Beer, confused fans and a very angry mom: When Bo Jackson took Japan | NFL

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On New Year’s Day 1986, Bo Jackson’s Auburn football run concluded in the most humdrum of ways. The Tigers traveled to Dallas, where they suffered their fourth loss of the season, a 36–16 beatdown at the hands of Texas A&M. When the Cotton Bowl PA announcer notified the crowd that Jackson (who ran for 129 yards in defeat) was voted game MVP, the news was greeted with indifferent silence.

This was hardly the way to cap a career.

Fortunately for Jackson, it wasn’t quite done. Although he had nothing to prove to NFL scouts, and although the injury risk screamed don’t friggin’ do this!, on 5 January Jackson headed to Tokyo to play in something called the Ricoh Japan Bowl.

In the heyday of postseason college football all-star games, this was the weirdest of the bunch. The event debuted in 1976, when its sponsor, Sports Nippon Newspapers, aspired to commemorate the United States’ bicentennial celebration with – according to the official press release – “something truly American.”

Thus began the odd tradition of importing dozens of football stars to participate in a meaningless game in a half-empty stadium before fans who had no clue as to what they were witnessing.

U-S-A! U-S-A!

Jackson flew from Atlanta to Los Angeles, where he met up with the other participants to catch Japan Airlines flight 065 to Tokyo.

Because he was the marquee attraction, certain allowances were made. All players were assigned a roommate. Not Jackson. All players had events they had to attend. Not Jackson. All players had to pay for a companion. Not Jackson.

The Last Folk Hero
Photograph: HarperCollins Publishers

“Being able to have a person come as your guest meant you were VIP,” said Derek Taylor, a Baylor defensive lineman. “I was allowed no one.”

Jackson actually brought two people along – Florence, his mother. And Linda Garrett-Robinson, his pregnant other girlfriend whom he introduced to teammates as “my fiancée.” Which could have been awkward, only – according to Allison Hines, his other fiancée – shortly after the Heisman presentation she and Jackson had a heated argument that resulted in (what she believed to be) a temporary breakup. Plus, Hines never knew Linda accompanied Jackson to Tokyo.

The flight lasted 11 hours. Coaches, sponsors and administrators sat in the front of the plane, the 68 players –as well as six cheerleaders from the University of Illinois and six from the University of Washington – sat in the back. As soon as the Boeing 747 lifted off, flight attendants walked the aisles, handing out a near-bottomless supply of alcohol.

“The first eight hours of that flight, all we did was drink,” said Todd Moules, a Penn State offensive lineman. “First it was American beer. Then it was American liquor. Then Japanese beer. And at the end we were drinking sake.”

By the time the plane landed in Tokyo, the flight attendants were out of booze and the players were in various states of disrepair. Many were hungover. A few were still drunk. The cabin smelled of vomit and sweat. A bus took them to the Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa, where they were assigned rooms and presented keys to the 24-hour hospitality suite – featuring an unlimited supply of soda, Gatorade, fruit and beer.

“It was crazy,” said Ron Hadley, a Washington linebacker. “The coolers were loaded with Kirin beer. But the major sponsor was Sapporo. One of the days we’re all in there, drinking our Kirins, and the head of Sapporo enters. He asked, ‘Why are you all drinking Kirin?’ We told him we liked it. He said, ‘No! No! No!’ When we came back a few hours later, all the Kirin was gone and the coolers were packed with Sapporo.”

Did it matter?

“Beer,” laughed Hadley, “was beer.”

Bo Jackson and his fellow players were welcomed warmly by their hosts although it’s questionable if they knew who they were
Bo Jackson and his fellow players were welcomed warmly by their hosts although it’s questionable if they knew who they were. Photograph: Tsugufumi Matsumoto/AP

The participants had five full days in Japan before Sunday’s game, and they used it in myriad weird and quizzical ways. Though approximately three Japanese citizens had heard of any of the players, there were department store autograph signings where one could wait on a mere 45-minute line to snag the signatures of such iconic figures as Bill Hipple (Iowa wide receiver) and Andy Hearn (Georgia Tech lineman). There was an optional guided tour of Nikko, a parade through the streets of Motomachi featuring Illinois’s cheerleaders and a night out at – according to the daily schedule – “The Disco.”

Jackson and Minnesota linebacker Peter Najarian accepted an invitation to lunch with Shunichi Suzuki, Tokyo’s governor. That was nice. But the lead-up to Sunday was primarily a blizzard of photo opps and gag poses with sumo wrestlers. Jackson was quiet and a wee bit shy on the trip, in part because he was traveling with his mother and pregnant girlfriend, in part because he was never overly comfortable around strangers. The majority of players recognized one another. Jackson seemed to know no one. He referred to peers by their schools – Hassan Jones was “Florida State,” Chris Castelli was “Navy.” He called Plymouth State halfback Joe Dudek “Joe Dudek,” because the two had recently appeared together on Good Morning America.

Wherever the players went, they were presented with gifts. A scarf. A camera. As everyone boarded the bus after one appearance, they were handed enormous red apples. “Most of the guys were like, ‘An apple?’” recalled Roy Dunn, an SMU offensive lineman. “‘What am I supposed to do with an apple?’”

