Los Angeles — Many young men have the ability to make a good living playing professional football, and a few have the ability to perform as though born to the game. Rookie running back Bo Jackson of the Los Angeles Raiders is one of the latter. His flair for generating unbridled excitement in the open field, on the end of a pass completion, or even in heavy traffic makes him special.
In only his fifth National Football League appearance, Jackson shredded Seattle's defense Monday night during a 37-14 Raider victory. The former Heisman Trophy winner scored two touchdowns on the ground (one covering 91 yards), caught a pass for another, and on just 18 carries gained 221 yards - a one-game figure exceeded by only seven other backs in the entire history of the league.
It was quite a show - especially for a guy who played an entire baseball season, missed the first six games of the NFL campaign, and still says football is just a hobby. Who does this 6 ft. 1 in., 230 lb. macho man think he is, anyway?
Bo had some big days as a rookie outfielder for the Kansas City Royals last summer, too, belting 21 home runs, including several tape-measure jobs. He batted only .235, however, and struck out 154 times.
As for the future, Raiders owner Al Davis has to hope that Jackson never learns to hit the curveball and/or gets fed up with all the traveling that comes with playing baseball from March until October. He might want to remind Bo about free-swinging Dave Kingman, the gypsy slugger who played for seven major league teams, including the Mets twice, before retiring this year.
For the present, though, Jackson is technically a part-time football player - one whose contract binds him to baseball until the end of the regular season, and beyond if the Royals make the playoffs.
Among players who make football their sole athletic livelihood, there may be some resentment toward Bo, who received a $500,000 reporting bonus this year, and will get another bonus if he returns next season. From an acceptance standpoint, it helps to sweat through two-a-day summer practices and spend hours studying game films.
But whether Jackson's teammates feel he has paid his dues is no longer important. They are not economic fools. They realize they have found a guy who is right out of the pages of a paperback football novel, who can run inside or outside, catch passes, and - wonder of wonders - doesn't seem to mind blocking for Marcus Allen.
If there is a Super Bowl somewhere in Jackson's future, the other Raiders are even now reserving space on his coattails.
Jackson has never been one to go with the flow. He was drafted right out of high school by New York Yankees, turned down a six-figure, multi-year contract, and went to Auburn on a football scholarship. There he gained a total of 4,303 yards, besides hitting over .400 for the baseball team. Later he was drafted by the California Angels.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers originally owned the NFL rights to Jackson. Bo, however, somehow convinced that organization that he would never play pro football and signed instead with the Royals. But it wasn't your usual baseball contract because it included a buy-out clause in case Jackson ever decided to try something else.
Kansas City scout Ken Gonzales once called Bo ``the best pure athlete in America,'' citing his world-class speed, powerful arms, quick bat, and ability to learn things overnight. This latter trait presumably included learning to hit a major league curveball in 10 easy lessons.
Most baseball scouts will tell you, however, that this skill can't be taught - that it is a natural gift that can be improved with practice but not duplicated simply by spending countless hours in a batting cage.
Jackson isn't the first athlete to try making a living in two highly competitive professional sports.
The legendary Jim Thorpe tried both pro football and major league baseball, but never mastered hitting a curveball.
Gene Conley pitched for several major league teams, and on two different occasions was the backup center for the Boston Celtics. Dave DeBusschere pitched for the Chicago White Sox and was an all-star forward for many years with the New York Knicks.
There have been a handful of other two-sport stars, and many observers felt that baseball star Jackie Robinson could have played pro football with outstanding success, or even made it in pro basketball.
Jackson, whose dealings with the press are usually on his own terms, has frequently said that if he gives up anything down the road, it will be professional football. To me that's a lot like assuming that Sylvester Stallone will stop making Rambo movies!