Jonathan Bonner probably didn’t have a choice when it came to playing football at the University of Notre Dame. There were just too many “karma” connections and moments that pointed to a collegiate career in an Irish jersey.
- His grandfather, Elmon Hampton, who died when Jonathan was in high school at Parkway Central in Chesterfield, Missouri, routinely brought children from the inner city of Chicago to Notre Dame for the annual Blue-Gold Game and tours of campus. As founder and director of the Hampton Youth Center, Elmon wanted to expose the youngsters to the college experience, hoping they would see where academics could take them.
- His uncle, Dan Knott, played football for legendary Irish coaches Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine and was a member of the 1977 national championship team.
- His mother, Consuelo Hampton, a physician who works for the medical staff of the Chicago Bears and was a former student-athlete at the University of Kansas, can’t remember rooting for any college football team other than Notre Dame since she made numerous treks to South Bend with her father and to watch her brother play.
- His father, Spencer Bonner, now an assistant football coach at Free State High School in Lawrence, Kansas, grew up an Irish fan in Oak Park, just outside Chicago, and stayed interested in Notre Dame football fortunes even as a member of the Jayhawk teams in the early ’90s.
- And sister Cherokee Hubbard, a 2016 graduate of Syracuse, has followed Irish football since she was a young girl.
Bonner, now a graduate student on the defensive line, convinced his parents to let him play flag football in fifth grade. While in middle school he participated in several of Notre Dame’s three-day youth football camps and often tagged along with his grandfather on those trips to South Bend for the annual spring game.
His parents often dangled Notre Dame as the “golden nugget” of colleges to help the quiet and curious youngster stay focused on what they established as his most important goal — academics.
“His mother and I always stressed education — football came much later,” explained Spencer, whose Firebird squad stood 10-0 as this story went to press. “From elementary school on, we talked to him about grades being highly important if he wanted to get into college. We used Notre Dame as a measuring stick, saying, ‘This is what your grades will need to look like if you want to go to Notre Dame, Stanford, Yale, Harvard.’ Those were the standards we were going to set for him. We were focusing on an academic scholarship, not football.”
Notre Dame always ranked at the top of Jonathan’s list of potential colleges, but as playing football on the Division I level emerged as a real possibility, the 6-4, 240-pound high school player wasn’t on the Irish radar screen.
“My grandfather was convinced I was going to Notre Dame,” recalled Bonner. “It was a dream school for me for sure, but they hadn’t contacted me early so I didn’t think it would happen.”
But fate has a funny way of intervening.
Jonathan and his dad had planned a visit to Michigan State (Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio was Spencer’s position coach at Kansas) and since South Bend was on the way and Notre Dame just happened to be holding a football camp, father and son — and grandmother — figured it was worth a shot.
“My grandma pretty much insisted I go to that camp,” said Jonathan. “She said, ‘You’re going — I’m paying for you to go to that camp.’ I really was hesitant because Notre Dame hadn’t shown much of an interest in me.
“So I ended up doing my thing at the camp and catching the coaches’ eyes. They ran me through some more drills. They were like, ‘We knew about you, but we didn’t know you were that talented.'”
A few days later, Notre Dame associate head coach Mike Elston called and offered Bonner a scholarship. He didn’t take long to answer.
“I’m like, honestly, after visiting I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else,” said Bonner. “This is something that’s been on the back burner my entire life.”
Bonner, who graduated last May with a degree in information technology management from the Mendoza College of Business, has been a key member of the Irish defense since his sophomore season when he played in 10 of 13 games. As a junior he appeared in all 12 contests and started every game as a senior, picking up the defensive newcomer award along the way, despite playing most of the season with a broken right wrist.
“My uncle played here and he said that one of his biggest regrets is that he struggled listening to the coaches when they said they wanted him to play different positions,” explained Bonner. “He said, ‘Just listen to the coaches. They have the team’s best interests in mind and they are going to make sure you get on the field.’ Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve kind of embraced that and listened to the coaches. If they switch you to a different position, it’s not because you are doing anything wrong. They’re able to get you on the field, and that will make you more productive.”
