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Draft Spotlight: Bo Jackson


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Kenny Gonzales remembers the first time he became aware of Vincent “Bo” Jackson. It was while Jackson was a junior at McAdory High in Bessemer, Ala., and his coach Terry Brasseale called Gonzales to tell him about his amazing multi-sport athlete.

“Terry called me about a youngster who was making headlines as a football halfback and breaking records in track, and said I ought to see him play baseball,” said Gonzales, a scout for the Kansas City Royals who once had been a graduate assistant on Brasseale’s team at Montevallo (Ala.) University. “That’s where it all started with us and Bo. And we spent the next five years scouting his head and his heart.”

Gonzales watched Jackson hit a national-record 20 home runs in 25 games as a high-school senior. He watched him hit 500-foot home runs. He saw him beat out two-hop ground balls to second base, and saw him make pinpoint throws from the warning track.

“It was against Mississippi State,” said Gonzales, recalling one such memorable throw. “He caught a ball in center field against the fence at the 420-foot sign. The runner went from second to third. Well, Bo threw the ball from the fence to third and split the bag. I mean it was right there.

“I remember we were all just sitting there looking at each other without saying a word. I finally said, ‘There’s nobody in the big leagues today that could make that throw, and here’s a 20-year-old kid doing it now. He’s got the best arm in the country.”

In Gonzales scouting report, he rated Jackson’s potential at 71 on a 20-80 scale where anything over 70 is a superstar. He graded Jackson a perfect 80 on power and speed. His arm rated a 70.

It was obvious from the start that Jackson had all the talent to be one of the greatest all-around players in baseball history. There was one problem.

As good a prospect as Jackson was in baseball, he was even better at football. He rushed for more than 5,000 yards in four years at Auburn University. He won the 1985 Heisman Trophy. He was the No. 1 pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1986 National Football League draft.

With the Buccaneers offering a five-year, $7.5 million contract—the largest ever offered to a rookie—how in the world would Major League Baseball compete with that kind of money? Jackson, after all, was the same kid who turned down $250,000 out of high school when drafted in the second round by the New York Yankees.

With the exception of his junior year at Auburn, when he hit .401 with 17 homers, Jackson’s baseball career in college never lived up to expectations. As a freshman, he went hitless in his first 21 at-bats and hit just .269 overall. He never played as a sophomore, preferring to use his superior speed to run track.

Jackson once held Alabama state high-school track records in the 60-yard dash, the 60-yard hurdles, the 100-yard dash, the 120-yard hurdles, the long jump and high jump.

When he was rendered ineligible in the spring of 1986 by the NCAA because the Buccaneers paid for him to fly to Tampa for a physical, most people thought they’d seen the last of Jackson in a baseball uniform.

“It would have been easy to write him off, and say he’s going to play football,” Gonzales said. “In fact, when scouts came around his senior year, they really were convinced of that. Bo had a lot on his mind, and wasn’t playing anywhere near his potential.

“A lot of scouts were saying, ‘Look at him. He don’t want to play baseball. He’s got football on his mind. Hell, he’s not even running too good anymore.’ “

Gonzales remained undeterred. He had become hooked on Jackson from the beginning and nothing was going to change his mind now.

“Everyone had some excuse why they didn’t draft Bo,” he said, “but the more I watched him, the more I felt I was watching something that comes along once every 50 years or so.”

Gonzales developed a special bond with Jackson, and perhaps more importantly, his mother. Every time he went to Bessemer, he stayed at the Ramada Inn, where Florence Bond worked as a maid. He went out of his way to befriend her, to dote over her, but never put on a hard sell or gave the slightest hint that he trying to reach Jackson by first winning over his mother.

Through the relationship he nurtured, Gonzales gained valuable insight on Jackson’s uncompromised relationship with his mother and his own intentions. He learned correctly that Jackson would attend college and not sign out of high school, so there was no point wasting a draft pick on him. When Jackson became eligible for the draft again in 1985, Gonzales again got the inside scoop that he wouldn’t sign, that he was determined to finish college.

“He promised me he’d finish his education,” Jackson’s mother told Gonzales. “You could come in and offer a million dollars and he wouldn’t take it.”

Finally in 1986, when Jackson was drafted by Tampa Bay and all signs pointed to his signing a lucrative contract to play in the NFL, Gonzales was able to ascertain both his reluctance to sign with the Buccaneers and his willingness to consider a baseball—under the right circumstances. The Royals, to Gonzales delight, were on his short list of teams that he would play for—valuable information he quickly relayed to his bosses.

Still, Royals general manager John Schuerholz was skeptical, but only until scouting director Art Stewart made an impassioned pitch on Gonzales’ behalf.

“John, all I can tell you,” Stewart said, “is that Kenny Gonzales has spent seven years on Bo Jackson, and knows him and his family better than anyone. They treat him like a member of the family. We have to believe in Kenny.”

On the morning of the 1986 baseball draft, Jackson called Schuerholz to tell him that if he’s going to play Major League Baseball, he wants to play for the Royals.

From there, the Royals quickly put the wheels in motion and drafted the celebrated Jackson in the fourth round. And thus began one of the more-implausible, most-remarkable careers in sports annals. But none of it would have been possible without the stealth-like work of Kenny Gonzales, the scout who signed Bo Jackson.

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