Upon reaching the hotel, the party members exited the vehicle. Jackson had been sitting a few rows behind his mother, and when they met on the sidewalk she said, sternly, “Vincent Edward, where is your apple?”

“I don’t know, Mama,” he said. “I left it on the bus.”

Florence Bond frowned.

“Vincent Edward,” she said, “they didn’t give you that fucking apple for you to leave it on the fucking bus. Go get it!”

She then turned to Linda Garrett – also apple-less.

“You too, young lady.” The couple slogged back onto the bus to retrieve their fruit. Florence spun and faced Dunn – a human she had never before met.

“Young man,” she said, “where is your apple?”

Dunn shrugged, then said to his teammates, “Hey, guys, let’s all get those apples!” One by one, everyone followed.

“I can’t speak for anyone else,” Dunn said, “but I didn’t want to face the wrath of Bo Jackson’s mother.”

As advertised, there was football to be played. Mike White of Illinois coached the East team, Fred Akers of Texas coached the West. The men agreed the trip needed to be a reward, not a punishment. So each squad held three half-hour practices and operated offenses with six base plays.

Roughly 15 minutes into the first East practice, Bo Jackson looked at White and said, softly, “Coach, I’m done. Bo don’t wanna practice no more.”

White was powerless. Plus, the hospitality suite had beer.

“OK!” he yelled. “You all heard Bo! Practice is over!”

The game was played inside Yokohama Stadium, with an 11.30am kickoff and an impossible-to-replicate quaintness. The uniforms – hideous green and yellow for the East, less-hideous red, white and blue for the West – were pieced together in Japan by people who had never watched the sport. Said Castelli, the Navy lineman: “We all had to cut the bottoms of the legs off because they were sewn too long.” Cheerleaders were distributed two pairs of gloves – one East green, one West white –to better help fans know which team had done something well. When footballs were thrown through the air, everyone cheered no matter the result. If a player sliced through the defense for a nifty 25-yard run, there would be nary a peep. The stadium held 34,046 seats, and roughly half were filled. “Here’s what I kept thinking to myself,” said Scott Gieselman, a Boston College tight end. “‘This was a long way to fly to play in front of a few thousand people.’”

The one thing everyone could agree on: Bo Jackson.

“Just so awesome,” said Dudek. “Different level than every guy on that field.”

“Allen Pinkett was my college teammate, and he was great,” said Tony Furjanic, the Notre Dame linebacker. “But Bo was so fast, so powerful. He was a man. We were boys.”

“They ran an isolation play that came my way,” said Hadley. “Bo comes up, I hit him – and it’s like hitting a brick wall. I made the play, but I suffered an incredible stinger in my shoulder. There was an acupuncturist on the sideline, and he was putting a needle in me. All because of Bo.”

One participant who didn’t appreciate Jackson’s output was Illinois’s Jack Trudeau. According to the East starting quarterback, Jackson was so anti-practice that even when he did attend, he didn’t pay attention. On one early play in the Japan Bowl, Trudeau called for a simple play-action pass. “Well, Bo had no clue what we were doing and he ran into me,” said Trudeau. “I stick my left arm out and Bo slams into it. I wind up breaking my left wrist.” A few plays later, even with the damaged body part, Trudeau faked a handoff to Dudek and sprinted into the end zone. While sliding, his left knee caught on the turf and popped. “I blew it out,” Trudeau said. “I had surgery and was on crutches for eight weeks. I couldn’t go to the combine or the Senior Bowl or work out for anyone.”

Projected to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, Trudeau fell to Indianapolis with the 47th pick in the second round. “The Japan Bowl,” he said, “cost me millions.”

Bo Jackson was just as hard to stop in Japan as he was at home
Bo Jackson was just as hard to stop in Japan as he was at home. Photograph: Tsugufumi Matsumoto/AP

The same could not be said for Jackson. One of his closer teammates on the trip was David Williams, the Illinois wide receiver. Seven months earlier, the two had been in Miami for the Playboy Pre-Season All-American photo shoot. On a deep-sea fishing trip in the Atlantic, Williams spent 25 unsuccessful minutes trying to reel in an amberjack. Observing from a nearby perch, Jackson removed his shirt, grabbed the pole and yanked the overmatched, 185lbs sea creature onto the boat. “I still have no idea how Bo did that,” Williams recalled.

Now, in the fourth quarter of the Japan Bowl, Williams was strutting his stuff. With the East far ahead, he sprinted down the field and caught a magnificent 58-yard bomb from LSU quarterback Jeff Wickersham for a touchdown. He was up to 176 receiving yards, and knew the MVP award would be traveling back to Champaign, Illinois. Williams sat next to Jackson on the bench and said, “Hey, Bo – the trophy is mine.”

“Boy,” Jackson said, “it ain’t over yet.”

The next time the East had the ball, Jackson took a pitch from Wickersham, followed a couple of blocks to the outside and zipped 57 yards down the field and into the end zone. “I had an angle on Bo,” said Arizona defensive back Allen Durden. “He looked at me, grunted, sped up and – goodbye, Allen.” It was his third score of the day, coupled with 171 rushing yards.

Back on the bench, Jackson plopped down alongside Williams. They smiled toward a nearby TV camera, and the Heisman Trophy winner’s lips were not hard to read.

“That motherfucking trophy,” he said, “is mine.”

He was correct.

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