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Bo Jackson makes video game history again with his first Madden cover

Three decades after starring in Tecmo Bowl, the retired running back becomes a face of Madden NFL 22

Did you know Bo … once had his own video games?

Bo Jackson, a former NFL running back for the Los Angeles Raiders and Major League outfielder, is the only player to be named a Pro Bowler in football and All-Star in baseball. So, in 1990, American toy manufacturer Tiger Electronics released a handheld game allowing users to play with Jackson on both the football and baseball fields. The next year, Nintendo dropped Bo Jackson’s Hit and Run for Game Boy and Bo Jackson Baseball for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Yet his trio of games likely wouldn’t have been possible without the virtual stardom he garnered in 1989’s Tecmo Bowl, the first console game to earn a license from the NFL to feature players by name, image and likeness. To this day, Jackson in Tecmo Bowl and 1991’s Tecmo Super Bowl is considered one of the greatest video game avatars, along with Michael Vick from Madden NFL 2004.

Madden was first released on PC in 1988 during Jackson’s second season in the NFL. But due to licensing issues and a hip injury during the 1990 NFL season that forced his early retirement from football, Jackson never appeared in Madden during his playing days. It wasn’t until 2014 that Jackson made his Madden debut as a special-edition player in the Ultimate Team game mode.

On Wednesday, EA Sports announced that not only will Jackson return to the game for the first time since Madden NFL 15, but he’ll also receive the honor of becoming a Madden cover athlete. Nearly 35 years after his NFL career began in 1987, Jackson will grace a special digital cover of Madden NFL 22. And beginning Friday, gamers will once again be able to play with him virtually. EA Sports also teamed up with Nike to revisit the sportswear company’s famous Bo Knows ad campaign by incorporating a digitally rendered version of his signature shoe, the Nike Air Bo Turf, into the game.

EA Sports

Jackson is the seventh running back to be named a Madden cover athlete, following Eddie George (Madden 2001), Marshall Faulk (Madden 2003), Shaun Alexander (Madden 2007), Peyton Hillis (Madden 12), Adrian Peterson and Barry Sanders (both Madden 25).

Before the cover unveiling, The Undefeated’s Aaron Dodson caught up with Jackson to talk about his Tecmo Bowl days, how Bo Knows came to life, his Madden return and more.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What does it mean to you to finally be a cover athlete for the game, 35 years after your career began?

This has been in the works off and on for years. The time had to be right for my brand. Working with the Madden people to iron things out, dot all the i’s, cross all the t’s — once we got that done, the rest was just going for it. I figured that, somewhere in my past, I did something right in order to still be looked at as one of the iconic athletes from over 30 years ago. Madden still thinks enough of me to do something like this.

Your video game legacy dates back to 1989 when you became the star of Tecmo Bowl. What was it like seeing yourself virtually back then?

I still see myself in Tecmo Bowl. I’ve still got the video game. I’ve still got the machine to play it on. But it’s in a box somewhere in storage. It’s iconic. It really makes me feel good that I have grown men in their 40s saying, ‘Hey, my cousin and I got into the biggest fight of our lives because we both wanted to be you in Tecmo Bowl when we were young. So our parents took the game and my dad locked it up in his tool cabinet. We couldn’t play with it for a month because the fight was so intense.’ I hear that a lot. When I’m at sports memorabilia shows, people come up with that video game. They say, ‘I still got the machine to play it on. My kids play it. My grandkids play it … and everybody still argues about who is gonna be Bo Jackson.’ Tecmo Bowl … that was a lot of technology back then. You look at it now and it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s an antique.’

Is it true that you’ve never played Tecmo Bowl?

I have never played Tecmo Bowl. That’s the God’s honest truth. I have watched people play it a lot. But I knew what I could do. I knew what the Tecmo Bowl man could do. It gives me pleasure to listen to people compliment me from that game.

Part of your video game return to Madden includes celebrating Nike’s iconic Bo Knows campaign. Take us back to the beginning. How did the brand present the idea of Bo Knows to you?

We came across Bo Knows accidentally. Directors, writers, sketchers — we were sitting around going over some storyboards for our next shoot. We wanted to cut it down because it was a little too long. Everybody was giving their opinion on this and that. I just said, ‘Why don’t we do this? … Why don’t we move this over here, put this here, combine it and cut out about five or six seconds?’ They looked at me and said, ‘Wow. That’ll probably work.’ Then somebody across the table looked at me and said, ‘Bo Knows!’ And it stuck. Nobody sat down and racked their brains or stayed up all night thinking of that catchphrase. It just happened sitting around the war table going over shoots.

Before you got a signature shoe, the Nike Air Bo Turf, in 1990, you headlined the Nike Air Trainer 3, which became known as your shoe. What memories do you have surrounding the Air Trainer 3?

