CHICAGO -- Bo Jackson was a transcendent cultural figure in American society, a star and a compelling figure in two professional sports.
Major League Baseball's Beacon of Life award honors an individual whose life embodies the spirit of the civil rights movement. When Jackson was given that award Saturday, a triumphant rise was fully symbolized.
Jackson is the only man to be both an All-Star in the Major Leagues and a Pro Bowl player in the National Football League. He was an overwhelming combination of power, speed and athleticism in both sports. He hit mammoth home runs and covered great distances of outfield ground in the blink of an eye. He was an electrifying running back, who could both bowl over and outrun tacklers.
Frank Thomas, once a teammate of Jackson with the Chicago White Sox, presented Bo at the Beacon Awards Luncheon on Saturday.
"If you didn't know Bo in the late '80s and '90s, you didn't know anything," Thomas said with a smile.
As a two-sport sensation, Jackson, at the top of his games, was inescapable. He became a commercial hit, too. A serious hip injury ended his football career prematurely and shortened his baseball career. But Jackson had made his one-of-a-kind mark on both American sports and American society.
And he has since put that celebrity status to work in the service of good causes. Jackson now primarily spends time with his Give Me a Chance Foundation that works with underprivileged youth. He also formed the "Bo Bikes 'Bama" annual charity bike ride that raises money for rebuilding efforts and constructing storm shelters in areas of Alabama that have been hit hard by tornados.
The Beacon Award Luncheon was held in the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott Magnificent Mile as part of the celebrations surrounding the seventh annual Civil Rights Game, which was held Saturday night at U.S. Cellular Field. Before the Sox played the Texas Rangers, Jackson was honored again in pregame ceremonies, and received a rousing ovation from White Sox fans.
Jackson spoke with ease, grace and humor over his 13-minute acceptance speech.
"I never write a speech," he said. "Coming from a kid who inherited stuttering from his father, you'd think I'd be terrified to be up here right now. But I'm more comfortable up here than I was in the backfield or in the batter's box."
Jackson's early life in Alabama hardly offered the promise of fame and fortune, as he was "raised in a house that was no more than 700 square feet, outdoor plumbing."
Jim Crow was still in force in the South at the time. Jackson described his Alabama upbringing as "right smack dab in the middle of racial America. I experienced racism in life."
At a recent fundraising speech in south Alabama, Jackson said he was responding to questions when a white man asked him, "Have you ever experienced racism and what do you think of racism?'
"I looked at him and I said: 'Believe it or not, I am a racist. Yes, I am a racist. Let me tell you what kind of a racist I am. It doesn't matter whether you're black, white, yellow, green, plaid, striped if you like, I don't care. I am a racist against ignorant people. So in that case, I got some relatives that I don't like.'"
Jackson thanked "all the people who allowed us to get where we are now, all those people who paved the road." That list included Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks, among many more.
Jackson also thanked White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and executive vice president Kenny Williams for the work that their organization was doing with inner city youth.
Jackson at one point expressed wonder at finding himself in this position, receiving this award: "I'm the eighth of 10 kids, a nappy-headed kid from Alabama," he said. "In a million years I never could have dreamed that I would be here. I didn't get here by myself. It took at lot of people keeping me on the right path."
After the ceremonies at U.S. Cellular, Jackson had a media question-and-answer session. There were previous Beacon Award winners, he said, who had done far more than he had. But he acknowledged the importance of this award to him.
"My peers have recognized my work off the playing field," he said. "I try to do what I can to give back. I say that from the standpoint that the country supported me in what I was doing 20, 25 years ago. It's only right that I give back in some capacity. ... I do it from the heart."
Looking back, given the hip injury, should he have focused on just one sport? Jackson's answer showed that he had not stopped being his own man.
"If I had to pick one sport I would have been doing what someone else wanted me to do," he said. "You know how they say you've got one life to live, live it to the fullest? That's what I did. Do I have regrets about doing both sports? No. If I had to do it all over again, I'd to it the exact same way, wouldn't change a thing."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.