Written by Nick Santora
Originally Published in Sneaker News Magazine Volume 1: November 2014
Some athletes become as famous for the products they endorse as the sport they play, particularly in the world of sneakers where an elite few have transcended their playing days to become enduring cultural icons.
It’s hard to deny 1987-1989 were the most important years in sneaker history. Within this three year span Nike captured our imagination with a one-two punch combo of products and marketing that still resonates today. Several of these initiatives changed sneakers and pop-culture forever: Visible Air, Just Do It, Air Jordan and Bo Knows.
Bo Knows was the final component to Nike’s rise to stratospheric heights and pop-culture significance during the end of the 1980’s. Nike introduced the idea of Cross-Training in 1987 as a response to the growing fitness craze. Nike designer Tinker Hatfield was inspired when he noticed people bringing multiple pairs of shoes to the gym – one pair for running, one for hoops, one pair for racquetball, etc. Tinker went back to the lab and designed one pair of sneakers capable of performing all these functions and the Air Trainer 1 was born. Now they just needed someone to be the face of this revolutionary new concept.
In 1987, Bo Jackson was regarded as the greatest athlete on the planet. During his college years at Auburn University he excelled at football, baseball and track & field. He ran away with the 1985 Heisman trophy and by 1987 was playing pro baseball for the Kansas City Royals and pro football for the Los Angeles Raiders at the same time. The Raiders arranged a contract paying Bo as a full-time running back, although he was only required to join the team after his baseball season was completed in late September. Bo Jackson didn’t just play two professional sports, he was an All-Star in both.
Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan were the perfect characters to resemble superheros and Nike and Wieden + Kennedy marketed them with perfect genius. During games they would perform acts that were beyond human comprehension. Bo Jackson ran up a wall at Yankee Stadium, broke bats over his knee and ran over ‘The Boz’ and the entire Seahawks defense on Monday Night Football. It was an era when sports still seemed genuine. Off the field there was enough self-deprecating humor in their commercials to assure us they were human despite their super-human abilities.
Nike’s Bo Knows campaign instantly became part of the American zeitgeist when it was launched in 1989. The commercials played on Jackson’s innate ability to take on any sport from surfing to tennis to Formula One racing. This all seemed completely plausible until Wayne Gretzky skated into the commercial with a reality check and simple comment of ‘No’ when it came to professional hockey.
Nike capitalized on Bo Jackson’s on-field heroics by translating them over to their newly introduced Cross Training category. Since Nike created ‘Cross-Training,’ they had to define what it was. The connection they made here was brilliant. Since Bo played two sports that required cleats, Nike appointed him to be the face to the Cross-Training sneakers rather than the specific shoes he wore on game day. This was a brand new concept and Nike cleverly spotlighted the shoes Bo wore during his vigorous training regimen. No one in the world could be Bo Jackson on the field, but in the gym any one of us could certainly try.
Bo’s on-field career was unfortunately cut short by injury but when it comes to sneakers, his legend is still going strong. Beloved models tied to his name have remained ever-present staples of Nike’s storied heritage and continue to be re-issued and warmly embraced by one generation after the next.