Bonner often talked football with his dad, who usually offered advice on technique, not strategy. But when he arrived at Notre Dame, Bonner forged a lasting relationship on and off the field with Elston, who he considers a second father.
“Coach is a great father figure also,” says Bonner. “We all know each other so well. Just like the chemistry and everything in that room is incredible.”
Elston has watched Bonner develop the talent that first caught his attention at that long ago summer camp.
“Jonathan Bonner has been a rock for the interior of our defensive line for two seasons now,” says Elston. “He’s been the most consistent and steady player we’ve had up front. Because of his consistency, he’s been someone who our younger players have looked up to and been able to follow. He has an incredible work ethic and displays a toughness every time he puts on the gold helmet and represents Notre Dame.”
Bonner used discipline, focus and work ethic to control his fortunes on the field and in the classroom, but he was knocked for a loop a year ago when his mother, who he often calls his “twin,” was diagnosed with cancer — for the third time.
Consuelo Hampton had two children by the time she was 20 years old and her first cancer bout at 23. Yet, she graduated from the University of Kansas, finished her medical degree and persevered. But this diagnosis was even more challenging since her parents were no longer alive to help.
“Jonathan and Cherokee were very strong,” said Hampton. “They wanted to be strong for me. They wanted to be my backbone. They kind of took charge and said, ‘Mom, whatever needs to happen, we’re here for you.’
“Cherokee took a job in Chicago. Jon was very proactive and said, ‘What do I need to do to be there?'”
Now a student at the Harold Ramis Film School at Chicago’s Second City, Cherokee knew her mother’s illness would hit her and her brother hard.
“My mom is the centerpiece of our family,” explains Hubbard. “She’s brilliant, independent, kind, funny, well-educated. She’s driven us to be better people.”
Bonner thought that maybe it was time to go back to Chicago, focus on the career in technology he hopes to one day enjoy and help his mother. But Hampton would have none of it. So he returned for a fifth year, but his mom, who is now running three miles a day and training for the 2019 Chicago Marathon, is never far from his mind.
“We have been able to grow a really strong relationship where we’re 100 percent open with each other and telling each other everything,” says Bonner. “I talk to her daily and she’s always very helpful in everything that I do and very supportive. We’re always communicating, always there for each other.”
Although the 2018 Irish football team has at least three games left on the docket, the eventual end of his Notre Dame football career will be bittersweet for Bonner, his sister, his dad and his mother.
“I’ve seen my brother really grow into his independence at Notre Dame,” said Hubbard. “He can be very quiet and introverted, but he’s a real leader and a mentor to so many.”
“Jonathan is never going to be the guy that needs all the attention,” said Spencer. “He’s just going to come do his job and then fade off into the background and let someone else get all the glory. He’s going to show up and do the work and try to help as much as he can in whatever way that he can. He’s become a real leader and mentor to other players in so many ways.”
There’s the old saying that things happen for a reason. Hampton believes her son didn’t spend five years in South Bend earning a degree from and carving a successful football career at the University of Notre Dame by coincidence.
“I know that his Notre Dame career is coming to a close, and it’s actually pretty sad,” she said. “He’s grown so much as a young man, and I can see the change over the years, not just physically, but to see the man he’s become.
“When my dad passed away, I told Jon all the time, I see my dad — feels like my dad’s spirit is running out there on the playing field with him looking over him because he loved Notre Dame so much. It feels like everything in so many ways is coming to an end.”
But it’s also a new beginning for Bonner as he moves forward into his life’s next chapter. And as he looks back, he realizes his grandfather was right.
“It’s crazy because my grandpa, all my life was like, ‘He’s going to go to Notre Dame.’ Everyone had their doubts, but not him. It all worked out.”