In 1989, at the height of Bo Jackson’s success as a star in two professional sports, Nike unveiled an advertising campaign that greatly exaggerated his athletic abilities. The popular “Bo Knows” commercials gave us staged glimpses of the wide world of sports the multi-talented Jackson supposedly knew how to play. From his real life stints in pro football and baseball to surreal shots of Jackson trying his hand at tennis, hockey, cricket and — in one particularly memorable moment — being a 230-pound jockey.
But instead of exaggerating Jackson’s versatility, those ads actually didn’t go far enough. In trying to imagine all the things Jackson was capable of doing, Nike never ventured beyond the realm of sports. The commercials didn’t show the suit-and-tie entrepreneur lurking beneath the baseball cap and football pads. They didn’t envision Jackson running off the playing fields and into corporate boardrooms.
Nobody did, enthralled as we were by his mesmerizing sports prowess.
It turns out, we didn’t know Bo. For even as we were celebrating his accomplishments — including winning the 1985 Heisman Trophy while playing at Auburn University — Jackson already was contemplating what would happen when the cheering stopped. He was thinking far ahead, to life after the death of his playing career. We saw the athlete in front of us, but missed the businessman he was to become.
“Everybody probably short-changed Bo, ” says David Housel, Auburn sports information director during Jackson’s playing days with the Tigers. “They stereotyped him as an athlete, but he was far more than that.
“It’s obvious now that Bo was a much deeper thinker than people might have realized at the time. They didn’t know all the broad interests he had. That was a surprise to a lot of people. But as soon as he quit playing sports, he blossomed in other areas.”
Nearly 20 years after his athletic career ended, cut short by a hip injury, Jackson’s life as a businessman is now in full bloom. Since 2008, he has been an advisory director for Burr Ridge Bank & Trust in Chicago, where he has lived since joining the Chicago White Sox near the conclusion of his playing career. He was one of 19 equal investors in the community bank when it launched with $11 million in capital at the opening of the financial collapse. It merged in 2013 into another suburban Chicago bank, First Community Financial Bank, with Burr Ridge one of its divisions.
Also in 2008, Jackson invested in more familiar stock, becoming part owner and CEO of Bo Jackson Elite Sports in the Chicago suburb of Lockport, an 88, 000-square-foot indoor training facility that he plans to duplicate in other parts of the country. He is constantly searching for new business opportunities under the umbrella of Bo Jackson Enterprises. And through his Sports Leadership Center of America, Jackson travels the country speaking to corporations and organizations about, as he puts it, “having that drive to want to get up and do something better today than you did yesterday.”
That same drive has pushed the 51-year-old Jackson for much of his life, dating to his days as a shy child battling a stuttering problem while at McAdory High School near his hometown of Bessemer. Jackson let his athletic prowess do most of the talking back then. But he already was thinking about the next step in his life. And the next one after that.
“I was the type of person who looked way beyond what most kids were thinking about, ” Jackson says. “Most kids that age aren’t looking much past college. My mindset was to get to a college, then get to a pro sport, and then have a business after all that. I was looking 20 years past where I was when I was 18. I didn’t know how it would turn out. But I was already thinking about what was down the road for me, instead of just sitting there on my laurels, being comfortable.”
One of the first people Jackson confided to about his long-term business plans was Jimmy Rane, president and CEO at Great Southern Wood Preserving and a strong supporter of the Auburn athletic program.
“Bo made it real clear to me while he was still at Auburn that he had personal goals of things he wanted to achieve and do outside of athletics, ” Rane says. “He’s always had a keen interest in business and a desire to create things. He didn’t have a full idea of what kind of business. He just knew he wanted to be involved in something that was not athletics. I was always impressed that you could tell that young man was pursuing goals beyond athletics.”
There is, of course, a big difference between joining a sports team and forming a business. Athletes, especially those blessed with the natural ability that Jackson displayed, are told early and often exactly what they need to do to improve. They are quickly surrounded by coaches, trainers, teammates and advisors who help guide them every step of the way. But that wealth of support doesn’t automatically exist in the business world. So Rane told Jackson he would need to seek out people who could help him learn the rules of the entrepreneur game.
“I remember one time we had a long conversation about business protocol and decision-making, ” Rane says. “I told Bo I have always tried to surround myself with people who were smarter than me and to seek their advice and then listen and take their advice.
“I passed that along to Bo, and I think he took that advice and he practices it every day. What I have watched him do in all his business dealings is seek out very intelligent people and try to have collaborations. Bo surrounds himself with exceptional people. He listens to their advice and he takes their advice. He’ll be the first one to tell you that he hasn’t done all this by himself.”
Indeed, Jackson takes it one step further. When asked to name a few people who helped mentor him along his path into the business community, Jackson says, “Wow. That would take a two-hour interview.”
“I have actually learned from everybody who I’ve crossed paths with, from the time I left home to go to Auburn, ” Jackson says. “I learned from my coaches, my counselors, my trainers, my teammates. I’ve learned from lawyers and people who I’ve met over the years at Nike and Pepsi. You name it. I could mention people all day who have helped me.
“I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to business. I am intrigued with business, but I am not a business expert. I don’t claim to be. So I have to surround myself with smarter people in the business world. I’m learning new things about business every day.”
The one thing Jackson quickly learned about business is how much he enjoys it. He says he rarely watches football or baseball anymore because “I know how to do that, ” so he no longer is intrigued by the games. Business, however, remains a new and exciting challenge. As a result, he feels that old competitive spirit stir up whenever he approaches a deal.
“I am just as intense and have the passion for business just like I had when I played sports. There is absolutely no difference, ” Jackson says. “Every morning I get up and put my game face on. It doesn’t matter if it’s in my banking business or my sports complex construction business or new businesses that I’m starting. The high and the rush that I get participating in business ventures and being in the business world is the same rush that I got from playing sports.”
Jackson settled in Chicago because he had spent a decade moving around with his wife and three children, and he was ready to give his family some stability. But his youngest child is scheduled to graduate from college this year, and Jackson once again is looking to the future. Now his goal is to one day return to Alabama and bring his new newfound business acumen along with him.
“I have looked at a bunch of business ventures in the past throughout Alabama, but nothing panned out, ” Jackson says. “My perfect scenario would be to come back, open up a business and give jobs to people in my home state. The time will come when I can do that. It’s important to me. That’s home.”
That is why Jackson felt compelled to act following the devastating tornado outbreak that hit the state in 2011. He responded a year later with Bo Bikes Bama, a charity bike ride to raise money for the state’s Emergency Relief Fund. Now an annual event, the ride raised more than $700, 000 in the first two years, funds that have gone toward rebuilding homes and providing community storm shelters. This year’s ride is scheduled to take place on April 19, the day of Auburn’s spring football game. Jackson says the plan is to conclude the ride at Jordan-Hare Stadium before halftime.
“Everybody can get together for one cause, to raise funds for future disaster relief, ” Jackson says. “Because there will always be storms and tornadoes and disasters that we have no control over. But we do have control over how we handle things after those events have taken place. The way we do that is by lending a helping hand.
“Bo Bikes Bama is strictly from the heart. It’s my way of saying ‘thank you’ to the state for backing me in everything that I’ve done, in sports and in business. It’s the right thing for me to do, and I’m going to keep doing it every year.”
Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.
Text by Cary Estes • Photos by Jason Wallis