Thirty-five years later, Bo Jackson’s iconic 91-yard tunnel run remains vivid memory for those who were there
NFL 

Thirty-five years ago, running back Bo Jackson took a handoff on a play from the Raiders’ 9-yard line. What happened over the next 91 yards — and beyond — continues to live in the memories of those who witnessed it up close.

If you’ve seen the run — millions witnessed it live 35 years ago on Monday Night Football, and hundreds of thousands more have watched replays on YouTube — it’s impossible to overstate how special it was.

Bo Jackson, fresh off a baseball season with the Kansas City Royals and one year removed from refusing to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after they drafted him No. 1 overall, lined up at running back for the Los Angeles Raiders and took a handoff on the left side of the formation in Seattle.

With Marcus Allen as a lead blocker and a pair of linemen pulling from the right side, Jackson burst up a narrow channel, stiff-armed a safety and left a vapor trail down the left sideline as he outraced Seahawks defenders to the end zone.

His top speed was so great for someone listed at 6-foot-1 and 227 pounds that there was no sudden braking after he reached the goal line. Instead, he continued through the end zone and disappeared into a dark tunnel, causing broadcaster Dan Dierdorf to suggest (jokingly?) that Jackson might not stop until he reached Tacoma, 35 miles to the south.

“He didn’t run through the end zone and into the tunnel to show off,” Raiders left tackle Brian Holloway said recently. “He traveled at such velocity it took him 50 yards to slow down.”

The run was as breathtaking for onlookers as it was back-breaking for the Seahawks, who would surrender 37 consecutive points in their 37-14 defeat. As part of the NFL’s centennial celebration three years ago, NFL Network ranked it as the 25th greatest play in league history.

And yet, for as many times as we have seen it, and for as much as we think we know about it, there is a fact that many of the participants aren’t even aware of:

The play was never supposed to happen.

“The Kingdome was one of the toughest places for a visitor to play,” Raiders quarterback Marc Wilson said recently. “We were in the AFC West, like the Seahawks, so we played there every year, and it was so difficult because it got really loud in there. This was years ago, so we didn’t have silent counts, which meant when those fans got into the games, it was impossible to communicate. So the only chance you had was to get ahead and get the crowd out of the game. You couldn’t screw it up and give them life to get back into it.

“On that play, we were backed up. It was third-and-6 from the 9, and that was the perfect situation they wanted to get you in. If they could sack you or cause a turnover, they could get the crowd into it, and it was like an avalanche when that crowd got into it. The play came in from the sideline, and it was a pass play. The Seahawks brought in six defensive backs, and we had one receiver, two tight ends and two backs; we played most of the game that way, because our wide receivers were so banged up going into the game. I just didn’t think that personnel package was a good matchup against six defensive backs. I didn’t want to do anything to get the crowd back into it, so the play came in, and I decided I wasn’t going to call that. I called the running play.”

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Wilson made the call in the huddle, not as an audible at the line of scrimmage, which explains why many of his teammates, to this day, did not realize that the play was supposed to be a pass.

“So I’d have had a 91-yard touchdown, is that what you’re telling me?” joked James Lofton, the only wide receiver in that personnel package. “I had no idea, nor was it discussed afterward.”

The change might not have been discussed, but the details of the run remain vivid for the Raiders involved. Nearly four decades later, their collective mind’s eye can see it in high definition, frame by frame, step by step, block by block. If that doesn’t speak to its extraordinary nature, the players’ momentary silence does. It’s as if they cannot find the right words to fully explain what they witnessed. When they do speak, the words are coated in awe.

“If you’ve got some bad-asses out there, you expect that play to get you at least 7 to 15 yards, maybe 20,” Holloway said. “But Bo is different. If he breaks the line of scrimmage, there is no one who can catch him. That’s what made it so exciting. You know that on any play, it doesn’t matter where you are, there is no one who has the foot speed to catch him — and they certainly didn’t have the power to stop him. I’ve seen and played with the best, and as great as Earl Campbell was — not Bo Jackson. Barry Sanders is a dear friend, and as great as he is — not Bo Jackson.”

