Thirty Years Later, Bo Still King At Auburn

Even more than 30 years after starting his Auburn career, Bo Jackson is still the most beloved player in program history. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

EA Sports announced this week a late addition to its soon-to-be-released NCAA Football edition, confirming the presence of former Auburn great Bo Jackson.

It has been more than 30 years since Bo first stepped foot on Auburn’s campus, yet he still connects with the fan base unlike anyone else in program history. (paragraph edited)

Overstating his legacy on The Plain is about as easy as taking down Bo alone in the open field. Those who watched the Heisman Trophy-winning tailback insist he remains either on a short list or in a league of his own among the greatest backs to come through the SEC.

A three-sport standout in high school, Jackson caught the attention of the state’s two biggest football programs. He played at McAdory High School in McCalla, Ala., a few miles closer to Birmingham than Tuscaloosa.

Alabama, only about 40 miles down the road, came calling first. The Crimson Tide was at the height of its power at the time behind legendary coach Bear Bryant.

It also had seemingly everything in its favor. It had won nine SEC championships and three national championships over the past 11 seasons. Whoever Bear wanted in the state of Alabama, Bear got.

Furthermore, Jackson – now one of the preeminent icons of Auburn – was actually an Alabama fan. When Bear called to start the recruiting process, Bo said it was “like God calling.”

Alabama’s ultimate undoing came in the first visit.  An assistant coach, not Bear, showed up at the Jackson household.

Jackson recalled the story on ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “You Don’t Know Bo.” He said the coach said he knew Jackson didn’t want to leave the state.

“Bo, let me tell you something: Auburn hasn’t beaten Alabama since 1972. And they never will,” Jackson recalls the coach saying in 1981 on “You Don’t Know Bo.”

The coach continued to tell Jackson that he wouldn’t get a chance to play for the Crimson Tide until the end of his sophomore year or beginning of his junior season.

Days later, Pat Dye, fresh off his first season as Auburn coach, came calling with an assistant. Dye tried another approach.

“‘If you come to Auburn, I promise you I will give you every opportunity to play and start as a freshman,’” Jackson recalls Dye saying. “I looked him right in his eye and said, ‘Coach Dye, you will see me at Auburn.’”

What Jackson did at Auburn is perhaps secondary to when he did it.

While Alabama was at its peak, Auburn found itself in dire straits. The Tigers had not transitioned well from their own illustrious coach, Shug Jordan. The Doug Barfield era brought almost as many losses as wins and also saw Alabama seize absolute control over the bitterly competitive Auburn-Alabama rivalry.

When Jackson arrived on Auburn’s campus, the Tide had won nine consecutive Iron Bowls.

Dye lived up to his end of the bargain, inserting Jackson into the lineup immediately as a freshman. The player who wasn’t good enough to play for the Crimson Tide as a freshman rewarded the coach by going for 839 yards and 9 TDs.

Jackson saved his biggest surprise for the final game of the regular season against Alabama. Back then, the Iron Bowl was played in Birmingham every year, only about 15 miles from Jackson’s hometown of Bessemer.

Auburn trailed in the closing moments but drove the ball deep into Alabama territory, where it faced a fourth-and-goal from the 1. The ensuing play, known only as “Bo Over The Top,” lives forever in Auburn lore.

By the time Jackson took the handoff, Alabama’s line had pushed into the Tigers backfield. The true freshman leapt from the 3 and cleared the pile of bodies to lunge into the end-zone, giving Auburn the 23-22 lead. The Tigers held on for the win in what turned out to be Bear Bryant’s final regular-season game as a coach.

“It was probably the single biggest play in Auburn football history,” former Auburn AD David Housel said on “You Don’t Know Bo.” “That day Bo Jackson gave Auburn the greatest thing an individual can give a people or a school; He Gave Auburn hope.”

The next season, with Jackson taking on a more prominent role, Auburn won the SEC championship.

An injury forced Jackson to miss most of his junior season. He bounced back as a senior, rushing for 1,786 yards, 17 TDs and winning the Heisman Trophy.

For both Auburn and Jackson, brighter days lied ahead. Jackson became a national celebrity, from the stature he gained as a two-sport star and from his prominence in Nike’s new “Bo Knows” advertising campaign. Auburn finished second in the SEC in 1986 before winning three consecutive conference titles from 1987-89.

The reason Bo remains the most beloved figure in Auburn football history is because of all he represents.

Auburn, in the eyes of its fans, is forever the underdog.

It isn’t Alabama. It doesn’t claim 15 national championships. It doesn’t have The Bear. It has Bo – a player Bear thought wasn’t good enough to come in and play right away for the Crimson Tide.

Bo was the perfect combination of speed, grit and tenacity. He dared teams to line up and tell him he couldn’t get through them. He suckered defenders in to take the best angle and then hit his metaphorical Nitrus to turn that “best” angle into a losing foot race to the sideline.

Few players in Auburn history have captured the imagination of fans the way Bo did. He had the dynamic, game-changing ability of Cam Newton with an unmatched loyalty to his alma mater.

Bo went about his business quietly – largely because of his dislike for public speaking – during a time when The U was gaining steam and The Boz started drawing national headlines. He embodied what Auburn ideally stands for – small talkers who show up, hit opponents in the mouth and let them know they’ve been in a fight after they crossed paths.

Bo is the Great Auburn Hope.

Topics: Alabama Crimson Tide, Auburn Tigers, SEC

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