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The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson


The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson

The Bo Jackson you know could have been the Vincent Edward Jackson you never knew. The line is thin. But sports saved Bo Jackson. Jeff Pearlman, a masterful storyteller and author of sports books on subjects ranging from the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s to NFL icon Walter Payton, has produced a beautiful, superbly written portrait of an athlete whose accomplishments were the stuff of legend.

THE LAST FOLK HERO is a biography to savor and then pass along to someone in your family who is also a sports fan. The art of biography is far more than writing about one person. The subject must be placed in the entire context of the times. Pearlman takes us into Jackson’s life from his youth in rural Alabama to his career as a spokesman for Nike, where “Bo Knows” became an iconic slogan of American advertising.

"...a beautiful, superbly written portrait of an athlete whose accomplishments were the stuff of legend.... THE LAST FOLK HERO is far more than a typical sports biography.... In short, it is an undeniable masterpiece."

Sportswriter Jim Murray once observed, “Bo is the type of athlete you expect to find only in the pages of fiction.” The eighth of 10 children, Jackson was raised by his mother as his absentee father was married to another woman. He stuttered as a child and often resorted to fighting with those who mocked his speech. One day, he walked by the track team practicing the high jump; he gave it a try and cleared six feet in street shoes.

Jackson’s track and field record in high school defies belief. McAdory High School had little in the way of equipment. There were no hurdles available, so Jackson practiced by clearing folding chairs. Alabama organized a decathlon event for high school athletes, but McAdory had no poles for pole vault. So he borrowed one at the event and cleared 12 feet. He often skipped the 1500 meters because he disliked running distances --- a luxury he enjoyed since he was usually so far ahead that victory was certain. His decathlon point total is still the state record. And then, after two days as a decathlete, he would join the high school baseball team, sometimes for a doubleheader.

Pearlman was only allowed a brief telephone discussion with Jackson, who wished him luck and observed, “Everyone wants to do a Bo book but nobody realizes how hard that would be.” Pearlman’s own research produced a substantial amount of material. He interviewed more than 700 individuals, most of whom were happy to discuss their experiences with Jackson. He also located transcripts of long-ago interviews that Jackson conducted with sportswriter Dick Schaap for an authorized biography, BO KNOWS BO, which published in 1990.

THE LAST FOLK HERO is a veritable encyclopedia of Jackson’s sports life. Appearing are athletes and coaches whose careers mixed with his: Bear Bryant, Pat Dye, Al Davis and Brian Bosworth in football; Reggie Jackson, George Brett, and teammates from the Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox in baseball. In a sporting world where Nike now dominates, the creation of the “Bo Knows”commercial is itself a legend.

Quite a bit of the details of Jackson’s career are available on YouTube. Find the video of his throw from the left field wall in a 1989 game against the Seattle Mariners that threw out Harold Reynolds at home plate. Then check out his 91-yard run against the Seattle Seahawks on “Monday Night Football.” Even a writer as talented as Pearlman cannot duplicate on these pages the actual events now available for all to see.

Many of Jackson’s achievements came during an era when college football faced recruiting and academic scandals. Additionally, Bo and his fellow Black players, while accepted as members of the team at Auburn University, were forced to live by a different set of rules from their white teammates. Pearlman places much of this in the context of Jackson’s life. He was a complicated man in a class of his own.

THE LAST FOLK HERO is far more than a typical sports biography. It is a complete portrait of an extraordinary athlete and a man with an enduring charisma, as well as a vivid account of the changing social and sports landscapes in which he played. In short, it is an undeniable masterpiece.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on October 28, 2022

The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson
by Jeff Pearlman

  • Publication Date: September 26, 2023
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction, Sports
  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0063285312
  • ISBN-13: 9780063285316