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Bo Jackson: From Bully to Two-Sport Legend


By Noah Madsen |Biokinetics Major

Kansas City Royals left fielder Bo Jackson strolled up to the home plate against Hall of Fame White Sox Steve Carlton on the pitcher’s mound. The crowd leaned forward in their seats, waiting in anticipation as Jackson geared up to swing. Jackson cranked the ball an astounding 425 feet, but it strayed too far right which resulted in a foul. Jackson continued to whack the ball across the foul line until one bounced past first basemen Russ Mormon and recovered by second basemen Tim Hulett, but Jackson easily beat the throw to first with his speed (Sherman).

Jackson grew up in poverty, the eighth of ten children and without a father. As he entered adolescence, he acquired the reputation of a troublemaker. His brothers compared him to a wild boar, hence the name “Bo”. After killing a Baptist minister’s hog, he faced a choice of either Reform School to correct his behavior or one last chance to change. He decided to focus his attention on sports, which proved to be what Jackson needed to stay out of trouble (Lagergren 2). With a coach that stood as a father figure and focused on sports, Jackson rose to the top of both the NFL and the MLB.

Jackson, a monstrous player on the field at 6–1 and 230 pounds, emerged as one of the most athletically gifted players for both Major League Baseball and the National Football League. Fans from both sides frantically cheered and lay amazed when he acquired the spotlight. Although his hard work and talent definitely became a factor for boosting him into stardom, Outliers: the Story of Success by author Malcolm Gladwell, suggests hard work and talent alone won’t get players anywhere. Jackson’s desirable difficulties, meaningful work, and special opportunities assisted him with becoming a legend both on and off the field.

Jackson’s desirable difficulties, meaningful work, and special opportunities assisted him with becoming a legend both on and off the field.

Many people assume that difficulties in a person’s life only impacts them in a negative way. For the most part it is true, but there can be many difficulties that may have a positive outcome in a person’s life. These difficulties allow a person to drive their work ethic or improve upon themselves to a greater level. A common difficulty would be growing up with the lack of a parent in life. A child of this difficulty may lean towards isolation or consistent anger towards others as coping mechanisms (Shondell). How can this difficulty be seen as desirable? Although it isn’t ideal, it allows the athlete to use their aggression and work ethic to boost them towards success. Many professional athletes grew up without their biological father in their lives, which drove them to prove their greatness. “There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources- and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former.” (Gladwell 19). Jackson matured in an environment where he didn’t have any material resources, so he relied on himself and his own abilities to be successful.

Jackson grew up poor, without his biological father and a mother who was preoccupied by work, which left little time for her children. Jackson’s mother supported her family financially since Jackson’s father contributed to his other family, who happened to live on the other side of his hometown (Lagergren 1). He lacked a father figure in his life, until prior to his high school career when Dick Atchinson, the community track coach, offered a spot on the team to Jackson. Atchinson became Jackson’s mentor throughout McArdory High School, serving as the coach for both football and track. Atchinson developed into a father figure for Jackson, which he had lacked in his adolescence. Jackson credits Atchinson for converting him into the extraordinary athlete he was. When Jackson married Linda Garrett, his college sweetheart, he vowed to spend time with his family and not abandon them like his father. He set aside professional athletics for good, which allowed him more quality time with his family. With the lack of materials he had growing up, Jackson utilized his natural talents and turned his disadvantages into advantages.

Building a rice paddy requires demanding and precise work in order to get the most out it. One compelling reason to be successful is the act of meaningful work. The desire to do good works emerges from cultural and family background. Rice is a part of China’s cultural legacy, but requires strict and complicated work in order to achieve the necessary amounts for survival. Constantly tending to the crop and using exact precision to acquire the greatest amount of rice to harvest. Gladwell suggests that this sort of work is described as meaningful work (150). The difficulty is immense, along with the dedication and effort, but the reward is just as equal. Chinese history explains the idea that persistence and hard work is the key that leads to a better, more fulfilling life. The cultural effect on a person’s drive is enormous, due to their ancestors working hard for a successful life. “Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig” (Gladwell 150). Without meaningful work, there is lack of fulfillment and the work becomes an unwanted chore. Success relies on meaningful work.

