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Running from a Troubled Childhood, Bo Jackson Rushes Toward the Heisman and-Just Maybe-NFL Glory

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All season long, from the first pregame coin flip to the last postgame handshake, Auburn University’s Bo Jackson has been toting around a formidable burden: the front-runner’s role in the race for this year’s Heisman Trophy, to be awarded Dec. 7 in New York. Characteristically, Jackson has borne the load lightly. And if sportswriter types like to wonder whether his extravagant talents are greater in football or baseball, Jackson has no desire to discourage them. “I may play professional football,” says the 6’1″, 222-pound running back, “or I may play professional baseball.” Then he adds with a wicked grin, “Or I may chuck ’em both and go fishin’.”

That, of course, is just a bit of gamesmanship on the part of a consummate gamesman. At 22, Jackson is one of the finest prospects ever in either sport but less than solid gold as a fly caster. Scouts say that whichever choice he makes, a hall of fame beckons. All Bo has to do is decide whether he’s headed toward the outfield or the backfield—Cooperstown, N.Y. or Canton, Ohio.

As Auburn’s center fielder, he’s got it all: great glove, blinding speed, thundering bat—enough to move admirers to sacrilege. “He’s got as much talent as Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays,” says Dick Egan, formerly a national scout for the Major League Scouting Bureau. As Auburn’s fullback, Jackson has been compared to stars otherwise immune to comparison. “Maybe he’s the best ever,” says Bobby Beathard, general manager of the NFL’s Washington Redskins. “He’s like O.J. Simpson. Only bigger and stronger. Gosh….”

Against the Georgia Bulldogs last week, it was easy to see why Jackson makes even jaundiced scouts drool. Still recovering from a thigh injury, he rushed for 121 yards in 19 carries, including an electrifying 67-yard touchdown run in which Bo, trapped at the line of scrimmage, broke free from a pack of snarling Dawgs, reversed his field and streaked into the end zone.

It was hardly the first time Jackson had squirmed out of trouble. He was born the eighth of 10 children to Florence Bond, who worked as a maid at a Ramada Inn near Bo’s hometown of Bessemer, Ala. and never married his father, a steelworker. She and the kids lived in a small three-room house until Jackson was 8, and trouble was his constant companion. “You name it, I did it,” he says. “Breaking windows, beating up kids, stealing bikes. And rock throwing—that’s what I was known for. I had one guy I hit in the head two or three times a week. I was,” adds Bo, stating the obvious, “a bully.” Vincent Edward was his given name; his pigheaded orneriness earned him his nickname. “My older brother and cousins said I was tough like a wild boar,” says Bo. “After a while, they cut it short and called me Bo.”

When Bo was 14, it was a pig that nearly put him in the pokey. On the way to a swimming hole one summer day, he and some friends came across a Baptist minister’s hog pen. “We stopped and threw some rocks,” recalls Bo. “One rock just lead to another.” Before long $3,000 worth of pigs were dead. “My mom told the minister, ‘If you want to send him to reform school, go ‘head. I just can’t do a damn thing with him.’ I guess that’s when I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna have to straighten up.’ ”

Hewing to the straight and narrow, Jackson and his friends paid the minister back his $3,000 and took up baseball, football and track at McAdory High in McCalla. “It left me too tired to run with my old friends,” he says, “plus I made new friends that didn’t get into trouble.”

Moving on to Auburn, Jackson overcame a stammer that had led some people to think him slow-witted. In fact his wits may be as quick as his feet, and he never forgets where he came from. A family and child-development major at Auburn, with a 2.3 grade point average, he says he loves kids, and the claim seems legitimate. “They need someone to teach them right from wrong,” he says. And Jackson, with his extensive experience of wrong, often volunteers. “Bo is sincere,” says Janice Grover, a teacher at Auburn’s Child Study Center. “He has a real concern for children as people. He makes it a point to get down to their eye level to talk to them.” Equally telling: “Bo is the one who volunteers to sweep the floor after all the kids are gone.”

Contemplating his future, Jackson becomes positively playful, as well he might. Sweeping up is not one of his options. “Right now I’m leaning toward football,” he says. “Come spring,” he quips, “I’ll be leaning toward baseball.” It’s the old option play. Jackson knows that his bargaining power in either sport is increased by the possibility that he might play the other. How will he finally decide between the two? “I’ll get 10 pieces of paper, write football or baseball on ’em and throw ’em in a hat,” he says with a laugh. In other words Bo Jackson is going to hold his own draft; then he will harken to the rustle of fluttering checkbooks. His prospects, in a word, are Bo-dacious.