One of the great strengths of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series is the way that each installment seeks to provide context and narrative drive for stories that might not otherwise have inherent appeal to non-fans. These are docs about sports, but they’re (usually) films first, ones that present their subjects as a whole and pick out interesting historical or personal angles on familiar or unfamiliar topics. Whether looking a pros, amateurs, others working in the industry or fans, with a few exceptions, these aren’t just worshipful TV features about legends in their field.
Well, “You Don’t Know Bo” is. But that’s part of its point — it’s as much about lost potential as it is about what its subject actually achieved. Closing out fall’s “30 for 30” slate tonight, Saturday, December 8th at 9pm ET on ESPN, the film is a profile of Bo Jackson, the professional baseball player who played pro football as his “hobby” from 1987-1990, and the first athlete to be named an All-Star in two major American sports. Directed by Michael Bonfiglio, a co-producer of “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” and a producer and cinematographer on “Crude,” the film is a portrait of a man with exceptional natural talent whose career was severely curtailed by an injury he received on the football field at only 28. One interviewee describes him as the sport star equivalent of The Beatles — “we never got to see him fade.”
The fact that he glowed so brightly and for such a limited amount of time means that his career isn’t a long and storied one, and the film has to deal with how to portray his talent while pulling from a stint as a pro that’s fairly short. “You Don’t Know Bo” features interviews with Jackson, who comes across as humble and mild-mannered, and pairs them with more excited and outsized accounts of his achievements from fans and colleagues — people like writer Chuck Klosterman, former quarterback Boomer Esiason, defensive end turned NFL analyst Howie Long and “SportsCenter” host Mike Greenberg. Jackson won few awards in his short but remarkable career and is not in the Hall of Fame for either sport he played, so the film relies on limited footage of and anecdotes about his remarkable abilities, running through his life from his childhood growing up in the care of a single mother in Bessemer, Alabama to his college career cut short when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who’d drafted him, cost him his college eligibility by taking him on a private plane flight they claimed was okayed by the NCAA. He signed with the Kansas City Royals, then started playing with the Los Angeles Raiders in the off season.
These things are impressive, if a little meaningless to someone like yours truly who doesn’t follow either sport. But “You Don’t Know Bo” really charms in showing the goofy, starry-eyed fannishness with which its other interview subjects talk about Jackson, who’s described more than once as a “superhero.” People point out improbably far home runs he hit, instances of his strength and his speed, stories from his childhood about how he jumped over a Volkswagen or slam dunked a stick or, as a high school player, hit a ball in front of a scout so hard he made the batting cage he was using fall down, accompanied by illustrations of the deeds. They discuss his Nike “Bo Knows” campaign, how he was an unstoppable player in the NES game “Tecmo Bowl” and the way that, when he struck out (something that didn’t happen infrequently) he, impossibly, broke his bat over his knee in frustration. Jackson’s career may not have come down to achievements easy to list on paper, but “You Don’t Know Bo” does an admirable job of conveying his magic via those who were giddily in awe of what he was capable of and what could have been.