For a few years in the mid-1980s, Bo Jackson was one of the most famous athletes in America, perhaps in the world. The Nike “Bo Knows” ad campaign ran here in the UK even though most Britons had no awareness of football or baseball, let alone the fact that Bo Jackson played both professionally.
And then, just as quickly, it was all over. A freak hip injury while playing for the Raiders ended Jackson’s NFL career. He defied expectations by recovering enough to play baseball for a while, but was never the same.
Jeff Pearlman’s book describes a natural athlete of extraordinary talent. He seemingly performed ridiculous feats at any sport he tried, without much in the way of instruction, practice or even equipment. Pearlman describes him leaping fences, hitting baseballs further than anyone had ever seen and simply crushing people who got in his way.
Some of these feats were so outlandish that it’s hard to believe they happened at all. That’s why Pearlman describes him as The Last Folk Hero; Jackson was doing these things right before the era when everyone carried a camera and recorded every occurrence.
Was he really as good as the stories say or have memories been embellished over time? The answer is probably a little of both.
Title: The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson
Author: Jeff Pearlman
First published: Mariner, 2022
Buy the book: Amazon US | Amazon UK
Interview: Jeff Pearlman
Top five: Raiders
Review: Boys Will Be Boys
Jackson declined to be interviewed for the book, though he told Pearlman he didn’t object to it being written. Instead, Pearlman conducted an estimated 700 interviews and got access to the recordings of Jackson’s interviews with Dick Schaap, co-author of Jackson’s 1989 autobiography, Bo Knows Bo.
The resulting book is exhaustive but so well-written that its 430 pages glide by. Throughout, Jackson remains somewhat inscrutable. At times he’s bullying, petty and childish. He’s a bad teammate, not bothering to learn the Raiders’ playbook, for example, and charging other players for autographs. At one point one woman is under the impression that she is his fiancee, while another (who he would actually marry) is pregnant with his child.
Yet sometimes he’s kind and thoughtful, particularly towards children. Since Jackson did not contribute to the book, we don’t know his thoughts on how and why he behaved as he did. A difficult childhood certainly seems to be part of it but it’s hard to say much beyond that. Pearlman, wisely, doesn’t really try to speculate.
In a turn of events that’s almost Hollywood-esque, Jackson seemed to become a better person after his injury. Having never had to work at anything athletic, he applied himself to rehab and perhaps found some humility as a result. The book leaves him seemingly content, though still very much an enigma.
Jeff Pearlman is a prolific sportswriter whose books have covered baseball, basketball and of course football. Boys Will Be Boys (2009) lifted the lid on the craziness of the 1990s Dallas Cowboys, Sweetness (2011) offered a frank portrait of legendary Bears running back Walter Payton, while Football for a Buck (2018) told the story of the short-lived USFL.
Everything Jeff Pearlman writes is worth reading and The Last Folk Hero is no exception. It’s engaging, entertaining and frequently very funny. Importantly, the book is never weighed down by its research. Numerous sources are weaved into the narrative seamlessly. Pearlman controls the pace effortlessly, sometimes showing us the different perspectives he’s gathered and other times just describing the moment. It’s an absolute pleasure to read such a good writer taking on a fascinating subject.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books
This is a giant book, thoroughly detailed. It is a doorstopper at 480 pages but honestly, Pearlman has such a lively, conversational style that reading was not a slog, and the story is nearly unbelievable, which explains the title.
Don Noble, Alabama Public Radio
In less capable hands, Mr. Pearlman’s childlike wonder in relating his subject’s exploits might come off as cloying. Instead, the author’s palpable enthusiasm supercharges descriptions of Mr. Jackson’s at-bats or off-tackle runs, which are often described with hyperbole that is at once self-aware and delightfully cheesy.
Andrew R Graybill, Wall Street Journal
An excellent, well-researched biography with insights, firsthand accounts, and an extensive bibliography section. Highly recommended for all interested in sports.
Lucy Hickman, Library Journal
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.
Stuart Shiffman, Book Reporter
The author’s facility at rendering dramatic sports moments into prose, such as when, in 1989, Jackson made a miraculous deep outfield throw to get a speedy opposing player out at home plate (spectators witnessed him “rearing back and uncorking a flat-footed bazooka blast that soared high above shortstop Kurt Stillwell”), makes this a standout addition to biographies of hall-of-fame athletes.
A good choice for devotees, showing how their hero sometimes has feet of clay—but remains a hero all the same.
This is such an entertaining read I cannot recommend it highly enough. It captures something wonderful about why we watch sport and why mere mortals want to see feats of seemingly superhuman athleticism. Read it, enjoy it and fire up YouTube along the way.
All Sports Book Reviews
What “The Last Folk Hero” does well is what readers want from all sports biographies: a glimpse behind the curtain. The book is peppered with anecdotes of Bo’s prowess on athletic fields, and also with women which, again, could be seen as a possible character flaw if not for the fact that it is unfair to expect surreal athleticism to equate to role-modeling.
Drew Gallagher, Free Lance-Star