Talk to Kentucky linebacker Jordan Bonner about the differences between this year’s fall camp compared to last year’s fall camp, and you’ll get an answer like this.
“I really feel more comfortable. I feel more comfortable with the team. Just closer with everybody,” he said. “And as far as being on the field, knowing where I’m supposed to be, and knowing the playbook, it’s way better than last year. It definitely made me feel more comfortable because now I have more of a chance to play.”
You could probably plug that quote in for any second-year player in college football. It’d be strange if a second-year player didn’t have a response like that. But make no mistake, Bonner is far from a normal second-year player. And when he says things are different this year than last, he means it.
How? For starters, he’s no longer working his way back from being stabbed. So that’s good.
The other good news is that Bonner remained positive through what’s been a painful year-and-a-half. Getting stabbed was just the beginning of what’s been an unending cycle of life-changing experiences. Now, his goal is to clear his head and become a breakout star for the Wildcats.
Considering what he’s been through since the start of 2016, that’ll be no small feat.
That was the difference in Bonner being dead or alive. That’s what the doctors told him when he was rushed to the hospital with stab wounds in his abdomen, back and chest.
“If I wasn’t built the way I was built,” he said, “it could’ve been my last day.”
The nearly fatal incident occurred in March of 2016 when he was visiting his infant son back home in Ohio during spring break. Euclid police arrested Aristotle Lewis, the father of the baby’s mom, and charged him with felony assault. Charges later were dismissed as both parties claimed self-defense.
Thankful to be alive, another reality set in for Bonner when he was at the hospital. He still had classes to finish at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, where he was attending junior college. A month earlier, Bonner signed his national letter of intent to play football at Kentucky in 2016. If he couldn’t complete his class requirements, he wouldn’t be eligible to enroll in Lexington.
His injuries kept him out of school for three weeks, which meant that he had to drop one of his required classes. After some scrambling, he found that his junior college back in Cleveland offered a physical science class over the summer. He juggled morning classes while taking care of his son, who was just a few months old. His boy’s mother had to work, as did the rest of his family.
Kentucky LB Jordan Bonner
Two months later than initially expected, Bonner arrived at Kentucky for fall camp. His learning curve was steep, but the coaching staff was patient with him. They were in constant contact before he showed up at Kentucky to make sure that not only he would gain eligibility, but that he’d even be in the right state of mind to join the team.
“I didn’t know if he was gonna play. I didn’t know if he was gonna give up,” Kentucky recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow said. “You’re just wondering … knowing who he is, it was gratifying to know that he’s a very strong-minded kid. But I’ve got to be honest with you. Going through all of that adversity, I really thought, ‘Man, is this kid even gonna make it?'”
Bonner capped his first season at Kentucky as well as one could have hoped given his circumstances. He played in 11 games and made 10 tackles with one tackle for loss. His son, Joel, and his son’s mother made the five-hour trip to a handful of home game.
Apparently Joel made quite the impression on the UK faithful.
“Everybody said he was the life of the party,” Bonner said.
With a season under his belt, Bonner was eager to embrace the full college experience. He talked to former Kentucky player De’Niro Laster about a service trip that he and two teammates went on to Ethiopia in 2016. Bonner made sure he was one of the three Wildcats who got to make the trip in May.
When he signed up, he thought they’d be going to Ethiopia. Due to the travel ban, though, they went to the Dominican Republic.
“But I loved it nonetheless,” he said.
Bonner, C.J. Conrad and Denzil Ware got to do a bit of everything in the Dominican Republic. They painted churches, built benches, played with kids and fed people in need. Just as Bonner hoped, the experience was eye-opening.
“Right before we left, I was talking to the coaches and I was like, ‘Man, you guys are holding the checks and I’ve got bills I gotta pay for,’” he said. “Then as soon as we got to DR, I was like, ‘I’m worried about a couple dollars and these people are living in shacks.’”
Compared to playing baseball in the Dominican, Bonner realized that being on scholarship and having a path to the NFL wasn’t such a bad thing. When he got back to the U.S., he tried to complain less. He saw that even with his atypical circumstances, life could always be worse.
Unfortunately, he soon got another painful reminder of that.
