We Saw the ESPN Bo Jackson Documentary and It Ruled
Unfortunately, there's no embeddable video for the trailer. But you can watch it here.
ESPN has been justifiably maligned for filling the airwaves with a lot of garbage, including but not limited to suited men yelling at each other about Tim Tebow for literally hours at a time. But the network's 30 for 30 documentary series is usually the exception that proves the rule. The Bill Simmons-produced films, which take looks at both obscure and well known subjects from all over the sports world, are often very good, and sometimes so good you wonder why the Worldwide Leader doesn't do this stuff all the time. Several are must-watches: every single one they did about SEC football; 9.79*, about Ben Johnson and the 1988 Olympics; and The Two Escobars. But while all the topics have been well-assigned, sometimes the execution has been lacking, resulting in uneven coverage of compelling subjects. Steve Bartman, Wayne Gretzky leaving Edmonton for LA, and the day of the OJ Simpson car chase are all worthy of getting the epic treatment from the best team of assholish but inquisitive journalists and artful cinematographers money can buy, but all of 30 for 30's docs on them are unwatchable.
So it was with mild trepidation that I went into a screening of You Don't Know Bo, the Bo Jackson documentary, which will premiere on ESPN on Saturday. The subject matter—the too-brief career of the athletic avatar of the past century—was so over-the-top that it would be almost impossible to capture. (Jackson, it needs to be repeated, was the only guy to play in baseball and football All-Star games in the same year. He edged out Jim Brown's yard-per-carry numbers in football, and did more than capably at baseball, which is more than any moonlighter should be able to claim. Then he got hurt.) My fears were unfounded: What he did in his short, unearthly career was captured better here than it has been anywhere else.
Jackson’s story is something out of Aesop, but is weirder because it started in Alabama. His early life—he lived in a shotgun house, though his family was never exactly destitute—veers quickly into legend: killing pigs with rocks somehow led him into sports. Every chapter in his life is punctuated with more of what in fiction would be unbelievable. Jackson gets a call from Bear Bryant and the neighbors scramble to touch his phone to be part of history; Jackson gets signed by the Yankees after taking one swing at batting practice; Jackson executes arguably the best play in Auburn football history. Jackson somehow ends up in the pros, which is a story in itself, but by that point he’s already a legend. His more famous pro exploits are covered—Harold Reynolds thrown out, Bryan Bosworth barreled through—and then he gets his shoe deal. By the time we arrive at his injury, his pile of accomplishments has become indecent. It’s sad to have seen his career cut short, but it seems almost inevitable.
The folks who discuss Jackson’s impressive feats are mostly ESPN talking heads and ex-jocks, though there are some baseball scouts thrown in for good measure. Many of them—Boomer Esiason, Howie Long, Chuck Klosterman, Michael Weinreb—discuss sports for a living, so it's not exactly thrilling to see them appear. But outside of Studs Terkel and Buck O’Neil in Ken Burns’s Baseball, no one in sports media has ever seemed as happy doing his job as the guys are here talking about Bo.
Athletes rarely show emotions—guys like Long and Esiason, who are both media commentators now, were masters of the worthless, joyless, "both teams played hard" quote during their on-field careers. But they hold forth here like newlyweds who just bought their first house. Jackson, for his part, is open but matter-of-fact about his accomplishments—considering his gifts, he said, he’d have been a failure if he didn’t succeed in sports—but he allows himself to get a bit bubbly. He's a good storyteller, on top of all of his other talents.
The best-executed part of this movie was that the discussion didn’t veer into how he played, just how well. It's not obsessed with his personality, which is OK: It’s hard to discern a smile through a football helmet, and not even Ted Williams liked facing Major League pitching. Was Bo having fun out there? Who gives a shit? He ran up a goddamned wall! This doesn't need to be deep.
There’s a scene in the middle of the movie where he’s running up the right hash for the Raiders and I think Klosterman is losing his mind at the thought of it, which is intercut with Esiason or someone raising an eyebrow and Jackson saying something flippant about the play. It goes back to the game action, and you can see a kid from the chain crew—one of the dudes who stands on the side of the field and is in charge of moving the first-down markers up and down during the game—standing with his mouth open wide, in an expression of absolute joy. You can see the whites of his eyes. No one ever looks that happy on the job. That it was just another day at the office for Bo makes it that much more incredible.
You Don't Know Bo premieres Saturday on ESPN after the Heisman Trophy presentation at 9 ET.