Why Bo Chose Baseball

How one scout persuaded one marvel of physicality, Bo Jackson, to turn away from the NFL.

By Jeff Pearlman

Artwork by Kelsey Borch

September 29, 2016

The scout died on the bathroom floor of his room inside a Wichita Fairfield Inn, and while it’s both uncouth and bad form to reflect upon tragedy in such a manner, something about Kenny Gonzales’ departure seems eerily appropriate.

For 15 years, he had been an employee of the Kansas City Royals, roaming the country in his navy blue Chevrolet Caprice, traveling from one Podunk town to another seeking out the next George Brett, the next Bret Saberhagen, the next five-tool wonderkid who threw a baseball 98 mph or turned on a fastball and sent it 500 feet to Neverland.

Gonzales—tall, potbellied, handsome in a nontraditional way—smoked cigarettes and drank Budweiser and ate McDonald’s or Wendy’s or whatever might be available, because that’s what scouts did. They smoked, they drank, they gorged upon greasy food and—in the pursuit of baseball’s next legend—they stayed in places such as the Mount Kisco Holiday Inn and the Shawnee Motel 6 and the Wichita Fairfield Inn.

Although he had a wife and three children back home in Kansas City, the allure of such a vagabond existence tugged at Gonzales. He wasn’t meant to sit behind a desk shuffling papers or lead a team of CPAs on a corporate retreat. “Kenny woke up every morning doing exactly what he wanted to do,” says Denny Gonzales, his older brother. “Most people in this world work to pay the bills, but not Kenny. He was baseball.”

Through the years, Gonzales collected two cherished possessions: prospects and tales. Nothing brought greater joy than kicking back with friends and—over ham, eggs and an endless stream of black coffee—laying forth the riveting sagas of tracking ballplayers. There were fields in the middle of nowhere; fathers who wouldn’t shut up; and overzealous teen girlfriends and coaches who promised the next Mickey Mantle and delivered the next Brian Lesher.

Gonzales had a guffaw that filled auditoriums and an endless supply of material. He was colorful and vivid, and wanted to tell you what it was like—because the stories made it real.

That’s the tragedy of what happened on June 4, 1994, when—having signed a Wichita State pitcher named Jaime Bluma a few hours earlier—Gonzales returned to his motel room, took a final breath and collapsed onto the Fairfield Inn’s ubiquitous white porcelain tile floor.

Yes, a heart attack ended a good man’s life at age 49. But that same heart attack also claimed many of the details of arguably the greatest amateur scouting story of all time.

The story of how, 30 years before Tim Tebow began his quixotic quest to play baseball, Bo Jackson became a ballplayer.


n the late summer days of 1980, a 27-year-old man named Terry Brasseale sat on a chair, inside a high school principal’s office, atop a grassy knoll in a small town near Birmingham, Alabama, and unknowingly gazed out a window and downward at the future.

There was a janitor, you see, and he was carrying a shovel.

“Whoa,” Brasseale said aloud. “Who is that guy?”

The sighting of a member of the school’s custodial staff is not the sexiest way to cue a narrative. But it is, apparently, true. Or at least partially true. Hopefully mostly true. Because, when it comes to the saga of Bo Jackson, one can never be entirely sure. There are exaggerations aplenty and hyperbole galore and a couple of Bigfoot sightings here and there, too. People swear upon the details and inevitably add a “Well, it sorta went like that.” There’s conjecture, supposition, deliberate infusion and home runs that traveled 17 miles before landing in the mouth of a killer whale.

“Turns out,” Brasseale says, “the janitor wasn’t the janitor.”

Of course the janitor wasn’t the janitor. Nelle Salamone, the principal sitting across from Brasseale, made that perfectly clear. The man-child was, she noted, a Donatello-sculpted soon-to-be high school junior whose given name (Vincent Edward Jackson) was as boring as the town (Bessemer, Alabama) he called home.

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As Brasseale watched the non-janitor, toting the shovel for no apparent reason, he couldn’t help but wonder whether God or Jesus or Moses or someone was smiling upon him. A former outfielder at the University of Montevallo, Brasseale was at McAdory High School to interview for the head baseball coach vacancy.

He had spent the four previous years at Corner High in the Birmingham suburb of Dora but sought to move closer to home to care for his father, who'd recently suffered a heart attack and was not doing well. In other words, it wasn’t the ideal circumstance. Hell, it was just about the worst of circumstances. Brasseale didn’t want to be here, begging for a new gig, looking after an ill dad, having to...

