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Author Jeff Pearlman says Bo Jackson is the greatest athlete who's ever lived

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

If I try to explain Bo Jackson to you right now, I'd end up making him sound like a superhero. Bo didn't just play in the NFL and Major League Baseball at the same time. He was also an All-Star in baseball in 1989 and then an All-Pro in football in 1990. That's the only time that's ever been done. I mean, it's been more than 30 years, and I still cannot wrap my head around that. Bo Jackson once chased down a fly ball, and he couldn't stop himself before running into the outfield wall. So he just ran up the wall, like all the way up.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: Yo, got to love that wall. Get up that wall. Spiderman.

MARTINEZ: On the football field, Bo could punish you with his 6'1" 230-pound frame. But he preferred to humiliate opponents with his unparalleled speed.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: He had the angle, but there goes Bo. And nobody catches Bo. Touchdown.

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #3: And it's like little kids chasing a grown man.

MARTINEZ: Everyone who saw him play, from his childhood friends in Alabama to his pro teammates - everyone has mythic stories to tell of Bo Jackson.

JEFF PEARLMAN: To me, he's the greatest athlete who's ever lived.

MARTINEZ: That is high praise coming from Jeff Pearlman, a guy who's written books about the 1980s L.A. Lakers and the 1990s Dallas Cowboys. Pearlman's latest is "The Last Folk Hero: The Life And Myth Of Bo Jackson."

PEARLMAN: There's a game in high school - and someone told me this early on - where he hit a baseball so high that by the time it came down, he was rounding third base. And I was like, OK, come on, that's utterly preposterous. That's never happened. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So I start researching the game, and I tracked down a kid named Eddie Scott - he's not a kid anymore - who was playing left field. And he's like, man, I'm telling you, it's true. He's like, I was playing in the outfield. The ball was hit so high, I lost the ball. It comes down. It lands. I pick it up off the grass, look up, and Bo Jackson is at third base. So, you know, it's possible Eddie Scott is lying, and the pitcher of that game was lying, and different people are lying. But there's just a lot of mythology that actually weirdly checks out with the man. I've never seen anything like it.

MARTINEZ: I'm wondering, though, for you, Jeff - you're a journalist. You're listening to these stories, and I'm sure you want to try and confirm as many of them as possible. But does it come to a point with someone like Bo Jackson that it's almost more fun not to?

PEARLMAN: Yeah. Wait, so I open the book with a flight. He was on a plane with the Chicago White Sox. They were returning from California. And the engine catches on fire. And players start freaking out. A bunch of the White Sox told me that all of a sudden, the cockpit door opens - out comes Bo Jackson. And he'd been sitting with the pilots, and he says, guys, everyone, we're going to be OK. They've got it under control. Everyone buckle up. We'll be good. And he said it was the most heroic thing they've ever seen. Then I talked to some different players who told me, no, no, no, you got that wrong. Bo actually was walking toward the cockpit. Once the plane was on fire, he got out of his seat and walked up to the cockpit to help the pilots land the plane. And I think maybe both are true. It's Bo Jackson, so maybe both are true. It's OK that there are these two stories about Bo Jackson.

MARTINEZ: I can believe that. I can believe - actually - and I can believe that he might have walked out on the wing and put out the fire himself...

PEARLMAN: Yeah, exactly.

MARTINEZ: ...On the plane. I would have believed that, too.

PEARLMAN: While knitting.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

PEARLMAN: While knitting socks. Yeah.

MARTINEZ: So everyone likes to say that, you know, for big sporting events, memorable things - that they were there. I was actually there when Bo Jackson in the LA Memorial Coliseum playing for the Raiders - something happened to him in that playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals that changed everything. What happened, Jeff?

PEARLMAN: Well, it was - Bo Jackson takes a handoff and runs down the right side of the field, and a Bengals linebacker named Kevin Walker came into the play and basically grabbed on for dear life to Bo Jackson's leg. And Bo Jackson ran with such power, and Kevin Walker had a real vise grip on his leg, that the hip came out of the socket. And Bo Jackson was in a lot of pain. He gets up, and everyone's sort of speculating he'll return because he's Bo Jackson, and he always returns. It turns out it was a debilitating hip injury, and it turned out he actually ultimately needed a hip replacement. And it ended his NFL career at that moment.

MARTINEZ: But it didn't end his playing career because he actually wound up making it back, which, Jeff, I think that this is the capper to his legacy in that he suffered one of the worst injuries that anyone could suffer. And you would think, well, that's it for him in sports, but it wasn't.

PEARLMAN: Oh, yeah. I mean, the diagnosis was avascular necrosis. I mean, nobody comes back from that. And he's done in football. He's on crutches. He signs a new contract with the Kansas City Royals. The Royals are unaware of how severe this injury is. He signed a $2 million deal with the Kansas City Royals. It was a huge money. And he reports to spring training on crutches. And he's telling everyone, yeah, I'm going to be back. And the Royals are like, I don't know about this. This does not look good. And they released him. Very cutthroat, but understandable. And the White Sox signed him. The Chicago White Sox signed him with the idea that he'll probably never play, but you never know. And he made this amazing comeback, first just by strengthening the muscles around the hip. He came back briefly in 1991. Then he took all of 1992 off. And in 1993 for the AL West champion Chicago White Sox, Bo Jackson was their part-time designated hitter playing on a artificial hip made of plastic and metal bolts. Like, it was the artificial hip your grandma would have gotten. And he wasn't the player he once was. But the mere fact that he came back on an artificial hip is preposterous.

MARTINEZ: You know, Jeff, I think about what he was and what he means to me because I'm just a little low-key obsessed with Bo Jackson and his myth and his legend. But do you think in this day and age, 2022, that a legend or a myth or something like that could exist, considering that kids today - the second there's a kid that shows any kind of athletic ability or promise at the age, say, of 9 or 10, there are several scouting services that are filing reports and videos that are being posted to YouTube. I mean, there doesn't seem like there's secrets anymore.

PEARLMAN: No, there's no mythology whatsoever. And if Bo Jackson came along now or if Twitter and TikTok were available in the early '80s, we'd see all this stuff. And I told someone the other day - I was joking, but I actually think it's true. If that Chicago White Sox plane is on fire, someone on the plane is taking out his phone, and he's taking a picture, and we see Bo Jackson. And maybe Bo Jackson isn't charging out of the cockpit. Maybe he's - looks scared and he's sitting in the seat. Maybe he's walking down the jetway because he just had to use the bathroom - I mean, the aisle. You know, like, maybe that ball that Eddie Scott says, you know, almost touched the moon, maybe it didn't almost touch the moon. Maybe they misplayed it, and it rolled around the ground. Like, every single thing is recorded. And I'm not saying that's a bad thing or a good thing, but it definitely eliminates the mythology of athletes.

MARTINEZ: That's Jeff Pearlman. His new book is "The Last Folk Hero: The Life And Myth Of Bo Jackson." Jeff, thanks.

PEARLMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "MAIN TITLE FROM SUPERMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.