By Carl Valle
How fast did he go?
One of the biggest sports legends is Bo Jackson, an athlete who was an excellent football and baseball player in the 80s and early 90s, before a hip injury cut off his athletic career short. His highlights were memorable, gunning down runners with a rocket arm, running up walls to make amazing catches, and rushing out of the stadium on Monday Night football against Seattle. Tied to his legendary status, was his well-publicized 40 yard dash time, reportedly 4.12. After months of trying to dig up relevant details, it seems his performance is still shrouded in mystery with some factors of how he was timed. In this article, we use all the evidence we can get; some of it is questionable and some of it very strong in an attempt to figure out if Bo Jackson had the ability to run a 4.12?
Looking at the Evidence
The fastest man on the planet, Usain Bolt, is the standard to running both the 100 m and the first 40 yards. We already broke down what Bolt could have run with ideal conditions, so the question is what do we know of Bo Jackson’s times as he was a great track athlete while at Auburn. I have done a long investigation and research into finding substantial documentation of electronic timing and found just Wikipedia and the Media Guide to Auburn Track and Field. The available information is scant, but we have enough data points to make an argument that Jackson was likely not running faster than any sprinter, and he may not be the fastest football player ever, either. While he is an amazing talent, he simply is not faster, with the available performances to make the claim he ran a 4.12. While it may have been timed in the Superdome by hand or even partially electronically, his track and field performances simply don’t indicate he could have run faster than Usain Bolt.
While one time does not prove one’s ability, it does create a case to ask whether this time is likely to be an indicator of what he was able to do. Backing up those two times are the 50 m and 100 m times listed in Wikipedia, which are not strong evidence, but are enough to support the performance recorded in the Auburn media guide. Based on the Wikipedia entry, the claim is that Jackson ran 5.78 on January 29, 1984 in the 50 m and 10.39 in the 100 m. Bo’s performance in Tallahassee, Florida in March of that year was rumored to be slightly wind-assisted but still legal, making his 100 m match his acceleration abilities. While the 100 m is a different animal than the 40 yard dash, it does show if the athlete is a pure accelerator or slightly more elastic to run faster the last 10 yards. All three indicated times reinforce each other, and none indicates any potential to be faster than Bolt’s ability, no matter how raw Bo Jackson’s training or experience in Track and Field was. Jackson did compete in high school, and while he was an excellent athlete, there are no indications to point out that he ran anything world class either.
How do We Project Bo Jackson’s 40 Time?
A few arguments can be made to simply state that Bo was a team sport athlete and more of a pure accelerator. Anything longer than 30 m was simply not sport specific, and he had uncanny early speed. The shortest distance being 50 m and it being just a random meet versus the combine, one can pose a good argument that his 55 m and 50 m times were just too long. Perhaps he was world class at 36.5 meters and slowed down greatly the next 10-15 meters. He was a big guy at 225, but why again was he famous for long runs against Deion Sanders in college and running a professional league touchdown into the tunnel of the Seattle Kingdome? His 100 m time would be closer to 11 seconds rather than 10! Also, Bo Jackson was elastic as he competed in the jumping events in high school with great success, so I doubt he was a drop dead sprinter after 40 yards. Perhaps those two performances in college were impaired runs, meaning he did not run all out because of a slight injury like a calf cramp or hamstring strain. With such a small sample size, I will give Bo the benefit of the doubt to say he could have run faster, but being so far behind on the 55 m dash list, I am not a believer.
Instead of working backwards to project a 40 yard dash, what would someone likely need to do at the combine to run a 4.12? It was very unlikely that they timed it electronically but very likely they looked at first movement and estimated his finish using a stopwatch. A great aspect of a football field is that the sport is measured and labeled on the field, making me wonder why people are so reliant on GPS technology with scripted plays, but that is another story. I believe that the distance was accurate, but the timing was by hand or some kind of electronic finish but combined with a hand start. Electronic timing was available at that time (mid 1980s) and Bo claims he was electronically timed. With no records besides Bo Jackson saying so on TV, we cannot truly state with confidence that it really happened. Let’s project out the world records as well as the splits of Usain Bolt, since the 50 m and 55 m times are rarely run now, and even indoor competition is less participated by elites.