“His nickname is Bo,” Salamone told him. “If you get the job, you’ll be coaching him.”

A couple of days later, Brasseale accepted the position. The first baseball practices began in January, and the new coach liked what he saw. At Corner High, he had guided a team of “all white, all slow kids,” but here, on the Yellowjackets roster, was a rainbow coalition of skills. There were kids who ran like the Flash, kids who hit the ball to all fields, kids who could throw legitimate curveballs and fastballs with movement. “But Bo,” says Brasseale. “I mean, I watched Bo throw, hit, move, and I thought, ‘My God…’”

The man-child was, she noted, a Donatello-sculpted soon-to-be high school junior whose given name (Vincent Edward Jackson) was as boring as the town (Bessemer, Alabama) he called home.

That first week, Brasseale did something for the only time in his young career as a coach: He called a scout. But not just any scout. Back when Brasseale was a third baseman and center fielder at Montevallo in the mid-1970s, the Falcons were coached by Bob Reisner, a stern dictator who seemed to take pleasure in the misery of his players.

A balm came in the form of Reisner’s assistant, the young and enthusiastic Kenny Gonzales. “Everyone on that team loved Kenny,” Brasseale says. “The guy in charge was a mean son of a bitch. Kenny was the one you’d talk to about life.”

Now, five years after graduating from college, Brasseale dialed the number of his old coach, who was serving his second year with the Royals. “Kenny, I’m calling to give you a heads-up,” Brasseale said. “I have a kid you need to see before word gets out. His name is Bo Jackson, and he’s the real deal.”

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Bo Jackson at Auburn University, circa 1982-85. (Photo by Collegiate Images, LLC/WireImage)

Gonzales had heard this one, oh, 75,000 times before. There was always a real deal here and a real deal there. Ultimately, the only thing real would be an inability to play baseball. “Look, Terry, I love you to death, but we see kids like that everywhere,” Gonzales said. “You’re at a small school. I promise you your guy is like 1,000 others.”

“Coach,” Brasseale said, “I’m telling you—on my word—that something about this kid is special.”

Gonzales remained skeptical. His job with Kansas City, however, involved patrolling the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Traveling to Bessemer (population: 27,000) was hardly a dream come true, but it wasn’t exactly an inconvenience. On his next journey to Dixie, he pulled up to the high school in his Caprice, lumbered out of the vehicle, shook Brasseale’s hand and said, “OK, where’s this phenomenon?”

He pointed to Bo Jackson.

“Whoa,” Gonzales said.

Yes, whoa. The 17-year-old was a man in a boy’s world. He was 6'1" and 195 pounds, all muscle. He had a 19-inch neck and a 32-inch waist. His forearms looked like lead pipes. His calves and thighs fought to tear through garments sewn for mere mortals.

“Bo hated basketball,” says Brasseale. “But one day, when he thought no one was looking, I saw him pick up a ball under the hoop, turn his back to the basket, just straight up and dunk it—easy. Then he walked off, as if nothing happened.”

He had a 19-inch neck and a 32-inch waist. His forearms looked like lead pipes. His calves and thighs fought to tear through garments sewn for mere mortals.

Gonzales retreated to the bleachers to observe practice. The next 90 minutes were akin to Newton discovering gravity. Or, if that’s a tad overkill, Dean Smith stumbling upon Michael Jordan. Jackson ran like a sprinter and hit baseballs that never landed. Brasseale played the kid at shortstop, and his throws to first were lasers discharged from some sort of nuclear cannon. He wasn’t watching a baseball player. He was beholding a freak of human physicality. When the session ended, Brasseale pulled up alongside Gonzales and asked for his impressions.

“Terry,” he said, “I’ve never seen anyone like that in my life.”


he scout sought out details, and the background narrative was nearly as eye-opening as the performance. Bo Jackson wasn’t merely a kid with some talent. He was the eighth of 10 siblings, raised in impoverished conditions by a single mother named Florence Bond, who worked as a housekeeper at what was then a Ramada Inn in nearby Hoover. Throughout his early childhood, Bo (nicknamed by an older brother who thought his sibling was tougher than a wild boar—and reduced “boar” to its first two letters) was pure trouble.

Without a father figure nearby, the boy specialized in shattering windows, stealing bikes, thugging other children for their money.  “I’d beat up on everybody," he told Ira Berkow of the New York Times. "I’d take their lunch money, and when they said they wouldn’t be able to eat, they asked me for some money back, and I gave it to them. On loan.”