Kentucky recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow
Marrow recruited Bonner when he was on Bo Pelini’s staff at Nebraska. After he came to Kentucky, Marrow kept tabs on the tall edge-rusher at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in 2015. When he and the Kentucky coaching staff turned on the film, they knew they had to get Bonner on campus.
“Ah, man. Just when we watched him … 6-5, 220, running a legit 4.58-40, and then we got to the official visit, that’s when we were sold,” Marrow said. “You just watched him and his dad, how he was, a very detail-oriented guy.”
Bonner’s dad, Spencer, drove down from Cleveland to Lexington and met him for the official on-campus visit. Spencer was the one who signed up Jordan for football and bought him cleats every year. Jordan was Spencer’s only son, which made his “main man” nickname fitting. Spencer always wanted his son to be the first male Bonner to attend college, and even better if he could do so on a football scholarship.
After meeting with the coaching staff, Spencer realized that Kentucky was where Jordan needed to be. With offers from Nebraska, Tennessee and others, Jordan followed his dad’s advice and picked Kentucky.
When he got back from the Dominican, he went home to Cleveland for a couple weeks to stay with his dad like he usually did when he was home. On May 22, he went back to Lexington before summer workouts in hopes of getting his car situation squared away.
The next morning, Jordan found out that his dad went to the hospital after he had been throwing up the night before. Spencer calmed Jordan’s concerns when he told him he was feeling “50 percent better” and that he expected to return home the next day. The following morning, Jordan woke up at his girlfriend’s place in Lexington with a scary thought on his mind.
“I was just like, ‘What would happen if I lost my dad?’” he said.
That morning, Jordan called family members for an update on his dad. The hospital wouldn’t share any information with Jordan over the phone. None of his family had any updates. That is, until he called his aunt. She delivered the news that Jordan feared most.
His father was dead at age 54.
Spencer had liver failure and went into cardiac arrest. The news turned Jordan’s normally stoic demeanor into raw emotion. The NCAA’s policy on student-athletes tending to family emergencies allowed Kentucky to arrange a flight home.
When Jordan got back to Ohio, he was dealt yet another blow. His grandma, Spencer’s mom, was in the same hospital as her son with a blood clot. When Jordan visited her, she didn’t know that Spencer had died.
“She kept asking, ‘Where’s Spencer, where’s Spencer?’” Jordan said. “It hurt because I couldn’t tell her, even though I wanted to.”
Kentucky recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow
The family elected not to tell her for a few days until her health was in order. Fortunately, though, she’s no longer in the hospital. Unfortunately, Jordan’s other grandma is now in the hospital in an induced-coma because she has pneumonia on both lungs.
Bonner didn’t post on social about his family emergencies. The team only found out about his dad because the coaching staff shared that information. Eventually, he returned to Lexington. His dad’s last words to him were fresh on his mind.
“He was like, ‘This is your year,’” Bonner said. “When I last talked to him, he said, ‘OK, you got that year under your belt. This is your outbreak year.’”
Despite all that he’s been through, Bonner had several on-the-field points of emphasis this offseason. He wanted to become more aggressive. He wanted to develop his skill set to become an even better pass-rusher. He wanted to become a complete player and maximize the potential of his gifted 6-5 frame.
That all comes back to taking care of the most important thing.
“When I step on the field, I try to clear my head,” he said, “but I just do it for the simple fact that this is something my dad really wanted me to do.”
He has plenty of support from the coaching staff, too. Marrow said that “the sky is the limit.” That’s not limited to the football field, either.
“I can tell you this,” Marrow said. “That young man is gonna make it in life. I don’t know if I could’ve handled that at that age … have a kid, get stabbed, lose a parent. That tells me he’s a very strong-minded guy. I think his future is gonna be real, real good.”
Bonner still has plenty of hurdles ahead. His baby boy is a huge priority. He has pressure to maximize his opportunities playing alongside Kentucky’s loaded group of linebackers. He still has family concerns that will creep into his head when he’s trying to focus.
There will likely still be times when all he wants to do is drive around Lexington and free his mind like he did last year. He says his faith is the reason that he’s not an emotional wreck. It got him through the stabbing, which probably seems like a lifetime ago after all he experienced in the last year and a half.
A new outlook on life and a new year. His year.
“Being in the situation I’m in now,” he said, “I can only be grateful.”