CRAWFORD | Drawing a line: Bonnafon's Louisville legacy of leade - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Drawing a line: Bonnafon's Louisville legacy of leadership

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Reggie Bonnafon works out at running back. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Reggie Bonnafon works out at running back. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)
Reggie Bonnafon at Louisville's media day (Photo illustration by Eric Crawford) Reggie Bonnafon at Louisville's media day (Photo illustration by Eric Crawford)
Reggie Bonnafon in a preseason workout (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Reggie Bonnafon in a preseason workout (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)
Reggie Bonnafon speaks with reporters (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Reggie Bonnafon speaks with reporters (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — This is probably not how Reggie Bonnafon drew up his University of Louisville football career. Or maybe it was.

Bonnafon, you see, can draw. He’s a quarterback, wideout, running back, leader and avid reader, but he’s also a bit of an artist.

He used to do it more, but still he can pull out a sheet of paper and, more from life than from imagination, sketch whatever catches the focus of either. Most recently, he was inspired last year, as many were, by the life and death of Louisville boxing great Muhammad Ali. So he undertook a drawing of The Greatest.

“I’m kind of like a perfectionist when I come to it, so if it’s not up to my standard I won’t even keep it,” Bonnafon said. “But I tried to draw Muhammad Ali. My girlfriend and my roommate were, like, ‘That’s nice.’ But it wasn’t to my standard, so I ended up throwing it away. But anything I see — I can’t really draw off the top of my head, but if it’s an image that’s penciled out or I can look at, I can definitely give it a shot.”

Understand from the outset, Bonnafon doesn’t just hold his drawings to a high standard — he holds himself to one. He’s building a personal library of self-help and motivational books. What he’s only begun to realize as a senior, however, is that his own career at U of L has been that kind of story for many of his teammates, and even coach Bobby Petrino.

“I have a big spot in my heart for Reggie,” Petrino said. “Everybody in this program has a great deal of respect for him.”

The prevailing storyline on Bonnafon entering this season is that he’s embarking on a third position while in the program. He began his career as a quarterback, lost the starting job to Lamar Jackson, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy, and moved to wide receiver. This season, he will primarily play running back, though he could show up almost anywhere in Petrino’s offense. It sounds like a lot to take in, but Bonnafon shrugs that off. He’s been doing it his entire football life. Ask him to reel off the positions he’s played, and he has no problem.??

“Dating back way to little league, first real position was tight end and defensive end,” Bonnafon said. “Then from there transitioned to running back, and from there to quarterback, and kind of fell in love with playing quarterback, all through middle school. In high school, played quarterback freshman year, sophomore and junior year went to wide receiver and played a little running back, then senior year came back to quarterback. Then I came to Louisville, quarterback freshman year, sophomore running back, quarterback, receiver, then junior year went to receiver. Senior year, I’ll top it off at running back.”

You guys straight with all that? Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to be. Bonnafon is.

But some of that requires further review. “Played quarterback freshman year” hardly does his first season of college football justice. He was thrown into the fire. He took his first snaps against Murray State, three games into his college career. Nine days later, his father, Wallace Bonnafon, died of a heart attack at age 51. The two had been inseparable. Reggie still keeps a note his father wrote to him in his playing days at Trinity High School close at hand. And he keeps his father’s memory even closer.??

They buried his father the following Saturday, with the Cardinals playing at Florida International. Back in Louisville, after the funeral, Reggie learned that he would be the Cardinals’ starting quarterback the following week, after starter Will Gardner was sidelined with an injury. Bonnafon steadied himself, then steadied his team, leading the Cardinals to a win over Wake Forest, then a win over Syracuse.

“I was here when he went through losing his father,” Petrino said. “His dad was a great guy. He used to come up and talk to us all the time, so it’s something that’s special to all of us. It took a lot of strength for him to play through a lot of that grief, and a lot of our guys instantly respected him from that point forward.”

My big memory of Bonnafon that season was later in the year, when he led the Cardinals into Notre Dame, and came away with a 31-28 win. I watched him, in Victory Formation, take a snap, genuflect, then tuck the ball under his arm and hang on for dear life. There had been only nine visiting teams enter that stadium and win their first trip, going back all the way to when it was built in 1930. Bonnafon made Louisville No. 10. I remember talking to him in the postgame interviews, then watching him head out of the back gates, which opened to reveal Notre Dame’s famous Touchdown Jesus, framing Bonnafon as he disappeared into a crowd of fans.

It was a goosebumps kind of image.