When he was 13, Bo and some friends used to pass a hog pen on their way to a swimming hole. Day after day, they would jump over a fence and—armed with rocks and sticks—beat the animals to death. One afternoon, they approached a hog that, Jackson once wrote, “must have weighed 400, 500 pounds, and he just wouldn’t die.”

Nicknamed by an older brother who thought his sibling was tougher than a wild boar—and reduced “boar” to its first two letters (Bo).

Between 15 and 20 of Jackson’s pals encircled the pig and kicked, punched and swung until the animal collapsed. A man who worked on the farm spotted Bo and reported him to the owner of the property, a minister. His mother learned what happened and was crushed.

“I can’t do a damn thing with this child,” she told the clergy. “If you want to send him to reform school, go ahead.” She proceeded to administer the greatest beating of her son’s life—an extension cord in her right hand, a .38 revolver in her left. “You run, or you try and take this extension cord away from me,” she said, “and I’m gonna bust you in the ass with this pistol.”

The minister possessed more empathy. He told Bo he had to complete the chores around his mother’s house for the entire summer. If he followed the rules, without problems, no charges would be pressed.

Jackson complied and also seemed to wake up. He soon began competing in football, baseball, wrestling and track, and he starred in all four—bigger, stronger, faster, meaner than the competition.

And now, thanks to Brasseale’s heads-up, Gonzales felt as if he were sitting atop the nation’s greatest amateur baseball secret. Art Stewart was the Royals director of scouting, and after leaving the field, Gonzales called him and said, “I just saw the best athlete in America—and he’s a high school junior.”


here was little the Royals could do. Jackson would not be eligible for the draft for another year, and he was also one of the state’s elite talents in football and track. So Gonzales commenced what Stewart still refers to as “one of the most masterful scouting pursuits of all time.”

Instead of badgering Bo Jackson with repeated visits and meetings and sales pitches, he formed a friendship with Florence. Whenever he traveled to Alabama, Gonzales made certain to stay at the Ramada Inn, in a room within the section Bond cleaned. He would treat her to coffee, to lunch, and listen—sans pressure, sans swaying—as she spoke of hard times, weary bones and a lifetime of struggles.

In his recently released autobiography, The Art of Scouting, Stewart says that Gonzales became like a member of the family, but both Jackson and Brasseale insist this is not true. “I actually don’t remember seeing Kenny much at all,” Jackson says. “I barely knew him back then.”

“We had tons of scouts come by all the time,” adds Brasseale. “But rarely Kenny.”

This was neither accident nor oversight. Gonzales had seen enough of Jackson to know he was the legitimate article. He also acknowledged the flaws. Jackson could be standoffish and struggled with a severe stutter that made verbal communication difficult. Conversations with Jackson then were like talking to a slab of concrete.

“I just saw the best athlete in America—and he’s a high school junior.”

- Kenny Gonzales, former Royals scout

He often failed to focus when games were out of reach—the hyper-intensity exhibited during a 2-1 nail-biter vanished when the score was, oh, 9-2. He was a poor listener and absolutely hated practicing. Curveballs gave him the fits. Brasseale played him at shortstop because he needed his skills at the position, but Jackson was stiff-legged and uncomfortable as an infielder.

Gonzales, though, knew these were correctable offenses—and hoped they would serve to turn off other teams. Meanwhile, he kept returning to the mother. Coffee. Chats. Lunch. Coffee. Chats. Lunch. Jackson wrapped his junior year by hitting .450—good enough for his profile to rise.

Midway through his senior season, Gonzales—who was known to err on the side of understatement—filed the first official professional scouting report of Vincent (Bo) Jackson. It was dated March 30, 1982, and under "Abilities" included this:

Has present ML [major league] bat speed. Shown ML power on occ. Has good composure in gut check situations for high school player. Above average runner. Projection is good as CFR [center fielder]. Has strength and can run. Can steal many bases. Makes hard contact and is line drive type hitter.

Gonzales made clear to Stewart that Jackson had the potential to be a future star. But he also learned, via talks with Bond, that the boy planned on attending college the following fall. His report indicated as much: “Will take big bonus to sign. Wants to run track also at Auburn and has goal to run in Olympics. Auburn football coach has slight fear he may lose this kid to pro baseball.” And Gonzales knew before most others that the prized prospect would be signing to attend Auburn University on a full football scholarship, with an understanding that he also be allowed to participate in baseball and track.

