Lessons in Excellence from Bo Jackson, Dirk Nowitzki, and Jim Thorpe

Lessons in Excellence from Bo Jackson, Dirk Nowitzki, and Jim Thorpe

Dirk Nowitzki is the best shooting big man in NBA history, Jim Thorpe was an Olympic champion in track and played pro football and baseball, and Bo Jackson was arguably the greatest athlete of his era (sorry, MJ!). But their athletic feats didn't just come from special genetics or being in the right place at the right time. Three recent biographies revealed the secrets behind the sustained brilliance of Nowitzki, Thorpe, and Jackson that can be applied to every endeavor. Let’s look at their unique paths to greatness and explore some of the reasons they became legendary.

Bo Knows Winning

When Bo Jackson was named a Major League Baseball All-Star in 1989 and then was an NFL All-Pro selection the following year, a new standard was set for athletic polymath excellence. Certainly, he was a natural specimen at six foot one and 230 pounds. One former teammate said, “If he had three percent body fat, that’d be a lot. He was all muscle. Like a tank from the future.” But Bo’s superhero physique, sprinter’s speed, and preternatural power were only part of his recipe for jaw-dropping feats on the field.

Jackson could’ve begun his professional sports career in 1982. In high school, he rushed for 1,175 yards as a senior at McCalla High School in Alabama and was so far ahead of the field in the decathlon that he decided not to run the final event – the 1,500 meters – because he’d already clinched back-to-back state titles and hated distance running. He also set state records in the high jump and triple jump. But it was his performance on the diamond, which included 20 home runs in just 25 games – that made Jackson a second round selection of the Yankees in the 1982 MLB draft.

Most athletes would’ve jumped at the opportunity, but Jackson decided – after sifting through a mountain of recruitment letters – to play football on a scholarship at Auburn because he’d promised his mom that he’d become the first person in their family to go to college. He soon showed an uncanny ability to rack up rushing yards and win big games, starting with two touchdowns to defeat Boston College in the Tangerine Bowl at the end of his freshman season. The next year he was named MVP of the Sugar Bowl as the Tigers beat Michigan. Bouncing back from injury as a junior, Jackson helped defeat Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl and again won MVP. He saved the best for last, rushing for 1,786 yards his senior year to win the Heisman Trophy.

Though he was picked first by Tampa Bay in the 1986 NFL Draft, Jackson chose to finally play pro baseball, signing a contract with the Kansas City Royals. After a year in the minors, he hit 22 home runs and had 53 RBIs. In 1989, he was named All-Star Game MVP and earned Comeback Player of the Year honors four years later after returning from a hip replacement needed after a football injury. Yes, Jackson was also playing in the NFL while he was in MLB. He set a Monday Night Football rushing record of 221 yards that still stands during his rookie season with the Raiders, and racked up 950 yards in 1989. Though that bad hip ended his 1990 campaign early, Jackson was still selected for the Pro Bowl.  

In his book The Last Folk Hero, Jeff Pearlman revealed that Jackson reveled in being the underdog, like when he was supposed to be behind a five-star recruit at Auburn but secured the starting job during camp. Or when he responded to media criticism that he wasn’t a legitimate Heisman contender by scoring seven touchdowns in four games as “He ran over people, under people, through people.” Jackson was also driven to escape the poverty he had grown up in, reward his single mother who’d worked multiple jobs to provide for him and his 10 siblings, and prove a point to the father who had abandoned the family. This was the kindling for the fire that propelled Jackson to the mythic status he achieved and pushed him through pain and injury long after most players would’ve quit. 

The Bright Path

When he was born in a one-room cabin on the Sac and Fox reservation in Oklahoma, Jim Thorpe’s mother gave him the native name Wa-Tho-Huk, which means “bright path.” This proved to be prophetic for a sporting career that few have matched. He was selected for Team USA’s 1912 Stockholm Olympics squad in the heptathlon and decathlon. Thorpe won every event in the former except the javelin and then beat his nearest competitor by 700 points in the latter, not only topping the podium but also setting a new world record that would stand for 36 years. When King Gustav V of Sweden presented Thorpe with his two gold medals, he told him, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”

Before Thorpe achieved double Olympic glory, he starred for pioneering football coach Pop Warner and was named a first team All-American in 1911. After the Games, he picked up where he left off, scoring 27 touchdowns and 224 points in another All-American season. In a game against Army, Thorpe saw a 92-yard touchdown waved off for a penalty, so he scored on a 97-yard run on the very next play. In his book Path Lit by Lightning, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss revealed that one of Thorpe’s opponents that day was future president Dwight Eisenhower, who later said, “Here and there, there are some people who are supremely endowed. My memory goes back to Jim Thorpe. He never practiced in his life, and he could do anything better than any other football player I ever saw.”

Though he was banned from amateur events for competing in minor league baseball games before the Olympics, the firestorm of publicity worked to Thorpe’s benefit, and he signed a contract with the New York Giants. The team won the World Series in 1913, and he went on to play for the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds. Meanwhile, Thorpe was also playing pro football, and his Canton Bulldogs won the title in 1916, 1917, and 1919. He became the first president of the NFL in 1920 and was named to the All-NFL team in 1923.

A big part of Thorpe’s prolific achievements was his willingness to try his hand at just about everything. Unlike talented junior athletes today who start specializing young and are on traveling teams in a single sport before they hit their teens, Thorpe relished the challenge of excelling in as many activities as possible. “I never was content unless I was trying my skill or testing my endurance,” he once said. Despite his athletic prowess, the most Thorpe ever made in a season was $300, and while he was featured in over 50 movies, he only ever got bit parts in Hollywood. During the Great Depression, Thorpe had to dig ditches to put food on his family’s table. In an interview with NPR, Maraniss shared what he believes was the secret to Thorpe’s greatness. “He kept working no matter what… despite everything that went against him, he kept trying it. And persistence was what defined him, not tragedy.”

The German Genius

In 1999, seminal basketball magazine SLAM featured three players on alternate Rookie of the Year covers: dunk machine Vince Carter, point guard wizard Jason Williams, and future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce. At this point, Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks was an afterthought, but the ninth pick in that year’s NBA draft would go on to show that even if his first year was low-key, what followed would be nothing less than game changing.

Growing up in the small German town of Würzburg, Nowitzki had sports running through his veins. His mother, Helga, was a pro basketball player and his father, Jorg, starred on the national handball team. Nowitzki dabbled in many different activities, particularly enjoying soccer and tennis, in which he was good enough to become a ranked junior player. But as he kept growing taller and taller, it seemed like destiny that Nowitzki would follow in his mother’s footsteps on the hardwood. He joined his local pro team at age 15, and by the following year, was both big and good enough to be selected for the first team. Playing alongside grown men, he came off the bench in his first season, and was named a starter the next season.

He averaged double digit scoring and after putting up 24 points in one game, national team coach Dirk Bauermann exclaimed that “Dirk Nowitzki is the greatest German basketball talent of the last 10, maybe 15 years.” He upped his scoring to 19.4 the following season, and then led Würzburg and the league with 28.2 points per game as a six-foot-11 18-year-old. His breakout season earned the club promotion to the first division and garnered German Basketballer of the Year award for the precocious teenager. When he was selected to play in an exhibition game against NBA stars and his childhood heroes Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley, Nowitzki poured in 30 points and dunked on Barkley, prompting Sir Charles to offer to pay for his tuition if he’d go to his alma mater, Auburn.

Nowitzki gained even more attention when he starred in a Nike Hoop Summit game against the best young American players, leading all scorers with 32. The Milwaukee Bucks selected him with the ninth pick in the 1998 draft, but crafty Dallas Mavericks executive Donnie Nelson and his father engineered a trade. Soon, the Mavs acquired similarly underrated Steve Nash from the Phoenix Suns and paired them with versatile guard Michael Finley. At the end of the 2000-2001 season, Nowitzki was averaging 21.8 points and 9.2 rebounds, led the team to their first playoff series since 1990, and became the first Mavericks player to be named to an All-NBA team.

The next year, he was named an All-Star, an honor he'd repeat 13 times. Though the Mavericks lost to the Miami Heat in the 2007 NBA Finals, Nowitzki won that year’s MVP award. Four years later, he added the Finals MVP trophy as the Mavericks got their revenge on the Heat and claimed their first title. By the time he retired in 2020, Nowitzki was one of only six NBA players to surpass 30,000 total points and the only player to have stayed with a team for 21 seasons. He also led Germany to the bronze medal in the 2002 FIBA World Cup and silver in EuroBasket 2005, winning MVP in both tournaments.

As singular as his achievements are, Nowitzki’s greatness partly came from his willingness to submit to mentorship. In his book The Great Nowitzki, Thomas Pletzinger revealed how former German national team player Holger Geschwindner took a 15-year-old Dirk under his wing and turned him from a raw talent into the polished player with the unstoppable one-legged fadeaway immortalized in a statue outside the American Airlines Center. Whether it was unusual ballhandling and footwork drills, walking up and down his player’s spine after practice, or honing his jumper from every conceivable angle, Nowitzki surrendered to Geschwindner’s unorthodox methods. The teacher also created a failure-free zone for his prize pupil. “The goal of this training is to take the next shot as if it were the only one that mattered,” Pletzinger wrote. “What happened before and what would come later are irrelevant.”