The Raiders did not know what they really had in Jackson when he showed up in 1987. He did not play football the previous year, despite being drafted by Tampa, because of a personal beef with then-Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse.

Jackson, who’d won the 1985 Heisman Trophy playing football at Auburn, was in the middle of his senior season playing baseball at the school when Culverhouse — whose team held the No. 1 overall pick in the 1986 NFL Draft — flew him on a private jet to Tampa for a physical in the spring of 1986. Jackson told USA Today in 2017 that he’d been told the trip was cleared through the NCAA, but, in his words “nobody checked it out.” He was subsequently ruled ineligible by the SEC and never forgave Culverhouse or the organization.

When Tampa Bay drafted him against his stated wishes, he opted to play professional baseball. He was eligible for the NFL draft again the following year, but teams passed on him, presumably because they believed he was committed to baseball. Raiders owner Al Davis took a chance and selected him in the seventh round, then was able to sign him after agreeing that he could play football and baseball.

Jackson joined the Raiders midway through the 1987 season, which was a tenuous time for the franchise. The Raiders had won their first two games, but a league-wide players strike ensued, and the team lost two of three while using replacement players. Los Angeles was 3-2 when the regulars returned following the end of the strike, and a festering feud between Davis and Allen, a former league MVP and All-Pro, had yet to be resolved.

Enter Jackson, whose first game with the team was in Week 8, in the middle of what would become a seven-game losing streak.

“I guess we knew that he had been drafted, but we didn’t think about it a whole lot, because we had the strike,” said Lofton. “You don’t see college football when you’re in the NFL; Saturday is a travel day, and it wasn’t like you could go and pick up an Auburn game anywhere in the country, like you can now. I picked him up at his condo before his first practice, because his car had yet to ship out, and I’m not a super talkative guy and he’s not really saying anything. We get on the field, and he doesn’t know the plays, so his very first play, we run something simple, toss right.

“I’m standing behind the huddle and — I’ve been on the USA Track team and been around all these Olympians, fast guys on the Raiders, too — when they tossed the ball to Bo, I’ve never seen anybody run that fast before or after in my life. I remember looking at Marcus, thinking, There goes your job. It was kind of like, you know how we watch Derrick Henry now, and when he hits the line, there’s this big surge. Well, with Bo, there was just this big swoosh! when he went around the corner.”

Wilson took note, as well.

“For quarterbacks, even on running plays, there is a rhythm to the play,” he said. “You get the ball and, in most cases, you reverse pivot, stick your hand out, get the mesh point and hand off. It’s pretty much consistent; high school or college, there’s really not much difference. But the first time I handed off to Bo, it was way different. Bo could get up to speed so fast that you had to hurry, or you were going to miss him, and you were going to be stuck with the ball and have to do something with it. Bo could get up to speed in two or three steps, and he was flying.”

Perhaps, but there was still the issue of him not knowing the playbook. At one point, an assistant coach began yelling at him in practice about missing an assignment. As teammates tell it, Allen, who only cared about winning, took the football and turned and handed it to Jackson.

“I will block for you,” is what Allen is said to have told Jackson. Allen also would lean to the left or right to inform Jackson which direction the quarterback was going to pivot for the handoff. (Allen did not respond to a request for comment through the Raiders’ alumni organization for this article.)

“He was just concerned about making sure that Bo was able to excel the best that he could,” said right guard Dean Miraldi. “I remember watching film or discussions and seeing Marcus on the field making sure that Bo was always put into a position for success.”

The signs of greatness were there in practice and early games, but a signature moment lagged. He carried eight times for 37 yards in his first game, against New England, then rushed 12 times for 74 yards against Minnesota, eight times for 45 yards versus San Diego, and 13 times for 98 against the Broncos. Total touchdowns to that point: two.

Then came the Monday night trip to Seattle and the hated Kingdome in Week 12, on Nov. 30, 1987 — Jackson’s 25th birthday.

When the Seahawks host the now-Las Vegas Raiders this Sunday, nearly 35 years to the day from that game, it will be at Lumen Field, which is also notoriously difficult to play in, but not necessarily because of its design aesthetic. The Kingdome, however, was one of only four domed stadiums in the league at the time it opened, in 1976. It looked like a giant cement coffin, and the only thing memorable about it was its ability to trap crowd noise and make life miserable for opponents, who struggled to communicate on the field.