FRUSTRATION, AND FAITH

That win, you could argue, was one of the Top 10 wins in program history. Once a quarterback has done that, has navigated the waters Bonnafon traveled as a true freshman, you don’t often see one dislodged. But that’s what happened to him as a sophomore. A kid named Lamar Jackson arrived on campus. And Bonnafon was never the regular quarterback again.

He never pouted. He shared everything he could with the young Jackson.

“He was there after every play, telling me what I needed to see, or encouraging me, lifting me back up if I made a mistake,” Jackson said. “He didn’t have to do that. But he wanted what was best for the team. He never did anything but support and encourage me. He could’ve been mad. But that’s not Reggie.”

No, it isn’t. Privately, Bonnafon says he didn’t think, even for a fleeting moment, about leaving the program after learning that his dream of playing quarterback was not going to continue. But he wasn’t exactly happy. It took him a little time to accept it.

“I never thought about leaving. Growing up, Louisville sports is the mecca of the city, really,” Bonnafon said. “When they asked me to switch, initially, I was a little frustrated. But I kind of got away, sat back and really looked at it, thought about my life and things that I’ve done, changing positions and stuff, and prayed about it with my family, and it definitely has benefited me more than I ever could have imagined. So I think I made a good decision. I wouldn’t change it.”

If you poke your head through Bonnafon’s door these days, you’re likely to see him reading. He smiled when he noted that a few teammates have seen him reading during his off time and wondered if he’d gone crazy. Among his favorites — Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable, by Tim Grover; Training Camp: What the Best Do Better Than Anyone Else, by Jon Gordon; and Think And Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill and Ben Holden-Crowther.

“I’ve got my little library going,” he said. “My goal when I get older is to get a house and kind of have my own library room.”

But what about other goals? His senior year now sits before him, a new position. Some questions about the future, he can answer. Others, he’s not so sure about.

“I would love to play in the NFL if the opportunity presents itself, and do that for as long as I can,” he said. “You can only do it for so long. But I’m still trying to figure it out. I definitely want to get back in the community of Louisville, just to help with the things that are going on around the city, just the violence or with the youth, whether I’m in the NFL or doing something else. But definitely still figuring that out.”

There’s not much question in his coach’s mind on either point.

“He’s just a great young man,” Petrino said. “And he’ll have a lot of success after football here, after an NFL career, he’ll have a lot of success doing whatever he wants to do.”

In the meantime, there’s the business of his senior season. A single look at Bonnafon physically shows that he’s bulked up in preparation for the banging a running back takes. He has maxed out every measurement the team takes in the weight room, improving in every area from a year ago. He said changing position is little challenge, because he’s done it so often, and because his time at quarterback gave him a familiarity with how the entire offense works.

"ULTIMATE TEAM PLAYER"

In the locker room, he’s an unquestioned leader. And he takes that responsibility seriously. Petrino has called him the “ultimate team player,” because of his willingness to take any role he’s asked for the benefit of the team.

“I saw he said that, and I was taken away by it,” he said. “Then I looked at what I’ve done over the years. You can call it sacrifices, but all I was worried about was the team. . . . I just try to be myself. I hold myself to a high standard. I’m aware of younger guys coming to ask me stuff, and I realize that they look at me like I looked at Lorenzo Mauldin and Devante Parker and Sheldon Rankins, so I try to share anything I’ve learned.”

Jackson said that Bonnafon will be a weapon this season.

“He’s worked really hard,” Jackson said. “He’s a great athlete. He can do it all.”

Petrino, who has repeatedly blamed himself for not getting Bonnafon the ball enough last season, says he hopes the move to running back will put it in his hands more often. Bonnafon enters the season at No. 1 on the running back depth chart.

As the first game of his final college season draws near, he says his father remains on his mind.

“He would definitely be proud, first and foremost, and outside of football,” Bonnafon said. “He would always tell me he was proud when he was living, regardless of accolades. But I’m constantly thinking about him. His birthday was just (August) 1, so he’s been heavy on my mind. But we always try to relive the good memories that we had together. Luckily he was able to see one of my first games I actually got to play as a freshman, against Murray State. So that’s a memory I can always cherish, that he saw me get to this point. He’s constantly on my mind. I think about him every day, and I’m just trying to keep his legacy going.”

How would he like to be remembered? Bonnafon had a two-word response.

“National championship,” he said, then he explained. “I don’t think there’s anything else we expect as a team, other than that. Obviously the ACC first. Then going on to the national championship, bringing a football national championship to Louisville, which is something we’ve never seen. From growing up here, winning the Orange Bowl and the Sugar Bowl, which are some big bowl games, I think Louisville would explode, and that’s something I’d love to see.”??

He can picture it in his mind. Maybe one day he’ll get a chance to draw it. Either way, the portrait he will leave behind at U of L will be remembered for some time.

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