Jackson cherished the sport of baseball. He used it as an escape from reality and became a natural even during his adolescence. He developed into a role model for being one of the most talented two sport athletes there was. He worked vigorously toward being a phenomenal athlete and even ended up being the face of the Nike campaign “Just Do It”. He shot Nike into the No. 1 sneaker brand and achieved 80 percent of the market for cross-training shoe sales (Ellis). Other than winning many awards in high school, college and pro sports, Jackson strove for an education. Being the first child in his family to go to college, Jackson made an effort to receive a bachelor’s degree at Auburn University for family and child development. He kept his promise to his mother before dying of cancer in April 1992 that he would graduate from Auburn. Jackson never played to be selfishly successful, but rather in the name of his family. Coming out of poverty, Jackson wanted to give back and help the youth who were in a similar situations. After his pro sports career, Jackson opened up his own motorcycle shop outside of Chicago and partnered with Charles Barkley on an Alabama restaurant named Two Rivers (Flatter). Jackson also serves as the president of the Sports Medicine Council, which is a non-profit organization that reaches out to youth. Jackson didn’t abuse his fame and fortune for material or selfish gains but rather helped children and adults in need. He brought meaning into his work as an athletic professional, giving back to the community and supporting his family through difficult times.

Jackson acquired both natural talent for athletics and a work ethic that allowed him to work towards his goals. Although these traits are important for success, it’s necessary to have opportunities to pursue successful goals. Malcolm Gladwell explains that success is not a random act but actually arises out of powerful set of circumstances and opportunities (Outliers 155). Without opportunity, nobody can reach success at such a high standard. An example of this can be referred to Chris Langan and Robert Oppenheimer. Both men grew up in similar lives and possess similar education intelligence. They were geniuses but gained nothing when it came to being recognized or assisted with college or education as a whole. Although very similar, they both lived different lives. Langan grew up in a difficult childhood, but never lacked mental stability unlike Oppenheimer who used his suave personality to acquire what he wanted in life, but lacked stability. Some people have the right qualities, but not the opportunity and vice versa, which make them incapable of being successful in life.

Jackson aged into a troublemaker, using his burly size in order to receive what he wanted. He would bully children, break property and steal bikes in the neighborhood. Jackson hired others to beat up other children for him because he didn’t have the time to beat all of them. He embraced his muscular size and adopted intimidation to get what he desired. After being threatened to be sent to Reform school, he focused all his attention on sports and transferred his aggression to avoid punishment. Jackson attained the opportunities he needed during his adolescence years. By age thirteen, he proved to be a natural at baseball and competed with grown men in the Industrial League in Bessemer (Lagergren 2). Pursued by the Yankees at the end of his high school career, Jackson became flooded with opportunities ranging from participating in professional sports to full-ride scholarships to universities across the country. Jackson declined his selection by the Yankees in the MLB drafts in order to pursue a college degree, which his mother encouraged. Due to not being able to play baseball during the NFL season, he decided to turn down his offer to join the Buccaneers. Shortly after, Raiders owner Al Davis embraced Jackson’s baseball career and allowed him to work as a part-time running back making full-time money. (Flatter). After suffering a hip injury during the Raider’s playoff victory against the Bengals, the Raiders and the Royals released him from the team. His hip deteriorated so much that he was unable to recover with his actual hip and had to receive an artificial one. Jackson worked through the pain and started from the ground back up to the top. He received an offer to return to the MLB if he recovered from his hip injury. After months of therapy, Jackson returned to play for the White Sox and the Angels until inevitably retiring in 1995. Jackson acquired several opportunities throughout his whole life, including ones that could have altered his life forever. Jackson’s qualities of being robust, hard-headed and determined helped him to become successful in athletics and allowed him to be sponsored and given the title of one of the most talented athletes ever.