As if that were not enough reason for concern, the Raiders had lost five in a row in the venue, and now rookie Brian Bosworth, the Seahawks’ caricature of a linebacker, was popping off in the media by promising to shut down Jackson. The noise got the attention of everyone involved, notably Jackson. (Both Jackson and Bosworth declined through representatives to comment for this article.)

“I’m going to f— him up,” Lofton recalls Jackson saying.

It didn’t look that way early. Jackson lost a yard on each of his first two carries, the latter resulting in a lost fumble. But it was on from there. He ended the first quarter with runs of 4 and 15 yards, then opened the second quarter with gains of 12 and 2 yards. Suddenly, it was third-and-6 from the Raiders’ 9-yard line.

“I don’t think they expected us to run the ball,” Wilson said. “If you were to look at our statistics on third-and-6, all the years I played for the Raiders, probably 99 percent of the time we were going to throw it in that situation. So I’m sure it caught them a little flat-footed. The thing with Bo is, if it only caught them by surprise for a fraction of a second, that’s all he needed, and he was gone. No one understood it at the time, but they did after.”

Wilson set the strong side of the formation to the right, the short side of the field. All of his firepower was there, with Lofton out wide, tight end Todd Christensen outside the tackle, and Jackson offset behind the right guard. Allen was aligned directly behind Wilson, with blocking tight end Trey Junkin outside the left tackle.

“The wide side of the field was to the left,” Wilson said, “and I was hoping the formation would tilt the defense away from there.”

It worked, but what really made the play go were the body blows the line had delivered to that point. Holloway wanted to see what Bosworth, the hyped rookie, was all about, so he made a point of going after him early. When Bosworth chose to engage head up, rather than trying to slip blocks or use angles, Holloway had him where he wanted him.

” ‘I can’t believe he’s doing that,’ I thought to myself,” he said. “So I smacked him again, and he continued taking me on. It was a very rookie mistake. He can’t take on 350, 325 (pounds), because it will break him down. But they were still lining him up there. Bo would always ask me what I was seeing, so I said, ‘Bo, let me work on him in this first quarter and I’ll let you know.’ Then I saw. I had him.”

The play called for Miraldi, the right guard, and Steve Wright, the right tackle, to pull to the left at the snap of the ball. Miraldi was supposed to seal the inside, and Wright was supposed to lead the way through the channel, picking up any defender flowing to the ball.

Just one problem: Junkin and Holloway did such a fantastic job blocking down, and Allen did such a nice job forcing the corner to go outside after coming upfield, that there was no one to seal or block. In fact, Miraldi sheepishly admits that his only contact was with safety Eugene Robinson as he was falling after Jackson stiff-armed him.

“When I saw Bo afterward, I said, ‘I hope I wasn’t in your way,’ ” he said. “He told me he used me as a screen. I said, ‘I’m going to tell my grandkids that.’ At the end of the day, I had one of the best seats in that stadium to watch Bo run and watch those Seahawks players attempt to catch up to him.”

Fact is, once Jackson got past the diving Robinson and squared his shoulders, it was over. Neither Bosworth nor safety Kenny Easley was going to catch him. By the Seattle 25-yard line, they had faded faster than a bleached pair of blue jeans.

“It was like thrusters were on,” Miraldi said. “He was in that tunnel and began to come out, and people still hadn’t crossed the goal line yet.”

Jackson — who also memorably ran Bosworth into the end zone on a later touchdown run that night — finished the game with 221 rushing yards. He would not top that total in a career cut short by a hip injury after 38 games over four seasons. But the prime-time performance woke up the world to what he was capable of.

“I don’t know if anybody really knew what we had in Bo at that time,” said Wilson. “We knew the guy was amazing, we knew the guy was incredibly fast, but he had only played a couple of games. So I don’t know if we knew what we really had, but after that play we did. So did everyone else in the league.”

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

Editors: Ali Bhanpuri, Tom Blair

Illustration by: Albert Lee

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