Much of that was Florence Bond’s decree—none of her children had ever gone to a university, and she demanded Bo be the first. Gonzales was not happy about this news. He desperately wanted to sign Bo Jackson and had hoped the time with his mother would serve as currency toward the goal.

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An image of a 1985 scouting report of Bo Jackson. Image Credit: Reddit.

“He definitely tried to get her to see the benefits of baseball,” says Stewart. “He did his best to sell her on us. But he also wasn’t a guy who would cross a line. She wanted her son to go to college, and Kenny respected that. We all did.”


his, Stewart says, is where great scouting comes into play. Were Jackson prepared to enter the 1982 draft—were there even an inkling of a chance that he might bypass college for professional baseball—the Royals would have readily used their first-round pick (No. 10 overall) to take the outfielder with unlimited tools (instead, they grabbed Seton Hall’s John Morris—an outfielder with limited tools). But as soon as Florence told Gonzales there was no real shot of her son being swayed, Kansas City removed him from its board.

The New York Yankees, however, did not. Like the majority of other organizations that sent scouts to watch Jackson, the Yankees focused heavily upon the ballplayer and not at all on his mother. One of the team's regional scouts, Jim Gruzdis, raved of Jackson’s potential to Bobby Hoffman, the director of scouting, and on a warm spring day, Hoffman came to Alabama to see for himself.

“Will take big bonus to sign. Wants to run track also at Auburn and has goal to run in Olympics. Auburn football coach has slight fear he may lose this kid to pro baseball.”

- Scouting report for the Royals from Kenny Gonzales

“I had a rule that practice ended at 5 o’clock—no exceptions,” says Brasseale. “Well, [Hoffman] pulls up in his car at 5:05, and he walks onto the field and says, ‘George Steinbrenner sent me here personally. I have to see Bo Jackson hit.’”

“I’m sorry,” Brasseale replied, “but we have a rule here, and once practice ends there’s no…”

Jackson overhead the conversation and interrupted. “Coach, I’ll hit,” he said.

By now, Brasseale had grown to resent the know-it-all scouts arriving at his practices with their know-it-all bits of advice. He understood what they thought of him—small-town hick coach in charge of an accidental brick of gold—and it rubbed him the wrong way. “OK,” he said to Hoffman. “You get two pitches.”

Brasseale and Jackson walked toward the small outdoor cage positioned alongside the field. It was a crudely constructed facility, made from some metal bars and loosely fit netting. The coach’s first pitch was straight down the pipe, and the young slugger hit a bullet into the corner of the mesh. The force of the ball caused the structure to collapse.

“Thank you,” Hoffman said. “I’ve seen enough.”

On June 7, New York used its second-round pick (50th overall) on Jackson—one slot ahead of the Cincinnati Reds taking a high school shortstop named Barry Larkin. A few days later, Brasseale was teaching when he received a call from the Yankees. The team wanted to fly him and Jackson to New York for a game against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. “That sounds great!” he said. “Let me talk to Bo and get back to you.”

When practice ended that afternoon, Brasseale excitedly shared the news with his superstar.

“No,” Jackson said.

“No?” replied the coach.

“I don’t want to go to New York,” Jackson said.

“But it’s Yankees-Red Sox!” said Brasseale. “Yankees-Red Sox!”

He could have been speaking gibberish. Jackson never watched baseball on TV. He couldn’t have named one player on either team, and he didn’t even know they were rivals.

“I called the Yankees to tell them thanks, but we were passing,” Brasseale says, “and they were dumbfounded.”

New York was prepared to offer a $250,000 contract, and it mattered not. “There wasn’t a snowball’s chance I was ready for the Big Apple,” Jackson says. “They talked to my coach, but that was it. We made it clear they made a mistake drafting me. It wasn’t gonna happen.” 

As the years passed, it became a sort of urban myth that Steinbrenner, so livid over the wasted selection, immediately fired Gruzdis. This information (minus Gruzdis’ name) even appeared in Stewart’s autobiography. It is, however, false. “I don’t recall that,” says Gene Michael, the Yankees manager that season. Indeed, not only was Gruzdis retained, but he worked for the organization for several more seasons.


ith that, Bo Jackson was—for the time being—off the baseball scout grid. He relocated 120 miles southeast to Auburn and, over the next three seasons, emerged as not merely the best amateur athlete in America but one of the all-time sports specimens. His accomplishments were the stuff of legend.

In track, Jackson qualified for the NCAA nationals in the 100-meter dash in his freshman and sophomore years. In football, he rushed for 829 yards as a freshman and 1,213 as a sophomore. And in baseball, well, in baseball, he was merely very good. He hit .279 with four home runs and 13 RBI as a freshman. He then skipped his sophomore season to focus on qualifying for the United States Olympic team as a 100-meter sprinter. He fell short and, as a junior, returned to the diamond, batting .401 with 17 home runs, 43 RBI and nine steals. His throws from the outfield were awe-inspiring.

Not merely the best amateur athlete in America but one of the all-time sports specimens. His accomplishments were the stuff of legend.

“I took over Bo’s sophomore year,” says Hal Baird, the Auburn baseball coach. “When I got there, [football coach] Pat Dye told me, ‘Hal, you have the chance to coach the greatest athlete ever.’ I thought he was exaggerating. He wasn’t. Bo was the only person I ever saw who could alter the geometry of a baseball field. The 90 feet, the 60 feet, six inches—those are all baseball measurements wonderfully implemented to test a human’s abilities. But Bo upset those balances. Ninety feet wasn’t far enough for him. Expected home run distances weren’t long enough for him. He would beat out two-hoppers to short; he would make 300-foot throws. There was something to marvel at every single day.”

In other words, mere statistics did not do Jackson justice. Neither did the relative muted hype that accompanied his collegiate baseball games. To the nation, Bo Jackson was a football player—the latest in the Tony Dorsett-Marcus Allen-Herschel Walker line of unstoppable running backs. The majority of his followers knew, with complete certainty, that his future belonged to the NFL, what with its lucrative contracts and unrivaled glory.

Kenny Gonzales, however, refused to fully concede. If he was taking a trip to Alabama, he was almost certainly staying at the Ramada, chatting up Florence, sharing a meal and a cup of coffee. There was nothing fake or untoward about the relationship. Bond knew Gonzales wanted her son to be a Royal. Gonzales knew Bond wanted her son to have a diploma.

On April 18, 1985, late in Jackson’s junior season, Gonzales filed yet another report for the major league club. He (quizzically) compared Auburn’s fleet outfielder to Don Baylor, the Yankees’ lumbering veteran designated hitter. Under "Abilities" Gonzales wrote:

A complete type player with outstanding tools; can simply do it all and didn’t even play baseball last year. A gifted athlete; the best pure athlete in America today.

Then, under "Makeup Evaluation and Player Summation":

Good kid; quiet and not an outgoing type. A pleasure to watch this kid play this game with not much playing time. I have gotten to know his mother very well and these are good people; they are a very close family and will remain so. Forget about him in 1985 but there is hope for 1986. Can win the Heisman Trophy next year and Auburn has changed their offense to the I formation so he can run the ball 40 times a game next fall.

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Image Credit: Reddit.

With Gonzales’ guidance, the Royals used none of their 21 selections in the 1985 draft on Jackson. The Angels, however, took a different approach. Like Kansas City, California fell in love with his raw talent, and while Mike Port, the team’s general manager, knew Bo to the Angels was a long shot, the franchise faced a similar situation three years earlier, when it used a fourth-round pick in the 1982 draft to grab a college hockey/baseball player from the University of Vermont named Kirk McCaskill.

Many thought the organization unwise to waste a high selection on a Canadian kid with an NHL future—until McCaskill not only signed with the Angels but went on to win 106 career games as a right-handed starting pitcher.

“We got the idea that Bo might consider baseball under the right circumstance,” says Port. “We were under the impression he was undecided.” Hence, with the 511th pick in the 20th round, the Angels gave it a go. “You can’t use a first-round selection and do that,” says Larry Himes, the Angels scouting director at the time. “But 20th? Why not?”

Much like New York three years earlier, the Angels didn’t understand Bo Jackson. They floated a $300,000 offer that he considered for approximately one-hundredth of a second. “I’d completed three years of college, and I wanted one more with my football teammates,” he says. “Plus, there was a 45-50-pound piece of bronze I had my eye on.”

