On New Year’s Day 1986, Bo Jackson’s Auburn football race ended in the most monotonous fashion. The Tigers traveled to Dallas, where they suffered their fourth defeat of the season, a 36-16 defeat at the hands of Texas A & amp; M. When the Cotton Bowl PA announcer notified the crowd that Jackson (who ran 129 yards defeated) was voted the game’s MVP, the news was met with indifferent silence.
It was certainly not the way to crown a career.
Fortunately for Jackson, it wasn’t over yet. Even though he had nothing to prove to the NFL scouts, and even if the risk of injury screamed, don’t do it !, Jackson headed to Tokyo on January 5 to play in something called the Ricoh Japan Bowl.
In the heyday of post-season college football all-star games, this was the strangest of the bunch. The event debuted in 1976, when its sponsor, Sports Nippon Newspapers, aspired to commemorate the US bicentennial celebration with – according to the official press release – “something truly American.”
Thus began the strange tradition of importing dozens of football stars to participate in a meaningless match in a half-empty stadium in front of fans who had no idea what they were witnessing.
Jackson flew from Atlanta to Los Angeles, where he met the other attendees to catch Japan Airlines Flight 065 to Tokyo.
As it was the main attraction, some allowances were granted. All players have been assigned a roommate. Not Jackson. All players had events they had to participate in. Not Jackson. All players had to pay for a partner. Not Jackson.
“Being able to have someone as your guest meant you were VIP,” said Derek Taylor, a Baylor defensive lineman. “I was not allowed anyone.”
Jackson actually brought two people with him: Florence, his mother. And Linda Garrett-Robinson, the other pregnant girlfriend who he introduced to teammates as “my girlfriend”. Which could have been embarrassing, only – according to Allison Hines, his other girlfriend – shortly after Heisman’s introduction, she and Jackson had a heated argument that resulted in (what she believed to be) a temporary breakup. Also, Hines never knew Linda was accompanying Jackson to Tokyo.
The flight lasted 11 hours. Coaches, sponsors and administrators sat in the front of the plane, the 68 players, as well as six cheerleaders from the University of Illinois and six from the University of Washington, sat in the back. As soon as the Boeing 747 took off, the flight attendants walked down the aisles, handing out an almost endless supply of alcohol.
“The first eight hours of that flight, all we did was drink,” said Todd Moules, a Penn State offensive lineman. “First it was American beer. Then it was the American liqueur. Then the Japanese beer. And in the end we were drinking sake ”.
When the plane landed in Tokyo, the flight attendants were alcohol-free and the players were in various states of neglect. Many had a hangover. Some were still drunk. The cabin smelled of vomit and sweat. A bus took them to the Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa, where they were assigned rooms and presented the keys to the 24-hour hospitality suite, with an unlimited supply of sodas, Gatorade, fruit and beer.
“It was crazy,” said Ron Hadley, a Washington linebacker. “The refrigerators were loaded with Kirin beer. But the main sponsor was Sapporo. One of the days we’re all there drinking our Kirin, and Sapporo’s head comes in. He asked: “Why do you all drink Kirin?” We told him we liked it. He said no! No! No! “When we returned a few hours later, all the Kirin was gone and the refrigerators were full of Sapporo.”
“The beer,” laughed Hadley, “was beer.”
Participants spent five full days in Japan before Sunday’s game and used it in a myriad of weird and questioning ways. Although around three Japanese citizens had heard of any of the players, there were autographs in the department stores where one could wait in a line of just 45 minutes to grab the signatures of iconic figures such as Bill Hipple (Iowa wide receiver) and Andy Hearn. (Georgia Tech linesman). There was an optional Nikko guided tour, a parade through the streets of Motomachi with the Illinois cheerleaders and a night out – according to the daily schedule – “The Disco”.
Jackson and Minnesota linebacker Peter Najarian accepted an invitation to lunch with Shunichi Suzuki, the Tokyo governor. It was nice. But early Sunday was mostly a storm of photo opps and gag poses with sumo wrestlers. Jackson was quiet and a bit shy on the trip, partly because he traveled with his mother and pregnant girlfriend, and partly because he never felt comfortable around strangers. Most of the players have recognized themselves. Jackson seemed to know no one. He was referring to peers in their schools: Hassan Jones was “State of Florida”, Chris Castelli was “Marina”. He called Plymouth State midfielder Joe Dudek “Joe Dudek”, because the two had recently appeared together on Good Morning America.
Wherever the players went, they received gifts. A scarf. A camera. When everyone got on the bus after an apparition, huge red apples were delivered. “Most of the guys were like, ‘An apple?'” Recalled Roy Dunn, an offensive lineman from SMU. “‘What should I do with an apple?'”
Upon reaching the hotel, the group members got out of the vehicle. Jackson was sitting a few rows behind his mother, and when they met on the sidewalk she said, sternly, “Vincent Edward, where is your apple?”
