It probably should not come as a surprise that the documentary on Bo Jackson, which debuted Saturday, is the highest-rated film yet in ESPN’s superb “30 for 30” series, earning a 2.3 rating in major markets. “You Don’t Know Bo” was a perfect marriage and near-perfect execution of subject and format. I’m not sure which I’ve looked forward to more this week — that film, or Monday’s Patriots-Texans game. Both had the anticipatory vibe of major events.
The “30 for 30” series, originally conceived by Bill Simmons as a way for ESPN to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2009 by celebrating stories, moments, and personalities that shaped the sports landscape along the way, is an extraordinary ongoing success and now includes more than 50 films under its own or the “ESPN Presents” umbrella.
My personal rating of “You Don’t Know Bo,” which was directed by Michael Bonfiglio, among “30 for 30” films more or less corresponds with the Nielsen ratings. My four previous favorites are “The Best That Never Was” (directed by Jonathan Hock, on former Oklahoma running back Marcus Dupree), “The Two Escobars” (Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist), “Into the Wind” (directed by Steve Nash and Ezra Holland, on Terry Fox) and “The Announcement” (Nelson George). Bo makes five. Organize them any way you see fit.
You almost wonder why Bo, whose did-he-really-just-do-that? athletic feats as an outfielder for the Kansas City Royals and as a running back/hobbyist for the Los Angeles Raiders made him a legend in his own, unfortunately abbreviated, time, wasn’t a topic sooner. He’s one of the first names I thought of when the project was announced. His 50th birthday was last week — yeah, it was that long ago — so this is as appropriate a time as any to pay proper homage.
Of course, you knew the legend of Bo. At least, I hope you did, and Saturday’s film served as an entertaining, damn-they-got-this-right reminder rather than an introduction. He was an understated, matter-of-fact but engaging interview, clearly proud of his accomplishments but not defined by them. We were awed, but his shrug-and-a-smile tenor suggests that’s who he always was, and thus expected to be.
I supposed I had some minor — well, they aren’t even big enough to be gripes. Call them observations of a trained nitpicker. I would have liked to have heard from football/baseball combo athletes who attempted the same crossover move, such as Brian Jordan or Deion Sanders, and yes, that’s the only time I’ll ever say I want to hear from Deion Sanders. Mark Gubicza and Marcellus Wiley were perhaps too prominent at the expense of more anecdotal voices, and there was redundancy in some talking heads’ praise of his physical talent. Perhaps some more former teammates (though George Brett, who admitted he put off going to the bathroom to watch Bo hit, was tremendous) or a contemporary running back who marveled at Bo like the rest of us could have added more nuance.
And I disagree that he was a mythical figure in part because of a smaller media universe — there was “SportsCenter” to provide every amazing highlight no matter the season. The difference is that there was no Skip and Stephen A. to boil up some fake outrage the next morning. We saw what we needed and wanted to see with Bo — the public trampling of Brian Bosworth on “Monday Night Football,” the home run off Rick Reuschel in the ’89 All-Star game — without all of the ancillary noise.
But as I get older and farther away from Bo’s late-’80s and early-’90s heyday as a sports and cultural icon, I’ve sometimes wondered whether the generations of sports fans that followed thought we were doing the “back in my day …” old guy’s routine, that he couldn’t have been the impossibly superheroic meteor we fans of a certain age reminisce about. You had to see Gale Sayers or Tony C. yourself, like your dad or granddad did, you know?
But he’s one athlete whose highlights render hyperbole ineffective, and whether it was a former coach pointing out where he hit a home run that may or may not have ever landed, or footage of him running full speed up a wall while wearing spikes or leaving the Seattle Seahawks defense in his vapors, it was pleasant reaffirmation that Bo Jackson still resonates. Perhaps best of all is the coda at the end, when he hangs out in what he calls his man cave — middle-aged Bo isn’t above middle-aged-man jargon — while carving arrows after growing bored watching football with his wife. There is no discernible regret that it ended so fast, no lament to be found. And you realize that Bo always knew and stayed true to the real Bo, even when the rest of us were reveling in the whirlwind.