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1984 Sugar Bowl (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)


ndeed, by the summer of 1985, Jackson was determined to win the Heisman Trophy as a college senior. His junior football year had been a colossal disappointment, as a shoulder injury limited him to 475 yards on a mere 87 attempts, and he hated the unfamiliar taste of unfulfilled expectations. That’s why, in the fall of 1985, Jackson ran with an unbridled anger, stomping over opponents to the tune of 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was gifted the Heisman in the closest vote in award history, beating Iowa quarterback Chuck Long by 45 points.

Even with a baseball season looming, it was, as had long been the case, widely presumed that Jackson was destined for the NFL. Sure, he would spend the spring on the diamond, because that’s what Bo Jackson did. But it was a mere formality. Let the kid take his last at-bats and then get ready for a decade of gridiron dominance. “Even I probably figured he was going to play football,” says Baird. “It was all sort of neatly laid out for him.”

The baseball season did not begin well. Through 21 games, Jackson hit .261 with seven home runs and 14 RBI. If he was distracted, it was more than understandable. Having finished 2-14 in 1985, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held the first pick in the upcoming NFL draft, and it was no secret whom they planned on selecting. Jackson, however, had his doubts about the Bucs.

First, the franchise had an awful reputation. Second, the offensive line was abysmal. Third, the team already boasted a marquee running back named James Wilder. Fourth, within the football world, Hugh Culverhouse, the franchise’s owner, was viewed as cheap and inept. “We were a mess,” says Jimmy Raye, the Tampa offensive coordinator. “A complete mess.”

In the fall of 1985, Jackson ran with an unbridled anger, stomping over opponents to the tune of 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was gifted the Heisman in the closest vote in award history.

That being said, Jackson tried to remain open-minded. On March 21, the Buccaneers sent Culverhouse’s private jet to Alabama to pick up Jackson and bring him to Florida for a physical examination. The trip, Tampa officials promised, had been cleared by the NCAA. “I spent one-and-a-half days there, and it was fine,” Jackson says. “I didn’t feel bad about the Buccaneers during that time. They treated me well.”

On the day of Jackson’s return to campus, Auburn’s baseball team was hosting the University of Alabama-Birmingham at Samford Stadium. “Bo was never late, but he wasn’t there for our early work,” says Baird. “I asked a player where he was, and he said, ‘Down in Tampa taking a physical for the Buccaneers.’” Uh-oh.

When Jackson finally arrived, Baird asked him for the specifics and cringed as his outfielder provided details of his journey—flying on a private jet, staying in a hotel, eating on the Buccaneers’ dime. This was not good.

Baird held Jackson out of the evening’s contest and called Dye, also Auburn’s athletic director, the following morning. The SEC was America’s only Division I conference in which an athlete couldn’t professionalize in one sport while remaining amateur in another. Tampa Bay, according to Buccaneer employees at the time, had in fact spoken with someone inside the SEC offices—but not a decision-maker. In other words, Jackson’s trip had been cleared by a person unauthorized to clear his trip.

Dye called the conference to protest, but Harvey Schiller, the new SEC commissioner, was unmoved. “I was standing next to him, and Coach Dye addressed the commissioner in a way I only heard in the Army,” says Baird. “But it was too late. The decision had been made.”


ackson’s collegiate athletic career was over—and he was livid. Not at Auburn, not at the SEC, not at himself. No, Bo Jackson was livid at the Buccaneers and still has never fully forgiven the organization. “I’ve always been convinced they knew what would happen,” he says. “They flew me in, and it ended my college baseball career. That was crushing.”

Even though Jackson has long maintained the violation ended any chances of playing for Tampa Bay, several weeks later, he returned to the city to meet with Buccaneers players and officials. If the first trip was an alarming whistle, this was a fire alarm. According to Jackson, a handful of veterans, including linebackers Scot Brantley and Jeff Davis, took him fishing, and he was warned to stay far away.

“There was nowhere worse to play,” says Ivory Sully, a veteran defensive back. “Nowhere. Everything Culverhouse did was on the cheap. They put us up in a motel that was worse than a Motel 6. They fed us terrible food. They just didn’t care about winning.”

“It was third-rate,” says Raye, the offensive coordinator. “They didn’t want to pay anyone their worth, even if it meant losing a lot of games.”

Shortly after again returning from Tampa Bay, Jackson took two unique steps. First, having received three underwhelming contract proposals from the Buccaneers, he told his new agents—Richard Woods and Tommy Zieman—that he would never play for the organization. “Unless [Culverhouse] trades me,” he said, “I’m not going to play football.”