“I don’t know, Mom,” he said. “I left it on the bus.”
“Vincent Edward,” he said, “they didn’t give you that fucking apple to leave it on the fucking bus. Go get it! “
Then she turned to Linda Garrett, also without apples.
“You too, miss.” The couple got back on the bus to retrieve the fruit. Florence turned and confronted Dunn, a human she had never met before.
“Young man,” he said, “where is your apple?”
Dunn shrugged, then said to his teammates, “Hey, guys, let’s all get those apples!” One by one, everyone followed him.
“I can’t speak for anyone else,” Dunn said, “but I didn’t want to face the wrath of Bo Jackson’s mother.”
As advertised, there was football to be played. Mike White of Illinois coached the East team, Fred Akers of Texas coached the West. The men agreed that the journey was to be a reward, not a punishment. So each team held three half-hour training sessions and worked offensively with six basic plays.
About 15 minutes after the first East workout started, Bo Jackson looked at White and said softly, “Coach, I’m done. Bo I don’t want to practice anymore.
White was helpless. Also, the hospitality suite had beer.
“OK!” he screamed. “You all heard Bo! Training is over! “
The match was played inside the Yokohama Stadium, with a kick-off at 11:30 and a peculiarity impossible to replicate. The uniforms – horrible green and yellow for the east, less horrible red, white and blue for the west – were put together in Japan by people who had never seen the sport. Castelli, the Navy linesman, said: “We all had to cut off the lower legs because they were too long.” The cheerleaders were given two pairs of gloves – one east green, one west white – to better help fans know which team had done something good. When the balloons were thrown into the air, everyone cheered regardless of the result. If a player cut the defense for an elegant 25-yard run, there would be no peeking. The stadium contained 34,046 seats and about half were occupied. “Here’s what I kept thinking about myself,” said Scott Gieselman, a Boston College member. “‘This has been a long way to go to play in front of a few thousand people.'”
The one thing everyone could agree on: Bo Jackson.
“Simply fantastic,” said Dudek. “Different level from that of any boy in that field”.
“Allen Pinkett was my college teammate, and he was fantastic,” said Tony Furjanic, the Notre Dame linebacker. “But Bo was so fast, so powerful. It was a man. We were boys “.
“They did a show of isolation that came to me,” Hadley said. “Bo comes up, I hit him – and it’s like hitting a brick wall. I made the game, but I suffered a very strong sting in the shoulder. There was an acupuncturist on the sideline and he was sticking a needle on me. All because of Bo.
One attendee who didn’t like Jackson’s production was Jack Trudeau of Illinois. According to the East starting quarterback, Jackson was so opposed to training that even when he participated, he didn’t pay attention. In one of the first plays of the Japan Bowl, Trudeau required a simple pass of game action. “Well, Bo had no idea what we were doing and ran into me,” Trudeau said. “I take out my left arm and Bo bumps into it. I end up breaking my left wrist. “A few plays later, even with the body part damaged, Trudeau simulated a handover to Dudek and sprinted into the end zone. As he slipped, his left knee got caught in the turf and “I blew it up,” said Trudeau. “I had surgery and was on crutches for eight weeks. I couldn’t go to the combine or the Senior Bowl or train for anyone.”
Designed to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, Trudeau fell in Indianapolis with the 47th pick in the second round. “The Japan Bowl,” he said, “cost me millions.”
The same cannot be said for Jackson. One of his closest teammates on the trip was David Williams, the Illinois wide receiver. Seven months earlier, the two had been to Miami for Playboy’s All-American pre-season photo shoot. During a deep-sea fishing trip in the Atlantic, Williams spent 25 minutes unsuccessfully trying to pull out a yellowtail. Observing from a nearby perch, Jackson stripped off his shirt, grabbed the pole, and pulled the unbalanced, 185-pound sea creature onto the boat. “I still have no idea how Bo did it,” Williams recalled.
Now, in the fourth quarter of the Japan Bowl, Williams was striding out. With East far ahead, he ran down the field and caught a magnificent 58-yard bomb from LSU quarterback Jeff Wickersham for a touchdown. He had up to 176 yards received and knew the MVP award would return to Champaign, Illinois. Williams sat next to Jackson on the bench and said, “Hey, Bo, the trophy is mine.”
“Boy,” Jackson said, “it’s not over yet.”
The next time East had the ball, Jackson took a pass from Wickersham, followed a couple of blocks to the outside and launched 57 yards down the field and into the end zone. “I had a corner on Bo,” said Arizona defender Allen Durden. “He looked at me, grunted, sped up and – goodbye, Allen.” It was his third score of the day, along with 171 yards running.
Back on the bench, Jackson dropped with Williams. They smiled at a nearby TV camera and the Heisman Trophy winner’s lips weren’t hard to read.
“That fucking trophy,” he said, “is mine.”
Based on the book The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson by Jeff Pearlman. Copyright © 2022 by Jeff Pearlman. From Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission.