A crowd recently gathered outside Jordan-Hare Stadium, clad in orange and blue.
This is typical of the setting at Auburn's annual spring football game. But this year was different. The crowd was silent, awaiting a tribute to three of the storied program's legends.
One by one, protective tarps were removed from three 15-foot bronze statues representing Auburn’s Heisman Trophy winners. The first was the 1971 winner, Pat Sullivan. The last was the school’s latest winner and reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Cam Newton.
In between was one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen: two-sport star Bo Jackson.
When Jackson pulled off that tarp to reveal the statue bearing his likeness, his legacy became enshrined within the rich history of Auburn football.
This week, Jackson will see many more protective tarps, but these are remnants of the destruction still felt a year after a devastating string of tornadoes cut through Alabama and the southeastern U.S.
“It’s one thing to see the devastation on TV, and it’s another to actually be there, to see the people going through this and trying to cope through,” Jackson said. “It’s very, very hard to do. It is, it’s humbling.”
On April 27, 2011, a massive storm ripped through the Southeast. The National Weather Service estimates it traveled 380 miles, producing tornadoes up to a mile wide that reached wind speeds of 170 mph. Thousands of homes were leveled. More than 200 deaths were reported in Alabama alone.
Although no one in Jackson’s family was hurt, he wanted to assist those people whose lives were turned upside down by the storms.
“I’ve always looked at myself as my brothers and sisters’ keeper," Jackson said. "And with everything that happened in the state this past year, as far as the tornadoes and everything, I think that the rest of the country should have a light shined on it from the standpoint that a lot of people who don’t live or don’t have any connections there really don’t know how devastating the tornadoes were.”
Jackson has created a charity bike ride, Bo Bikes Bama, to raise funds for families affected by the storms. The event runs Tuesday through Saturday, and his goal is to reach $1 million in donations for the Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund.
“I think by doing this [bike ride]," Jackson said, "it enables me to put the word out there and hope that people will support me in my cause for raising funds for the victims.”
Alabamians will have the opportunity to cheer on Jackson and Bo Bikes Bama donors as they navigate the 300-mile path the tornadoes took through the state. They will start in the northeastern part of the state, in Henagar, and move southwest, riding between 40 and 65 miles per day and ending in Tuscaloosa, home of Auburn's archrival, the University of Alabama.
“This ride is not about Auburn or Alabama. It’s about a greater cause,” Jackson said. “It’s about people that were devastated by the tornadoes. It's more of a state unity ride.”
One of the cities the route will pass through is Pleasant Grove, a place which was hit hard by the storms and where Jackson has longtime connections. The mayor, Jerry Brasseale, is the brother of Jackson’s high school baseball coach.
“I was able to watch Bo throughout his career, from high school on, and I only ever saw positive things,” Brasseale said. “He has always been a very positive person, and you like to see people like that do well in their careers.”
That positive attitude, Brasseale said, will undoubtedly rub off on his community this week.
“Anytime you go through a tragedy like this, you’re always looking for a positive,” Brasseale said. “We are now trying to rebuild Pleasant Grove better than it was, and to have someone come in who will bring with him that kind of attitude, I think the people here are excited about it.”
At the conclusion of the ride, Jackson will host a charity auction in which donors can bid on the five bikes he will use throughout the ride. The custom-built machines, fabricated by Trek Bicycle, cost between $8,000 and $10,000. Each bike displays the names of all the victims who lost their lives in the 2011 storms.
“I want to recognize the family members that lost loved ones, to let them know that we are behind them,” Jackson said. “So if I can take [this bike ride] and open the public’s eyes about how dangerous tornadoes are and how much it affects people in the area and what they go through, it will open the country’s eyes.”