left of their home: a concrete slab. The tornado picked up the grandmother's house and took it a quarter-mile, and she fell out of the house when it was in the air. She was 150 yards out in the field. That's where her son and grandson found her after the storm -- in the field. They were just sitting out there. Just to see the people and the devastation up close like that, you don't ever forget that. There just aren't enough hours in the day or days in the week for me to do all that I want to do to help people like that.

That's what brought you guys back together after so long. Can you believe it's been 27 years since your Monday Night Football game? It was kind of a defining moment for both of you -- good and bad.

Boz: It doesn't define either one of us. I think what it defined is people's mindset, their perceptions and their expectations of what people wanted to see. It's so hard to go into any profession, especially sports, with expectations that are larger than life. It makes it impossible. It's a qualifiable unknown that you are always chasing. And you can't ever put your arms around it. You try so hard, with all your heart and soul and passion, and the last thing I, or any professional athlete, ever wants to do is disappoint anybody. But when you don't live up to expectations -- whether it's the fans', the coaches' or especially our own -- it hurts. I know.

That moment seemed to connect you two in people's minds forever.

Boz: Bo and I do have an interesting parallel. I know he came into professional baseball and football with great expectations of a prolific and long career. And it was cut short. Same with me -- cut short. We were both cut short by injuries that required joint replacements. We pushed our bodies so far. We just kept beating our bodies, beating it and beating it. The level of competition we had inside ourselves, we just didn't know when to quit. I still don't know when to quit.

Bo: Absolutely.

Boz: Sometimes, in my case, my own pride and my own ego got me and kept me and blocked me from really understanding what my reality was.

How do you each remember that moment?

Bo: I was more fired up, not because the Raiders were playing the Seahawks but because I got to see Tommie Agee, who was my roommate and my blocking fullback at Auburn and was a backup fullback on Seattle. That night was also my birthday, and three days before that game, my wife told me she was pregnant with our baby, Morgan, the girl who is now graduating from Auburn. Now, out on the field, that wasn't planned, nobody expected that. We were just a bunch of modern-day gladiators. It just so happened that night the Raiders came out on top, period.

Like it or not, that was an iconic sports moment for so many people, though.

Bo: Well, the only time I talk about that night is when someone asks about it. I don't ever think about it. People ask about that game more just because Brian Bosworth and I met on the goal line. No one ever mentions about when I went to Denver and did the same thing to Denver's whole defense that I did to Bosworth. But see, names and notoriety is what sells. Like, who was Denver's top name on defense?

Boz: [Safety Steve] Atwater? Or, [linebacker] Karl Mecklenburg?

Bo: Mecklenburg. I ran over Mecklenburg and went 35 yards for a touchdown. No one talks about that. But for some reason, people use that moment on Monday Night Football as a defining moment in their lives. They say, "I was there. I was sitting behind the goal line when you did that to Bosworth, when you bowled over him." That's what everybody talks about.

Boz: It has become a fish tale. Like, the bass was this big when you caught it, but by the time you get home, it was a world record-setting bass.

OK, but why do you think it was so memorable?

Boz: I think it was Monday Night Football. A single night. A single game. If it had happened on a Sunday, it would have gotten about half as much play. Bo had a phenomenal game, and everybody wanted to set the game up as a Darth Vader-versus-Luke Skywalker moment. And I'm, of course, Darth Vader in this deal.

Well, the talking before the game probably didn't help.

Boz: Oh, I set myself up for all of that. But that's what a linebacker is supposed to do. We're there to set the tone and intimidate the other side. I remember breaking down film that week. We focused on stuff like, when Bo comes in versus when Marcus Allen comes in and how there were two styles we had to defend. You're trying to read not only the running styles, but the blocking and what your defense is doing and what the other linebackers' responsibilities are.

Like what?