“I’ve always been convinced they knew what would happen. They flew me in, and it ended my college baseball career. That was crushing.”

- Bo Jackson

Second, Jackson asked Baird whether he thought baseball could be a sound professional option. The coach was pleasantly surprised. “All you have to do is commit yourself,” he said, “and you can do it.”

The majority of major league scouts had given up on Jackson after he turned down the Angels for another season of football. Gonzales was not one of them. On April 15, 1986, he filed his third and final scouting report on Bo Jackson. It was, by far, the most confusing take on Auburn’s banished outfielder.

On the one hand, Gonzales praised his “outstanding type body” and referred to him as a “franchise type player” who “can do it all; a complete type player.” He continued:

Greatest pure athlete in America today. Can run, throw, and hit with power to all fields. Has outstanding baseball tools to go with outstanding athletic body and abilities.

But there were warnings. Jackson, Gonzales wrote, had wonderful tools, but “his head and heart [to play the game] is what’s hard to grade.” His conclusion:

A scout’s dream sign but give me the kid with the big heart and desire to play this game with less tools. In my opinion he is just too big a gamble to take for the first round.

Two weeks later, the Buccaneers opened the NFL draft by using the first pick on Bo Jackson, running back, Auburn. Despite all the warnings, most experts presumed the two sides would reach an agreement. The Bucs, after all, were offering a five-year, $7.6 million contract. And even though some of the dough needed to be earned via incentives, it was still an enormous deal.

Then, a lightning bolt.

In one of their many chitchats, Florence Bond told Kenny Gonzales that her son would never, ever be a Buccaneer and was dead serious about baseball. It wasn’t merely the football team’s awfulness, either. Jackson loved the challenge of connecting bat to ball, as well as the idea of not suffering the endless physical beatings to come with professional football. He also seemed to take a unique pleasure in proving people wrong.


he Major League Baseball draft was scheduled for June 2. Two days earlier, John Schuerholz, the Kansas City general manager, received a call from Woods. “Bo would like to visit Kansas City,” the agent said. “He’d like to see the players, see the stadium. But he doesn’t want to work out.”

Schuerholz wasn’t buying it. He suspected Jackson and his agents were merely using the Royals as a negotiating tool against the NFL, and asked Stewart for his opinion. He contacted Gonzales, who assured the director of scouting that Bo Jackson had genuine interest in the major leagues. “John,” Stewart told Schuerholz, “all I can tell you is Kenny Gonzales has spent seven years on Bo Jackson, and he knows him and his family better than anyone. We have to believe in Kenny.”

That Saturday afternoon, Jackson and Woods arrived at Royals Stadium and sat down with Schuerholz, Stewart and Gonzales. The general manager wasted no time. “Bo,” he said, “do you really want to play baseball?”

Jackson was young and green and raw but haltingly sincere and steadfast. “Mr. Schuerholz,” he replied, “that’s why I’m here.”

“OK, OK,” Schuerholz said. Then, nodding toward Stewart and Gonzales, he said, “Why don’t you two take Bo down to meet some of the guys.”

Jackson entered the Kansas City clubhouse, which featured a who’s who of baseball royalty. The Royals were the defending World Series champions—and with good reason. Bret Saberhagen, the ace, was the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner. Dan Quisenberry led the league in saves a record five times. Hal McRae was a three-time All-Star, Frank White a five-time All-Star.

All, however, paled in comparison to George Brett, an iconic superstar and one of the greatest players in the sport’s history. The Royals third baseman greeted Jackson warmly and took time to chat with him about the team. When it was time to leave, Stewart guided the youngster toward the exit when Brett yelled out, “Hey, Bo, good luck in football!”

Jackson whirled around and stormed toward Brett. “Oh my God!” Gonzales yelled—convinced a fight was about to break out. “Bo, don’t…”

He didn’t. Jackson smiled widely, looked Brett in the eyes and said, “George, don’t you bet on it!”

Brett stood, speechless.

Early that Monday morning, Schuerholz barged into Stewart’s office. The draft was to begin in an hour. “Art, Richard Woods called me a few minutes ago,” he said. “He said if Bo plays baseball, he wants it to be for the Kansas City Royals.”

This wasn’t a declaration or a command. Nobody was entirely sure what to do. From a pure talent perspective, Jackson wasn’t simply the top-rated player on Kansas City’s board. He was the highest-graded entry in the draft. But...so what? How is a prospect useful if he doesn’t intend on playing your sport? Was Jackson the future of baseball or an embarrassment waiting to happen? Was Gonzales 100 percent certain he wanted a major league future? Or was there some doubt? A sliver, perhaps?

