For anyone who was sports conscious during the late 1980s/early ‘90s, the images of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders are indelible in our brains.
On the football field, there was none better than “Prime Time,” a ball-hawking cornerback with the speed of Flash who could stick like glue to any wide receiver thrown his way. Sanders essentially forced an opposing quarterback to eliminate his entire half of the field, knowing his pass would either be knocked down or intercepted if it came Deion’s way.
Just watching the highlights doesn’t do him justice. He is perhaps the greatest cornerback to ever play the game, and one of the fastest football players ever as well.
But at the start of his career, many didn’t know he was also a half-decent baseball player, too.
Jackson was one of the greatest running backs in college football history, piling up record after record at Auburn and winning the Heisman Trophy in 1985 (you know, back when players other than QBs were eligible). Jackson was a sure-fire superstar-in-the-making in the NFL and, when he eventually did lace ‘em up, lived up to the hype the second he took the field.
Bo wasn’t a person. He was a walking video game joystick. Oh, and he was even faster than Deion.
Of course, Jackson shocked the world when he announced he would pursue a baseball career after leaving college and that football would be his “hobby.” The average sports fan didn’t even know Bo played baseball in college, and yet, he was going to forgo a lucrative first-round NFL contract to toil away in the minors and hopefully one day have a mediocre baseball career?
It seemed ridiculous, but Bo knew Bo, and the man everyone knew would be a Hall of Fame running back became an All-Star outfielder for the Kansas City Royals until a 1991 hip injury in a Raiders playoff game to the Cincinnati Bengals ended his football career and submarined his baseball life, too. Jackson hung on for a few more seasons into the mid 1990s before finally hanging them up, a promising career dashed because of a freak injury in a different sport.
Never before had we seen two, two-sport athletes playing both football and baseball together at the same time. The NFL’s dead zone can be quite boring, but not for these two guys, both of whom spent a few summers grinding away while their counterparts went on vacations or pored over playbooks.
On July 17, 1990, the two men figuratively collided at Yankee Stadium, where Jackson’s Royals tackled Sanders’ Yankees in a midsummer duel between two subpar teams in a game that mattered little in the standings, yet remains one of the most entertaining games ever played.
Both Jackson and Sanders got the start in center field for their teams. Known for his power, Bo crushed three home runs in his first three at-bats, with his second home one of the longest ever hit at the old Yankee Stadium.
While Sanders didn’t hit three home runs, and he was not nearly the player Bo was on the diamond (he had a .158 batting average after this game was over), he displayed his usual flair for the dramatic after this electrifying inside-the-park home run, with a diving Jackson allowing his NFL counterpart to race around the bases.
That slide was ridiculous, but the play didn’t come without a cost. Jackson separated his shoulder on that dive and would miss the next six weeks of the season because of it.
The Royals won the game 10-7, but that hardly mattered. Here you had two of football’s best players, in the middle of the quietest time of the NFL season, having the times of their lives playing Major League Baseball.
Bo would rush for 698 yards in 10 games for Oakland that year, making his one and only Pro Bowl. There certainly would have been many more had he not been hurt in the playoffs that year. Sanders, in just his second NFL season, would go on to play 12 more seasons, make 8 Pro Bowls, garner 6 1st Team All-Pro selections and one Defensive Player of the Year award. He also played nine years in the Majors, finishing with a career .263 hitter in 641 games with four franchises.
For Sanders, baseball was his hobby. For Bo, the NFL waited until his baseball season was over, essentially freezing him out of the season until about Week 7 or 8. Still, it was enough to make him one of the most feared running backs in the game, averaging 5.5 and 5.6 yards per carry in his final two years.
It’s hard to imagine an NFL player playing baseball or vice versa nowadays, but for a short period of time, two of the NFL’s best did it, and gave football fans something to see in a totally different sport.