Bo Knows 40-Yard Dashes

Posted Mar 2, 2018

Did Bo Jackson really run the fastest 40-yard dash time recorded? We asked the man himself to find out.

Peter Read Miller/Associated Press

As the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine rolls on at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the 40-yard dash once again takes center stage. Since NFL Network began covering the Combine in 2004, the 40-yard dash has become the signature event.

In 2017, University of Washington wide receiver John Ross broke East Carolina running back Chris Johnson’s NFL Scouting Combine 40-yard dash record. Johnson turned in a 4.24 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis in 2008. Ross ran a 4.22 at the 2017 Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Both times were faster than Hall of Fame cornerback and two-sport star Deion Sanders’ official time of 4.27 in 1989.

These truly are amazing, fast times turned in by great athletes. However, the fastest pre-draft 40-yard dash time may very well have been turned in by another two-sport star – Bo Jackson. 

Several online sources say that Jackson ran a 4.12 40-yard dash at the 1986 NFL Scouting Combine, known then as the National Invitational Camp, at the Superdome in New Orleans. It was the second full league-wide Combine as we know it today, with the first taking place in Arizona in 1985.

There’s one problem with that. It never happened.

In a Feb. 10, 1986, article, Bob Gretz of The Sporting News wrote that Jackson declined an invitation to attend what was dubbed at the time “The Workout.”

Gretz wrote: “This year, approximately 320 players were scheduled to attend, with various last-minute cancellations and additions. Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson — who’s also coveted by pro baseball scouts — declined the invitation. That prompted one NFL scout to crack that they would ‘have to cancel the home run-hitting drill.’”

Dave Raffo, a sports writer with United Press International at the time, wrote that Jackson was “capable of a 4.12 40-yard dash.”

Jackson, a football and baseball star and an accomplished sprinter, played his final collegiate football game Jan. 1, 1986, a 36-16 loss to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Jackson was named the game’s most outstanding offensive player in a losing effort. The NFL Scouting Combine was held after the Jan. 26 Super Bowl. Numerous Auburn track events were held in January and February. Auburn opened its 1986 baseball season Feb. 26.   

When and where did this 4.12 40-yard dash actually take place? Did it actually happen?

Hall of Fame player personnel executive Ron Wolf remembers it taking place indoors at Auburn. He also remembers that it was a hand-timed 4.16.

We decided to ask the man himself.

Jackson recalls that it was an electronically-timed 4.13 during what would or could be considered a regional combine or expanded pro day that Auburn hosted. According to Jackson, numerous prospects from several colleges attended. He said that it took place in the indoor bubble at Auburn, there was electronic tape at the start that triggered the clock, and that there was a laser at the finish line of the 40-yard dash.

“The coaches asked me, they said, ‘Bo, we have a bunch of pro scouts here, and it’s 40-yard dash time, they’re having a little combine, why don’t you come in and run a 40 for them, because they really came here in hopes to get you to run a 40 for them,’”  Jackson recalled. “‘I’m on my way to track practice, I’ll be running for the next two hours.’ ‘Just come in and appease these people, just come in and run 40 for them.’”

The Heisman Trophy-winner said that there wasn’t enough room for him to run the distance properly. He didn’t want to injure himself. According to Jackson, he pulled up with 10 yards to go. His first attempt came in at 4.3.

“‘They said, what if we open the back door?’ My coach had come up to me and said, ‘Give these guys what they want, run through the tape, and go on out the door, you don’t have to stop, run through the finish line,’” Jackson said. “I waited about five minutes to get my breath and they had other people. I got down there, and I took off and ran completely through, I just kept going right out the door and didn’t come back.”

For those of us who recall Jackson running through the tunnel at the end of a 91-yard touchdown run at the Kingdome in Seattle a year and a half later, this 40-yard dash was a precursor of things to come.

After numerous reports of hand-held stopwatch times of 3.9 and 4-flat among the scouts, Jackson said the official timer was consulted.

“They asked the guy that was running the electronic timer,” Jackson said. “They said ‘The big-eye don’t lie, let me see what he got.’ The guy said, ‘there it is boys, go out and catch him if you can.’ It was 4.13.”  

Jackson also confirmed that he did not attend the 1986 NFL Scouting Combine in New Orleans. 

“I did not go because I was already picked to be the first person to go in the Draft,” Jackson said. “If you’re going to be the first person to go in the Draft, why should you go to a combine and do all of that? It wasn’t built up like it is now, now it’s a TV production, it’s a whole show.”

Jackson was selected with the first overall pick in the 1986 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but turned down their reported five-year, $5 million-offer. After sitting out a year, his name went back in for the Draft. The Los Angeles Raiders selected him in the seventh round of the 1987 NFL Draft. Jackson signed with the Silver and Black in July and played in his first game Nov. 1, 1987. He did not undergo any testing or timing prior to the 1987 NFL Draft because he was playing baseball with the Kansas City Royals at that time.

Until someone produces evidence to the contrary, we can say that Bo Jackson ran the fastest pre-draft 40-yard dash in recorded history with a time of 4.13 at a pro day/regional combine in February of 1986 at the University of Auburn, because ...

… Bo knows.