Jeff Pearlman has written about some of the best athletes and teams of his generation, including Walter Payton, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Now he’s back with another deep dive into the life and career of another sports legend, The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson.
If you were alive during the late 1980s and early 1990s, you likely know the name. If not for his talent on the football and baseball fields, then most certainly for the Bo Knows Nike advertising campaign. The shoe commercials were everywhere, taking Jackson from a star athlete to a mainstream pop culture figure.
Andscape sat down with Pearlman to discuss the legend of the ultimate two-sport athlete, reporting during a pandemic, making people angry (even when you don’t really want to), the downfall of former Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre, and much more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve written about some iconic and, sometimes, polarizing people. Why was now the time to write about Jackson?
I’ve been asked that a few times, and unfortunately I don’t have a great answer. Why now? I just decided to write the book. I, like you, am really nostalgic. Powerfully nostalgic. And sports is the thing that really does it for me. I wrote books about [Roger] Clemens and [Barry] Bonds, and they were two of my least enjoyable experiences because there was no nostalgia to it. They were current athletes and I covered them, so I had already seen all the worlds behind everything. But when I was a kid, I just thought Bo Jackson was a machine. I had his posters on my wall. I remember watching him lead off the All-Star game with a home run. So, I really wanted to dive into that nostalgia. It’s probably the least ‘controversial’ book I’ve written. There’s no major gotcha. Nobody hates Bo Jackson. He’s just not very hateable. I mean, he’s ornery. He’s prickly. But he’s not hateable.
Despite doing over 700 interviews for this book, you didn’t have an in-depth conversation with Jackson. But you did get to talk to him, right?
One of the first things I did when I started this project was write a letter to Bo [and sent him] a bunch of my books, and he called me back. We talked for about 40 minutes. He was getting his wife a salad. He was driving, and it was very casual. Just out of the blue one day. He was really cool and gracious enough to call me, and we chatted and he talked about his life a little bit. Then he said, ‘I don’t want to do this. I don’t mind that you’re doing it. But it doesn’t interest me.’ I find that interesting and commendable. He just doesn’t feel like he needs the spotlight anymore.
Talk me through your process. How do you even go about gathering 700 interviews for the book?
It’s funny because I don’t think I’m a great reporter. It’s almost like when you hear guitarists talk about playing guitar. I wouldn’t be a technical guitarist at all. I’m not great. I ask a lot of friends a lot of favors about things like, ‘How do you find this information? Who would I call for this?’ Accessible government records, stuff like that, it’s not my strength. I’m not horrible, but I’m not great at it. So I always think how can I make up for that deficiency. And the answer is, ‘Well, you call everybody.’ So I call everybody.
When I start working on a book, the first thing I do is I go to eBay and buy every media guide of any team he was ever on. I’m old, so I make Word files for every person in every media guide. And while I’m doing that, I start tracking everyone down. I take a bunch of days and sit in a coffee shop and I’ll just try finding them using whitepages.com, [Lexis]Nexis, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, whatever I need. It sounds so corny because it’s so basic and simple, but I put a star by their name once I find information. And if I don’t, I don’t put a star. When I have most of them starred, I start reaching out.
One of the things I actually do like about modern technology [and there aren’t that many] is that I like texting people first instead of calling. I used to do cold calls, and now nobody even picks up the phone if they don’t know the number. So I always text. And I always include a picture from the media guide when I text them. ‘Hey, my name is Jeff Perlman, blah, blah, blah. I’m writing this book. I know this is random.’ And then I’ll be like, ‘Here’s proof that I’m not bulls—-ing you.’ And then I send them a photo from the media guide.
So while I’m interviewing people and calling people, I’m building up an enormous database of archives. I always think that when a project is done, I should have the biggest library in America for that subject. I do think, in my house, I have the biggest Bo Jackson library in the world. I’m sure it’s more than Bo Jackson has because I don’t think he’s a keeper. So I have all these clips, I order every book that mentions Bo, or has anything to do with Bo. Then you find yourself buried in information, and just dig and dig and dig. If I have two years to write a book, with six months out, I say, ‘All right, it’s time to stop.’ And then I write every day for six months until it’s finished.
You’ve written about some notoriously private people like Walter Payton, Roger Clemens, and Jackson. Does it matter if you get time with your subject or not?
If given the choice where I could have had five hours with Bo Jackson, of course I would have taken it. You have to. The risk of that is that you form a little connection with Bo Jackson when you’re writing a book on Bo Jackson, and he says, ‘Hey, man, I want to ask you one favor. Can you not write about this specific subject?’ I think as a younger writer, I probably would have been a little more susceptible to that kind of thing. And so maybe you can make the argument that, when I was coming up and first writing books, maybe I would have been better served not having that conversation. But nowadays, I would just say no, and I think I’d be able to get past it. So, yeah, if given the opportunity, I would always prefer to talk to someone.
