January 15, 1996 12:00 PM

BO KNOWS THIS RETIREMENT THING isn’t half bad. Perched in a young elm tree whose limbs are dwarfed by the mighty thighs that powered the onetime megastar on dazzling down-field runs, Bo Jackson scans the rural landscape outside Newark, Ill., for rabbits to capture in the sights of his 20-gauge shotgun. Spotting no game for the moment, he ponders not an opposing pitcher but such pressing matters as when to get inspection stickers for the cars and which movie the family will see that evening. “I spent the last 10 years of my life with cameras in my face,” says Jackson, 33, the original two-sport All Star. “After 10 years I have had enough. I like to hang out with the everyday guys.”

Which isn’t to say that the Alabama native hasn’t kept busy since announcing his retirement from professional baseball last April—four years after a brutal hip injury ended his pro football career. In fact, he says with pride, just last month he met a challenge that had gnawed at him ever since 1986, when he quit Auburn University during his senior year to turn pro: He finally earned his college degree and, by so doing, honored a pledge to his mother.

Days before Florence Jackson Bond died of cancer in 1992, Bo gave her his word that he would finish his education. “To make a promise like that to someone you love as much as I love my mom, it’s easy,” says Jackson. Fulfilling it was tougher. “I literally had to beat myself to study,” says Jackson, who earned a bachelor of science in family and child development in December—nine years after his class had graduated. The first of Florence’s 10 children to attend college, Jackson figures his mother would be pleased. Bo’s wife, Linda Garrett Jackson, agrees: “I know she is burning it up in heaven right now, bragging to everyone, saying, ‘Do you see my son?

The graduation was one of the few public high points of Jackson’s last two years. The 1985 Heisman Trophy winner, who had brought fans to their feet time and again with rousing rushes down the field and cometlike shots into the upper deck, proved to be a mere mortal four years ago when a hard tackle near the close of his season with the then-Los Angeles Raiders left him in need of hip replacement surgery. He staged a comeback, returning to baseball for the 1993 season, but the magic that was Bo had been largely spent.

His star lost more of its luster during the strike-shortened baseball season of 1994, the year his multimillion-dollar Nike contract expired and the ubiquitous “Bo knows” ads were shelved for good. Faced with increasingly average stats and eager to see more of his family, he retired last year to a more quiet life in Burr Ridge, a gated community 40 minutes outside Chicago.

There he has been working on a new career: full-time family man to Linda, 39, the college sweetheart whom he describes as the real brains of the family with her Ph.D. in counseling psychology, and their three children, Garrett, 9, Nicholas, 7, and his little girl, Morgan, 5. “You know, I never saw my children eat breakfast before this year,” says Jackson. When he’s not hunting with his buddies, he can often be found in his children’s company, racing go-carts, wrestling or rushing them off to school.

And Jackson the fledgling businessman has been hustling as well. He’s acting in a TV pilot, opening a shop outside Chicago that customizes Harley-Davidsons, watching over his part interest in the Alabama restaurant he owns with Auburn chum and NBA star Charles Barkley and, now, putting his new degree to work for children. As a spokesman for Health-South Corp., a sports medicine and rehabilitation company, Jackson counsels kids everywhere to put books before baseballs.

And who knows what other projects Bo will tackle. “My mind is always going, always spinning,” he says with a smile. “I try to think of something to be the next Bill Gates.” Keep thinking, Bo. You know best.

ROB HOWE

BRYAN ALEXANDER in Burr Ridge and DON SIDER at Auburn

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