Bo Jackson knows charity. Bo knows kindness. Bo knows the towns and people of his state still need help.
But as his pal Lance Armstrong ribbed, "Bo don't know hills."
This is particularly funny if you remember the "Bo Knows" commercials, and his line as he pulls up on a bike: "Now where's that Tour de France thing?"
Last week, Jackson — who was probably the world's most famous athlete in his prime — pedaled 300 miles across Alabama to raise money for tornado relief in his home state. Bo asked several celebrity-athlete friends — including Armstrong, Ken Griffey Jr., Picabo Street, and Al Joyner — to join him the ride. And he invited the public to pedal beside them: On each 50-mile segment of the 6-day ride, 100 or so riders who donated at least $200 were allowed to join Bo's peloton.
I was lucky to be one of them. On Friday, April 27 — the one-year anniversary of the deadly tornados — Southern Living publisher Greg Schumann (below, right) and I hopped on our bikes for Day 5, a roughly 50-mile stretch from Jasper to Bessemer, Bo's hometown. I also rode on the final day, which ended in Tuscaloosa, the home of my alma mater.
Trek donated six souped-up Madone road bikes — one for Bo to ride on each day of the journey — to be auctioned off for the cause at the end of the ride. Each frame bore the name of the victims who died in the storm. One of them was Ashley Harrison, the young UA student we wrote about earlier this week. Her story touched us…and the Bo Bikes Bama crew. As you can see in the photo above, Bo is wearing her pink memorial bracelet, which reads: "I love you as big as the sky."
The day's ride began with a pep rally at an elementary school in Cordova,where many students had been directly affected by the storm. Bo, who overcame a stutter as an adult, gave a touching, flawless talk to the students, who waved hand-made signs that read, "Go Bo Go!" Some of the kids asked riders — just everyday joes in the back — to give them autographs, a touching request that would happen more than once on this ride. When one rider protested that he wasn't famous, the autograph-seeker said, "It don't matter. You rode just as far as the rest of 'em!" This was the first of many poignant moments of the day.
Lance Armstrong was nowhere to be seen at the ride start, to avoid stealing the spotlight from Bo. A few miles down the road, he rode up to the group quietly, respectfully. Still, he was like a magnet on wheels, and riders flocked to him like flies to butter. Like Bo, he let riders cruise up beside him and chat for a bit, before peeling off to let someone else have their turn. Here's a video shot by my hubby, an avid cyclist who has a long-standing man-crush on Lance…and a handy Go-Pro he clamped under his bike seat. (Yep, that's me, drafting off Lance, in a blue jersey.)
Bo led us down country roads lined with people standing in their yards, on front porches, yelling "Roll Tide!" and "War Eagle!" and "Thank you, Bo!" Some of these people had lost homes, or loved ones. And here they were, cheering us on from their scarred landscape. That is part of what made this ride magical, emotional, and once-in-a-lifetime special. The hair stands on my arms, just remembering it.
Bo had scouted our ride route ahead of time, and he'd chosen places to stop and remember. The house in the photo above was set in a valley of pines scattered like Pick-Up Stix. We got off our bikes and hiked up to the home, a trailer set down on the foundation of a home stolen by the wind.
Despite all the Lance buzz, the folks along the country roads were more interested in seeing Bo Jackson. And if they were standing anywhere near a hill, they had plenty of time to see him. Even though he still looks like he could do bicep curls with a MiniCooper, Bo struggled on the hills. It's no easy task to pull 200+ pounds of muscle up a hill.
But it was inspiring. Watching the man people have called "the greatest athlete of all time" creep uphill in his granny gear was a lesson in humility. How many pro athletes are willing to set aside their pride and struggle at something…with an audience? (Dancing with the Stars doesn't count.) To see Bo — and the other rock-star athletes, none of whom were avid cyclists — suffering, publicly, for a common cause was a lesson for the rest of us. Sometimes, you will find the greatest leaders in the back of the pack.
The other lesson Bo taught us on a bike? We may sit on either side of the Ironbowl, but when the wind strips everything else away, we are all on the same team. "It's not about Roll Tide or War Eagle," he said on more than one occasion. And ending with a party in Tuscaloosa — where, by the way, the rider meals were cooked by Toomers for Tuscaloosa, an Auburn group — was proof he wasn't whistling Dixie. "Whatever side you're on, say it with respect," Bo said. "We are all from the same place."