Walk On, Walkon April 25, 2012
I’m a college sports guy. I have a few pro sports teams that I follow, but I spend probably 83% of my sports energy on Illini Football and Basketball.
When I tell people this, they kind of automatically assume that it’s a purity issue. “They just play the game the right way” and such. I guess that’s somewhat true, but it really has very little to do with the way the sport is played. It has everything to do with the people.
All fans want to feel they’re part of the team, and for me, having class with Kiwane Garris made me feel involved in some way. Kiwane asks to borrow a pencil one day before a test, and I leave the room thinking that I just kept him academically eligible. I had nothing to do with anything, of course, but there’s something about being a sports fan and a college student that makes you feel somehow involved. I’m screaming from my seat in Krush the next game and I almost feel like Kiwane is going to thank me Tuesday in class.
So my allegiance, when it comes to Illini Football and Basketball, is to the players. Those are my guys. Coaches will come and go – some I will support and some I will bulldoggedly complain about until they’re wearing purple – but I’m always in the corner of the players. You can probably find five examples the last few years in Camp Rantoul of me saying “they’re out here busting their butt simply for my enjoyment”.
That’s honestly how I feel. Yes, their education is paid for. But they’re still getting up at 5:45 on a Tuesday in February to go lift heavy pieces of metal so I can cheer them from my seat in Memorial Stadium. They’re still sweating in the 91 degree heat of Rantoul just so I can say that it’s been 893 days since we lost to Northwestern in football. A few will go on to the riches of the NFL (and when they do, like Whit and Jeff and AJ tomorrow and Friday, I’m incredibly nervous and hoping against hope for them to be picked early), but the majority of players are simply volunteering to wear a uniform and play a game that brings me joy.
And there’s a certain group of players at the top of that scale: the walkons. They’re doing all of the same things above – getting up early in February, sweating in Rantoul – but they’re doing it for nothing. With the majority of them never even finding the field. Four or five years of blood, sweat, and tears, simply because they love putting on the jersey. My guys.
So when SID asked for names of players that people wanted to interview after the spring game, I knew exactly who I wanted to talk to: Peter Bonahoom.
I first noticed Peter Bonahoom in Rantoul last summer. Paul Petrino would put the wide receivers through drill after drill, and there’s #29, beating everyone to the next drill station every time. I make voice notes sometimes when I’m at practice (I know, get a life), and I jokingly made a note to myself that I had found “our Rudy”.
This spring at the Friday practice during the coaching clinic, there was #29 again, catching passes and going hard every single drill. This is not to say that the other receivers don’t go hard – they do. It’s just that this kid’s motor sticks out at practice. And given my penchant for walkons giving their all when they’re not earning even scholarship money for their effort, I wanted to find out what made this kid tick. So I asked him.
“I feel like I’ve always been like that in all sports”, he said, still looking a little weirded-out that some blogger had asked to interview him. “I tried to be a leader in high school, and then coming here as a walkon I knew it would be tough to be that, so I figured that the best way to lead would be to go as hard as I can in every drill and be energetic. I felt like that would be the best way for me to contribute to the team.”
Most walkons at BCS teams had other opportunities to play football elsewhere, so I was curious as to his story. I knew that he and Miles Osei had played together in high school – was it his desire to play with Miles again that led him to Champaign? Sort of.
“The first time I came down here was my sophomore year. I came down to catch balls for Miles on his recruiting trip, so I got to see it then. Then Miles did a great job of recruiting me once he got here. I had some offers to play baseball from Bradley, Illinois State, Houston, and schools like that, and I had some FCS offers for football, but from the start I knew I wanted to come here and play football. Because I knew that I could play.”
And that’s just what he showed in the Spring Game. Bonahoom had 3 catches for 32 yards, including two big third-down conversions for the Orange Team. And he even got to catch a few of those from his old buddy Miles Osei.
“I was joking around with my family after the game that this is the first time I’ve actually played a football game in two years. I can definitely feel it now. I got the first half jitters out and came back in the second half and got a few catches. That felt really good, especially catching some balls from Miles.”
That statement stuck with me. All of those practices. All of those 5:45 alarms. All for a sport he loves… but that he doesn’t get to actually participate in. It had been a long time since he had taped up for a live game, and you could sense his excitement as he answered my questions about how the coaches had been using him.
“I’ve played all three positions this spring. I’ve played mostly Z receiver but in the game today I played some H (inside receiver). In high school I was always the inside guy running seam routes, but I like coming over the middle on a drag route. I don’t mind getting hit. I like hitting people, so it’s been going good. I feel like I have good hands. I think my routes could get a lot better, but I think that some people don’t think that I can run. I feel like I’m a lot faster than people believe. That will help a lot. And I feel like I can be a lot more physical than most players – I don’t mind getting hit coming over the middle.”
At this point I realized that what I was doing was maybe unfair to him. Here I’ve singled him out and asked him questions about his strengths as a receiver, and yet this summer the coaches will be out on the road recruiting over him. Such is the life of a walkon. Every fall, there’s a new crop of players that were brought in to fill the hole that you’re trying to squeeze into, and you have to battle for just a sniff of the field. For Bonahoom, this didn’t seem to bother him. He’s found the game he loves.
“Growing up, I was a huge baseball guy. It wasn’t until after my junior year of high school where I realized I football was a totally different game. I realized that there’s a family aspect to football that you don’t get with baseball. The guys you’re around playing football – you just grow much closer to them relationship-wise. I like that. The game is at a higher speed. It’s a higher level of competition.”
Baseball, eh? So I had to ask. Growing up in Arlington Heights – Cubs or White Sox?
“I’m a big Boston Red Sox fan. My family used to take a trip to Boston every year, and we’d always go to Fenway, so I grew up rooting for the Red Sox. I’m Bears, Blackhawks, and Bulls, but for baseball, I’m a Red Sox guy.”
I thoroughly enjoyed my time chatting with Bonahoom. He’s living the dream that my complete lack of athleticism and pain tolerance wouldn’t allow me to pursue – walking on to the Illini Football team. And it’s clear that he loves it. He could have taken scholarship money to play baseball, but here he is, battling 10 scholarship receivers for a chance to see a few passes tossed his way. And seriously loving it. You could sense how excited he was about this fall.
“Not many freshman walkons travel, but I can travel this year, so I’m looking forward to it. Going out to Arizona, going up to Camp Randall, going to the Big House, I’m definitely looking forward to that.”
So am I, kid.