Boz: On that play, we had a linebacker who decided he wanted to jump the B gap when he was supposed to be playing play-side to the cone. I was supposed to be playing backside cut. So when you break down the play, if you're a coach and you say, "Did you do your job?" Yeah. "But did you tackle him short of the goal line?" No. "Then you didn't do your job." So, no, I didn't do my job because they scored. So it was an unsuccessful play for us. Then we move on. You can't go back as players.

What you do is try to learn from it -- and learn quickly. Unfortunately, what we learned is that when [Seahawks linebacker] Freddy Young sees certain things, he's blitzing. On that run that Bo ran all the way down into the tunnel? The reason that gap was so big and there was nobody filling or scraping into the B-C gap is because Freddy decided he wanted to run the B gap on a blitz. Dude. Argh. You just can't do that. One pitch and three steps, and Bo is gone, and I'm left rolling in behind him.

Yeah, that's got to be the worst feeling in the world -- chasing Bo Jackson.

Boz: I see Chuck Knox standing there, and he's got this beer belly, so his arms are folded, sitting on top of his beer belly, and what I'm thinking is, "Well, I at least gotta sprint past him, I gotta at least run past the head coach. I know I'll never catch Bo, so I better at least run hard past the head coach." Because I think I saw smoke coming out of the bottom of Bo's feet, I was like, "Whoa, he's on fire. He's gone." Every now and then, you run across an athlete like Bo, who is so rare. A guy who not only has the speed and the power, but he's got the instincts. When he sees daylight, it's like a ram in a fight -- they arch up and then ... boom! All the energy they produce is going in one direction, and you just gotta hope you have enough leverage and enough people behind you that you can absorb some of it and then dissipate it. He had a phenomenal night, and I had, well, it was the wrong night for me not to be at my best. Or, I should say, it was the wrong night for our team not to be at our best because Bo lit us up that night.

Bo: Because of that game, a lot of people want to think that ...

Boz: ... we hate each other. But there's no adversarial relationship going on here at all.

Bo: You just don't have time for that. I got a life to live. This man's got a life to live. We can't cry and pout or poke our chest out with pride over something that happened 27 years ago. What does that get you in this day and age? Nothing.

Boz: What I was really looking forward to was another opportunity for us to play each other. If we both had the long kind of careers we both wanted, there were gonna be more games and more moments where we matched up against each other and more competitions where someone was gonna win and someone was gonna lose. That's the most disappointing thing for me. I miss football. I miss football so much. Mostly because I didn't get to play it the length of time that I wanted to or walk away the way I wanted to.

Bo: I never set out to be a professional ballplayer in any sport. My lifelong dream was to fly jets. I wanted to be a military pilot. I wanted to fly jets and go drop bombs on somebody.

Here, Bo places his right leg up on a chair for relief. On Jan. 13, 1991, he suffered a right hip injury during a playoff game against the Bengals, which led to hip replacement surgery and the end of his football career. Bo is wearing rubber-soled, orthopedic-style dress shoes with his gray, pinstriped suit. He's also wearing reading glasses pushed far down on his nose. Before asking a friend to retrieve his nasal spray, Bo had spent several minutes talking about a recent colonoscopy. At 52, Bo is a rotund 50 pounds over his playing weight. (He popped two bike tires during the next day's ride.) On the other hand, Boz, who turned 50 in March, looks like he could suit up and play tomorrow, as if he still dreams he'll be offered one more chance. His once famous blond locks, however, have thinned considerably, and he too talks about his creaky shoulders, the weather and the hassles of travel. They both struggle a little to recall stats, dates and names. For a brief moment at this point of the conversation, I'm caught speechless, daydreaming about how my father used to ruminate about his favorite jocks -- Jim Brown, Mickey Mantle, Jack Nicklaus -- succumbing to father time and how, now, I'm the one reflecting upon the icons of my own youth.

OK, so I still can't believe you guys haven't talked in 27 years. Are there things you want to say to each other or to ask one another?