Was writing the book more challenging since you were doing it during the pandemic?
The big challenge was that I could barely travel for this book. I did go to Bessemer, Alabama, where Bo Jackson’s from, and I went to Auburn. That was great, but I was champing at the bit. I like traveling for reporting. It’s part of the fun. I like doing interviews in person. I like door knocking. I mean, I don’t like it, but I am enthused by it. So I couldn’t do any of that. So, that just made it less fun.
The other wrinkle was that the four of us [Jeff, his wife, and their two children] were around each other all the time, just like most families during the pandemic. And nobody wants to hear Bo Jackson stories all the time. Nobody. It’s not natural. (Laughs.)
You’ve ruffled some feathers with your work over the years. John Rocker, for example, didn’t like the Sports Illustrated story you wrote about him, and the Lakers organization had issues with Winning Time, although that was less about your book and more about HBO’s dramatization of it. At this point, is that kind of a badge of honor?
I feel like you’ve done your job if the subject is annoyed at some parts, and if they’re elated at some parts, but ultimately they feel like you did a good job. I’m not looking to piss people off, but I’m also not looking to not piss people off. It’s never my goal to go into a book and make people angry, but I think you just want to be really fair and really honest.
It’s your job to tell that story as truthfully as you can.
It’s true, but the better question is why. Who is it helping? You could say, ‘Oh, it’s historic.’ I’ll justify it sometimes by saying, ‘This is sports history. Bo Jackson’s a historic figure. Walter Payton is a historic figure.’ But it doesn’t have to be written.
Sure, but if you don’t write it, someone else probably will.
Maybe. I don’t know. It’s hard to justify like it is, but I love it. I love the process. I do love everything about it. But if we’re all being honest with ourselves, and I think it’s important, you have to be able to see it through that vantage point as well.
Like with the Lakers show. I think a lot of people at the show were taken aback by the real people being angry about it. I said to multiple people, ‘You have to understand where they’re coming from. Imagine you’re Magic Johnson and someone says to you, ‘Guess what, Magic? There’s a show and there’s gonna be a guy who looks just like you. He’s gonna be playing you. He’s gonna be you. And millions of people are gonna watch this depiction of you. Cool, right?’ And as Magic you’re like, ‘No, not cool. What are you talking about? That’s not me.’ ‘
You wrote a book on Brett Favre called Gunslinger. In light of the recent news about Favre’s alleged involvement in a Mississippi welfare scandal, does it make you rethink anything about the book?
I was so mad that I actually wrote a tweet that got a lot of weird attention that I didn’t anticipate. I was like, ‘Don’t buy the book.’ The book is 5 years old. It’s not like a million people are buying it anyway, but I just had to say it. He’s f—ing disgusting. It grosses me out. I’m so disappointed. It’s not like I had high expectations for Brett Favre, but I’m still so let down.
White athletes continue to let me down. You’re thrown into this world — it’s the most diverse world you could possibly be in. You have teammates of all stripes, from all walks of life, colors, religions, everything you could think of. If you’re Brett Farve, you do this for 20 years. You love your wide receivers. You’re posing for pictures with them. These guys are the best. I’m sure you know a little bit of their backgrounds. A lot of these guys came from tough backgrounds, and some of them were raised in the inner cities, and others in the middle of nowhere. You know all of this. And then you steal f—ing welfare money so a volleyball arena, which you could have afforded out of pocket, gets built. I mean, it’s so sinister and so disgusting that I was just like, ‘To hell with this guy. Don’t read my book. He’s not even worth your time. Go read about someone else.’
Who, in your opinion, was the second best two-sport athlete after Jackson?
I wasn’t alive for Jim Thorpe, but it’s either Jim Thorpe or Deion Sanders. Deion was so spectacular. Thorpe was amazing. So it’s a tie between two generations.
Do you think there will ever be another Bo Jackson-like two-sport athlete, or are teams too protective of their players now to allow it to happen?
I think there will be. I think if you look at [Los Angeles Angels pitcher, designated hitter and outfielder] Shohei Ohtani — he’s not doing two sports, but he’s doing two things that are disparate, and that was never done before. So, yeah, because the other thing is, players have more power now than they’ve ever had. So if LeBron James came along 10 years ago and said, ‘I’m gonna play for you guys, but I just want you to know, I also want to play tight end in the NFL.’ Well, the NBA is not gonna say, ‘No, you can’t play in the NBA.’ They wouldn’t be happy about it, but they’d allow it. So I think it’ll happen again.