The words “legend” and “influencer” get thrown around real loosely these days, diluted by social media captions and the hyperbole of talking heads. But you want a real MFing legend? How about an athlete who was transcendent in not one, but two different professional sports. Looking for someone who really had a measurable effect on both pop culture and the economics of an industry? How about a man whose signature shoes created a whole new category of sneakers—this despite the fact he did all his hitting and scoring wearing cleats.
Bo Jackson was like Superman crossed with the Hulk. He was so good at baseball and football that he just said screw it and went pro in both—at the same time. Which, you may be thinking, is definitely impressive but not totally unheard of. You’d be thinking wrong. Consider: Bo won the Heisman Trophy in 1985, then was an All-Star outfielder in Major League Baseball in 1989 and a Pro Bowl running back in the NFL in 1990. The only cat in history ever to make it to the All-Star Game in both sports. His offseason was spent playing another professional sport at the highest level. And not just riding the bench, but beating everyone’s ass every single game, pulling off athletic feats that reached mythical proportions. Climbing up walls to rob home runs for the Royals and running over entire defenses to score touchdowns for the Raiders. Moments that would have broken the internet nightly, had it existed, were the norm for Jackson.
In 1990, at the height of Bo’s powers, an ABC 20/20 report noted that his “extraordinary two-sport career has made him the most recognized and sought-after athlete spokesperson today.” Pepsi and AT&T were cutting checks. The good people at the Swoosh were no dummies, either. As crazy as it seems now, Nike was No. 2 in the sneaker game in the mid-‘80s, trailing Reebok. And, before Bo came along, cross-training sneakers didn’t exist.
Given Jackson’s insane work ethic and training regimen, he was a natural fit to lead Nike’s foray into cross training. Never mind that he’d never play a single down in the NFL or dig in for one at-bat in the MLB wearing these shoes (although he was so damn good, he coulda traded his cleats in for sandals and probably still washed everyone). When Nike created the legendary “Bo Knows” commercials in the late ‘80s, it was the perfect storm of world-famous athlete and iconic advertising. Fittingly, the first “Bo Knows” ad aired during the ’89 MLB ASG, after Bo hit a homer in the first inning, and before he eventually took home MVP honors for the night. It’s a slogan so good that it became a part of mainstream culture, and remains a popular expression to this day.
With Bo the face of the effort, Nike singlehandedly ushered in cross-training as a category. And as soon as the kicks hit retail shelves—we’re talking instant classics like the Air Trainer 1 and Air Trainer SC—Nike immediately dominated 80 percent of the cross-training sneaker market, according to Ad Age. Thanks in large part to the contributions of Jackson and a decent hooper by the name of Michael Jordan, Nike rose to top dog in the sneaker world with a bang. Jordan and his sneakers enjoyed more long-lasting appeal, sure, but Bo’s sneakers got cameos in Spike Lee movies and even in The Simpsons.
“It’s a trendsetter,” Jackson said of the Nike Air Trainer SC during an event celebrating its re-release back in 2010. “In order to bring this shoe back 20 some-odd years after it first came on the market, there has to be something special about this shoe. To have my name and my reputation associated with this, it’s a blessing.”
Cross-training became Nike’s driving motif to kick off the ‘90s, as the company took hold of the industry by marketing itself as an overall athletic performance brand. Pitching the public on an all-around sneaker was a hell of a lot easier with the co-sign of a legendary two-sport star like Bo Jackson.
Order your copy of KICKS 21 at our online store!
Abe Schwadron is the Managing Editor at numberFire and a former Senior Editor at SLAM.
Follow him on Twitter @abe_squad.