Bo: People ask me, "Do you miss football or baseball?" I always say, "OK, you're a CPA. Do you miss doing somebody's taxes when you're on vacation?" All sports have been great for Bo Jackson. But you know what? I don't even watch it on TV. I forgot the draft was this weekend in Chicago, where I live. Period. Only thing I know about the draft are two people I've been watching. Jameis Winston. He grew up 20 minutes from where I grew up in Alabama. And it's ironic: He won the Heisman, he was the first player picked and he was selected by Tampa Bay. Those are exactly my footsteps. That's weird. And the running back from Wisconsin, Melvin Gordon.

Wait. Really? You don't watch football at all?

Bo: I've never been a fan to where I'm gonna sit and watch a football game. My wife makes me come down and watch Auburn games with her because our two youngest kids are here. But the only place where I can find some peace and quiet is on the sideline. So I have to watch the game. But I used to just drive my wife over and drop her off at the stadium and then go to the country club and play golf.

What do you guys like and dislike about today's game?

Boz: I don't like that the defense can't be physical, and they have to adjust their physicality during the course of the play. Not prior to or after but actually during the play. They have to figure out a way to adjust their approach to the hit, which, to me, changes a key ingredient and a part of the philosophy of playing defense. Everything is spread out so far now. Kids today are not taught the fundamentals of the game: how to block and tackle. We were taught back in the day how to do the simple things first before we moved on to, "OK, let's spread this thing way out all over the place, throw it every down, run a track meet and try to score 65 points in every game."

Bo: I was taught [to] go out [and] play hard-nose, ugly football. Then you look good after you win. Guys are doing too much celebrating on a simple tackle.

Boz: Or a first down.

Bo: Celebrating like they won the game, like those linemen celebrating because they made a tackle who jumped around and tore their knee? All this excessive celebrating with today's players, that's one of the reasons I don't watch it. I also don't like all the new rules the NFL is putting in to play. I think it's good from the standpoint of PTSD with players, but if they continue to make the game softer and softer and softer, hell, they might as well play flag football.

Boz: Yeah. Or soccer.

Bo: One thing I wouldn't let my kids do for all the tea in China is this "Friday Night Tykes" thing. The show where they got these little kids playing football and hitting like they're in the NFL? These kids' brains aren't even half developed, and they're out tackling and getting concussions at 9 and 10 years old ... and the parents are sitting up in the stands cheering?

Boz: The parents are the ones pushing it.

Bo: These parents are living vicariously through their kids. When this kid is turning 15 or 16 years old, this kid is not gonna know his name, he's not gonna know how to get home from school. And they're letting these guys coach these kids who have never played football outside of high school? That's like NASA telling one of us, "Why don't you come and fly this space shuttle next week?"

How do you guys want people to remember you?

Bo: I can say we were both good for the game, but the game was great for us. It has opened so many doors for me, and I'm quite sure it has done the same for Brian. It has allowed us to see another side of life outside of sports.

Boz: Football is so great. Once it was over for me, I went through a dark period in the 1990s, when I just wanted to crawl into a hole and die, all because I didn't get a chance to complete what I started. As I got older, I started to understand -- I was grateful for the journey I was on. I was grateful despite how it turned out. Whether the journey ended up the way I wanted it to or it didn't, I was grateful for football. We are grateful that we have had the opportunities and the blessings, and it's not just all about us but the people who led us to get there -- the coaches, the people, the teammates who supported us and pushed us along the way. I can see what Bo is saying, the way so many kids now are disconnected from the honor and the responsibilities that it is to be able to call yourself a football player.

Bo: It's not about you, once you get to this level. It's not about how many millions you make or how big your house is or the cars you got. It's about, at the end of the day, what are you going to do to help your fellow man? Period. What are you going to do to give back and make a difference in somebody else's life? That's how you end up being measured; that's what it's all about. That's what we're doing here with Bo Bikes Bama. It's like Maya Angelou said: How can you be a rainbow in somebody else's cloud?

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