The Enduring Legend of Bo Jackson: ’30 for 30: You Don’t Know Bo’

“What you’re left with are a few fleeting images.” As Mike Greenberg speaks, he image cuts to Bo Jackson, fleeting. He runs up the wall in the outfield during a game on July 11, 1990, against the Orioles. The images is astonishing, one of a number of astonishing images assembled for You Don’t Know Bo, Michael Bonfiglio’s documentary about this most extraordinary ballplayer.

Whether you’ve seen these images before or this is the first time, you can’t help but be astonished when Jackson breaks a bat over his head, or when, standing way out on the warning track in right field, he throws out Harold Reynolds at home plate, or when he runs for 91 yards past every defender on the football field and then off, so deep into his run that he continues into the tunnel on Monday Night Football.

As fleeting as these moments may be, they are also preserved. Old and grainy and haunting too, they’re testaments not only to Jackson’s individual legend, but also to the broader historical shift he represented. And so, the film does two things. First it makes a basic argument you’ve heard before, that Jackson was an amazing athlete. As familiar as that argument may be, as Jackson’s friends and coaches and journalists try to make that argument, you see how difficult it is to articulate. “Bo was just better than everybody else,” offers one observer. His football coach, Auburn’s Pat Dye, calls him “a difference maker” and Hal Baird, his Auburn baseball coach, remembers, “He did something every day that you had never seen before.” And Auburn athletic director David Housel tries to sum up: “That’s why Bo is important, because he offers us the hope and the example of being something more than we alone think that we might be.”

They’re all right, and they’re all unable to say exactly what was so brilliant about Bo Jackson. This is the second, less explicit and very smart argument the film makes, that Jackson’s extraordinary status is a function of recordings, fleeting images made permanent. “All we saw,” says Bomani Jones, “was a man doing things that we had no idea were humanly possible.” And what “we saw” (and still see now) is on film (much courtesy of the wonderful NFL Films) and in TV footage. That these things remain beyond words, even today, indicates the paradox Bo Jackson made visible, the simultaneous limitation and transcendence of human physicality — in his case a prodigious physicality. That he did this at a time when cameras might capture what he did on playing fields might be described as our own great good fortune. The “few fleeting images,” edited into a montage at the film’s start and accompanied by a stark and thrilling percussive soundtrack, allow us to see, again and again, what made Bo Jackson Bo Jackson.

And so the film is both about Bo Jackson, about his legend and his effects, but it is also, less explicitly, about film per se, its part in preserving these fleeting images. That’s not to say that a film titled You Don’t Know Bo leaves all its storytelling to these images. As Chuck Klosterman has it, “He was one of the last athletes who the information about him was anecdotal, that you wouldn’t necessarily see the things you heard about them, but there was this legendary kind of like Paul Bunyan thing description around him.” To illustrate what you can’t necessarily see, You Don’t Know Bo features stories for which there are no (recorded) images, interviewees who say what they’ve heard or what they think they saw, sometimes translated into animated images to help the rest of us gasp and wonder: Baird insists he saw him jump over a Volkswagen, Klosterman recalls hearing the story about Jackson dunking a stick: “It seemed real… it was so strange, why would somebody make it up?”

Jackson himself calls up some childhood memories, when he was bullied and fought back, when he engaged in crabapple fights in Bessemer, Alabama. When he was later commended for his arm strength, he explains that he came by it through years of practice: “I’ve been doing this since I was eight nine years old.” This is the kind of story that suits a legend: he stuttered as a child, he grew up without a father, his prodigious skills were “natural.” He won the Heisman Trophy in 1985. While playing for the Kansas City Royals (1986-1990) and the Oakland Raiders (1987-1990), he was the first athlete to be named an All Star in two sports.

Even as the film celebrates Jackson’s exploits in professional baseball and football, it also points to another sort of achievement, specifically, his Nike campaign, “Bo Knows”. These ads had him engaged in any number of sports, from luge to tennis to golf. The ads offer still more “fleeting images”, fantasies conjured to sell shoes but also to acknowledge Jackson’s extraordinary skills in multiple fields, his remarkable coordination and vision, his power and his enthusiasm. He really could run over Brian Bosworth and he could leap to catch impossible-to-catch fly balls. The magic and the adoring joke of the ads, what makes them so memorable even today, was the promise of Bo Jackson, his splendor and possibility.

That such possibility was cut short by Jackson’s dislocated hip, an injury sustained during the 1990 playoffs against the Cincinnati Bengals. His football career ended here, though he played baseball again, with the White Sox and later, the California Angels. “My recollection,” says Greenberg, was that he was a shell of what he had been.” The phrasing here is intriguing in its own way. While Jackson’s performances were now uneven — he could still hit balls out of stadiums, but his fielding was less spectacular than before — the focus for those who watch him remains their own versions of what they see, their own fleeting images, whether recorded or not.

And this, for all of Bo Jackson’s own extraordinary feats, the numbers of yards he ran and threw, is a crucial component of his legacy. That legacy is what people saw and what they heard, what they might still see in these filmed images that are, after all, gifts in their own way. His legacy is what people remember.

RATING 8 / 10