White Sox Bo Jackson moseyed on up to the familiar home plate at Comiskey Park. Nighttime swept over the luminous stadium as crowds stood in anticipation for the returning legend. The same slightly sandy plate he played on as a bulky child and as a MLB athlete. Jackson felt the nostalgia sweep over him, the only thing different was the prosthetic hip he acquired after his traumatic football injury. Jackson didn’t mind though, he was just glad to be on the field again. The crowds roared as Jackson stood ready on the plate. His first game back in 1993. Yankees Neal Heaton stared down at the plate, ready to strikeout the legendary player. Suddenly the crack of the bat became known. The ball soared across the center field in its entirety. His first time at bat since his injury turned into a pinch-hit home run. An outstanding 400 feet home run. Bo Jackson returned.

Without special opportunities and the desirable difficulties Bo Jackson endured in his life, he would never became the legendary two-sport athlete he is today. Jackson endured many hardships in his life, but his natural talents, ethics and opportunities allowed him to boost himself into stardom. Gladwell teaches us that special opportunities should be distributed to everyone, so that everyone has the same chances to become successful, like Bo Jackson.

Works Cited:

Flatter, Ron. “Bo Knows Stardom and Disappointment.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures. Web.10 May 2016.

Gilson, Todd. “Psychology of Training Football Players: Improved Performance and Success.” Volume 37 (2015): 6 Pages. Article. 12th April 2016

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Print.

— . David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013. Print

Langergren, Eric. “Bo Jackson.” Great Athletes (Salem Press) (2001): 1166. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.

Miall, Chris. “10,000 hours to perfection” Nature Neuroscience. Volume 16 (2013): 2 pages. Article. 12th April, 2016.

Sherman, Ed. “Saturday Flashback: My Memories of Bo Jackson’s Major League Debut — The Sherman Report.” The Sherman Report. Web. 02 May 2016.

Shondell. “14 Athletes Who Grew Up Without Their Biological Father”. TheSportster. USA Today sports. 31 July, 2015. Article. 28 April 2016.

Stenger, Amber. “Bo’s Hip Dislocates Stellar Athletic Career. (Bo Jackson).” The Physician and Sportsmedicine 19.5 (1991): 17. Web.

You Don’t Know BO: the Legend of Bo Jackson. Michael Bonfiglio. Perf. Bo Jackson, James Andrews. ESPN. 2012. Film


Noah Madsen, a freshmen from Savage, Minn., would like to work as a Physical Therapist at a local hospital or clinic or become an Athletic Trainer for major sports teams. Madsen likes rugby, medium rare steak and sitting lakeside at his cabin in Lake Superior.


Naming the dog is key. Weak verbs are extravagantly lame.

Different is not always bad, but almost beneficial.

Stand out, be your own person.

Where you come from matters. From culture to the parents who raised you.

Nobody is successful without life-changing opportunities. Hard work, talent and opportunities are the ingredients for success.

A single story defines a whole person.

Even little underdogs can rise above the giants around them.

Timing is a factor between success and failure.

Classmates bringing food always seems to brighten the day. Especially with pancakes.

Nobody takes the same route, but it’s possible to reach the same destination.

Money doesn't define success. Success means achieving your goals and providing meaning to your work.

Utilize the God-given talents you have to launch yourself to your goals.

Experience is more meaningful than facts on a page. A story means more than a statistic.

Laugh your mistakes off, learn from it and move to greener pastures.

Be humble.

The silence at 2 a.m. overwhelms my dorm room to the point of it being soothing. The lamp above my head dimly lit the entire room as I hastened my typing for my success paper. My clock haunted me as time ticked closer to my next class at 8 a.m. but I knew I needed to finish this paper on time. Struggling to stay awake, my pace began to slow and mind started to boggle as sleep crept over my shoulder. One sentence away. I furiously typed the last sentence and submitted the success paper on Moodle. I jumped out of my desk chair, closed my laptop and rushed to my lofted bed. Slumber awaited as I grinned knowing the relief from being done with my work.

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