Well, I’ll put it to you like this. In 1969, when I was in the first grade growing up in rural Alabama, during the winter, it was in the mid-30s outside. And I had to go to school barefoot. No shoes. I’m not saying this for sympathy or as a sob story. But I can remember my brother standing a block away from the house. I’m at the front door. My sister was standing a block away from my brother and my other sister was at the bus stop. When my sister at the bus stop saw the bus top the hill a couple of blocks away, she would yell to my other sister, who would yell to my brother, and my brother would yell to me. Then I’d take off out the door barefoot. And by the time my brother got to my first sister, I would’ve caught him already. By the time we got to the bus stop, I’m 15, 20 yards in front of my brother and sister. From going to school barefoot during the winter of ’69 to growing up and having a sneaker inspired by me … I was blessed.

After 30 some odd years, people still brag about that shoe and collect that shoe. A couple of weeks ago, a good friend of mine, Anthony Anderson, the comedian, he texts me, ‘Hey, Bo! I’m doing a show about all my sneakers. I can’t find your Air Trainers. I need a pair of your shoes!’ It just so happened I had a pair sitting in my office. I said, ‘Hey, well, I got a pair here. I can just send them to you.’ It’s moments like that where I sit back and go, ‘Wow.’

EA Sports

This NFL season, New York Giants running back and Nike athlete Saquon Barkley received his own version of the Air Trainer 3. How did it feel to see him pay homage to you through the sneaker?

I blessed him with those shoes. It was like me saying, ‘Grasshopper, it’s your time now to carry this torch. And you have to carry it well.’ I know that he will do a good job of that. Saquon is a good kid. He reminds me a lot of myself. Runs with power and has his head on straight. That’s the thing that impresses me most. It’s not his stats. I love the way he carries himself.

There will always be one Bo Jackson. But when you reflect upon the NFL running backs who’ve come after you, which ones remind you most of yourself?

I can only think of two — Saquon and Derrick Henry — on the brute strength, power and knowing how to navigate around the field and defense. They don’t necessarily have the speed I had. But they have made it work for them. They are very successful at what they do. And that’s why they’re looked at as top of the top running backs in the game right now.

When you look back at your career, what’s one play you made that you feel could’ve come out of a video game?

The one that nobody talks about except Denver Broncos fans is when we went to Denver and I went through their defense on one play like a hot knife through butter. Not bragging, but it’s just the fact being the size that I was then and how low I learned in college to run behind my pads. Which means you would never catch me upright running unless I had someone 5 or 6 yards behind me trying to chase me. But when I was up in traffic, in the thick of things, it only took me one time to realize that not running behind your pads is bad for you. I can’t think of the gentleman’s name, but it was a linebacker from the Cardinals when they were in Phoenix. He blew me up. He hit me on the 6- or 7-yard line and dropped me on the 2. He helped me get up and said, ‘Hey, Bo, look, you need to make me earn my check. You need to run harder.’ I’m looking at him like, ‘You done lost your damn mind. I’m not going up in that hole no more.’ The next play, I bounced it outside and used my speed.

EA Sports

Editor’s note: In the fourth quarter of a game between the Raiders and Broncos on Dec. 2, 1990, Jackson scored a 62-yard rushing touchdown, breaking five tackles en route to the end zone. He finished the afternoon with 13 carries for 117 yards and two scores.

That [Denver] game, once I got through the linemen, I ran over a linebacker, jumped over somebody else. And if I’m not mistaken, I hit their All-Pro linebacker, [Karl] Mecklenburg, and outran the defensive back to the goal line. That’s one play that stands out to me because I had to do everything from make somebody miss, jump, get low and go for 60 yards for a touchdown.

What went through your mind when you saw yourself on the Madden cover? 

I just sat back and said, ‘Man, you still got it.’ I did something right. And that’s what I preach to guys like Derrick Henry and Saquon Barkley: Do it right. If you do it right the first time, you will be remembered forever. 

The Madden curse can’t affect you at this point, right?

The Madden curse? [Laughs.] It can’t affect me.

You didn’t play with yourself in Tecmo Bowl. Are you gonna play with yourself in Madden?

I don’t know. But the thing that I’m doing right now is spending a lot of time with my new grandson. So I’ll probably get the game and save it for him. But I am looking forward to it coming out. Believe you me, I will have my case of Madden games to give out for Christmas presents.

Aaron Dodson is a sports and culture writer at The Undefeated. He primarily writes on sneakers/apparel and hosts the platform’s “Sneaker Box” video series. During Michael Jordan’s two seasons playing for the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s, the “Flint” Air Jordan 9s sparked his passion for kicks.