Looking at the above chart requires some interpretation context since the NFL 40 yard dash and track sprint events are timed differently. Remember from the Usain Bolt 40 yard dash article the difference between running time, running time with reaction time, and the NFL combine is that each measurement is different. Track and Field starts timing as soon as the gun goes off, meaning the athlete must react to the sound, and this is a little over a tenth of a second on average. In Track and Field, the athlete’s running time is added to the reaction time as they measure the running through the finish line with a camera. Since the reaction time is based on forces triggered on the starting blocks, one can see the running performance compared to the total time, as some athletes have a bad reaction, and even though their actual time from first motion to finish is impressive, the event cares only about everyone starting at the same time from a gun. In the NFL combine, each athlete runs multiple times by himself, and instead of an athlete reacting to a gun, a starter is reacting to the athlete’s first movement, something very prone to human error. Most of the time, the starter is late because most brains will start only after a strong visual confirmation of movement, and that is likely to be total distance moved, likely giving the athlete a time cushion. Therefore, when reading the yellow highlighted times, we are assuming that, somehow, the mid-1980s used a currently-used NFL timing setup and adjusted Usain Bolt’s running time by subtracting 0.1 seconds.
The chart has several colors to represent strength of evidence, or lack of it. The white cells are what is documented, and the light gray cells are what is calculated based on standard formulas. The near-black zones simply represent the splits or total times that are currently unknown. Looking at the comparison of splits and all time best performances, it seems the only matching performance is the 40 yard dash, assuming that it was done properly. If it were hand time, Bo’s conversion would be slower, and Bolts would be adjusted to be faster, creating a two tenth gap. All we have is Bo Jackson’s memory of being electronically timed and our knowledge of how combines are currently tested.
The Baseball Scouting Report
Baseball scouting is not much different than a beauty pageant in terms of accurate evaluation back in the 1980s, but we still can get a good reading on if Bo was doing something special then. Not much has changed with MLB scouting in terms of what the teams are looking for, and the report is very damaging to the legend of monumental speed. Bo was an amazing athlete, but the scouting report showed that he did not hit the top rating in speed while tested. Projecting his speed was a conjecture as some athletes do not improve as much, but the most damning evidence was his 4.1 time to first base performance. With so many sub 4 second performances done by many athletes, why isn’t this 90 foot sprint freaky? Even if it was hand timed with a stopwatch, we should be seeing at least 3.8 and 3.9 – indicators of impressive speed. A 4.1 time in a 30 yard sprint when he supposedly ran a 4.1 for 40 yards does not add up.
A few readers will be familiar with scouting baseball player’s speeds, but for many, the running time to 1st base has some nuances that must be broken down into more detail. First, the time is not a flat 30-yard sprint from home to first base since it is a summary of the typical situation of a hitter swinging and making contact with the ball and then running to the bag. Several details are important here, because right handed hitters and left handed hitters are two separate athletes to baseball scouts for many reasons. For speed purposes, left-handed athletes are swinging and finishing towards the first base direction and naturally roll into that direction while right-handed batters factor in an additional tenth. I do not totally agree with that unit of measurement because each athlete is different, and after reading research of entire teams of MLB players running faster than Usain Bolt, I am not confident that even Major League Baseball can communicate correct speeds and distances accurately.
Billy Hamilton, according to “league sources” ran 3.3 to first base, an apparent record according to the Reds. The problem is that while it is likely to be less than 30 yards because of the bag being the mark instead of his center of mass, Billy is a switch hitter and time must be added. Even if all of this was true and he has 3.4 adjusted speed to the bunt he did in March, why didn’t Bo run 3.7 or 3.8 if he is a 4.12 combine performer. No video of him playing ever showed legendary time to first, and with baseball having high sampling opportunities, it leads us to believe that the combine time was simply hand timing and Bo was just fast, but not legendary.
Parting Thoughts on Bo Jackson
More evidence is sure to pop up as fans want closure on the subject, and we will really never know for sure unless hidden film is found in some storage facility of a marked 40 yard dash and is broken down by some sport scientist. He, in my opinion, was timed by hand and the time was reported to him verbally. If for some miracle, electronic timing was done and it recorded the performance as a 4.12, we are likely to have been robbed the greatest athlete in American history, and should be grateful of his few years of play years ago. What is important to take from this article is that sport is about definitions and speed is relative, so do your homework to ensure one is speaking the same language. Who knows what can happen on a given day as many feats of sport are flashes in the pan, but if I was a better man here I would not put my money of Bo against the clock that was reported.
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