“The draft is about to begin in a half hour,” Stewart says. “John says to me, ‘Art, you’re the scouting director. I’m leaving this up to you.’”

How is a prospect useful if he doesn’t intend on playing your sport? Was Jackson the future of baseball or an embarrassment waiting to happen?

With the first selection, the Pittsburgh Pirates took Jeff King, an infielder from the University of Arkansas. With the second pick, the Cleveland Indians grabbed Greg Swindell, a pitcher out of the University of Texas. Kansas City held the 24th slot. Names rolled off the board—Kevin Brown to the Rangers, Gary Sheffield to the Brewers, Lee Stevens to the Angels. With the 23rd notch, St. Louis added a second baseman named Luis Alicea. Now, at long last, Kansas City was up.

“I’m in our conference room,” says Stewart. “I have cross-checkers there, special advisers there. I wanted to take Bo. I did. But I was having these second thoughts. Maybe he’d be a superstar. But if he doesn’t sign, we’re all looking for new jobs. There was a lot of pressure.”

When he finally called in the pick to New York, Stewart went not with Jackson but with Tony Clements, a good-field, so-so-hit shortstop from Chino, California, who would never reach the majors.

Thanks to Gonzales’ intel, Stewart knew most of the other teams presumed the Heisman Trophy winner was heading for the NFL. But the Angels scared him. California possessed five picks in the first round and had recently flown Jackson to Anaheim for a meet-and-greet. Among those present that day was Reggie Jackson, the Angels’ cocky slugger and a man Bo Jackson could not have selected from a lineup had he been wearing a "Hello, My Name Is Reggie" nametag. Reggie introduced himself by saying, “You can play football and be the next Jim Brown, or you can play baseball and be the next Reggie Jackson.”

The line went over like expired chicken salad. “I thought maybe he was trying to be funny,” Bo Jackson wrote years later. “He wasn’t.”

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Bo Jackson played for the Kansas City Royals from 1986-1990. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)


ike the other franchises, California passed on Jackson, then passed again and again and again and again. Sensing the mass trepidation, Stewart held off, too. Finally the fourth round arrived. No. 4 was the scouting director’s lucky number. He wore the digit during his amateur playing days. In 1970, during his first draft with the Royals, he used a fourth-round pick to take Tom Poquette, an outfielder who enjoyed a solid big league career.

“I’m not overly superstitious,” Stewart says. “But I always felt good about four, and now I was thinking, ‘We can get one of the greatest athletes who ever lived, with a super-high ceiling, and even if he never plays for us, the fourth round isn’t a ridiculous risk.’”

The decision was made. Stewart dialed the number for the major league draft headquarters and said, with quiet confidence, “The Kansas City Royals select Vincent Edward (Bo) Jackson from Auburn University.”

“There was silence at the other end,” he says. “It was a moment.”

Three weeks later, on June 21, 1986, Jackson returned to Royals Stadium to meet with reporters and announce his new post-collegiate profession. He held up a white Kansas City jersey, wore a blue KC cap and smiled like a man whose future was secure. His contract ($1 million over three years) wouldn’t touch the Tampa money, but Jackson couldn't care less.

“You can play football and be the next Jim Brown, or you can play baseball and be the next Reggie Jackson.”

- Reggie Jackson

“I went with what is in my heart,” he said. “My first love is baseball, and it has always been a dream of mine to be a major league player.”

Standing to the side, beaming from ear to ear, Florence Bond could not contain her euphoria. After all those years of struggle, her family was, at long last, on the rise. She listened intently to her son’s words, and when the press conference ended, she found the one man in the room who stuck with her through highs and lows, hope and helplessness, faith and fatigue.

“Kenny!” she screamed—and hugged the most loyal customer the Hoover Ramada Inn had ever known.

The two embraced for what felt like days, and both knew Bo Jackson had made the right choice.

Professional sports was about to welcome a revolutionary athlete. One year later, Jackson would officially sign as a part-time running back with the Los Angeles Raiders, citing his desire to pick up an extra "hobby." But he was always, first and foremost, a baseball player.

“And it all came down to one thing,” says Stewart, now 89. “The patience and skill of a great scout.”  ◼

Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the New York Times best-selling author of seven books. His latest, Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre, will be released on Oct. 25.

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