Darryl Bonner: Making The Most Of His Opportunities
Darryl Bonner: Making The Most Of His Opportunities
By Gary Lambrecht
While he acknowledges how unexpected his success must have seemed to outside observers last fall, senior slot back Darryl Bonner was in no way surprised by the way his stock rose with the Midshipmen in 2016.
“I practiced every week like I was going to play a lot,” Bonner recalls. “I’ve had a knack for making people miss since I was little. But we have a lot of good A-backs every year. If you’re a slot back [at Navy], you know you better make the most of your opportunities.”
Bonner did that and more throughout a memorable breakout year that shined a light on his shifty, instinctive moves, bursts of speed and huge yardage gains. After the 5-feet-7, 178-pound native of Fayetteville, N.C. made the most of his limited touches in 2016 by earning the nickname of “Big Play Bonner,” his teammates took further notice by electing Bonner a co-captain.
Bonner’s story is a typical example of what happens in Annapolis – especially among the slot backs, which have anchored Navy’s effective, triple option attack with impressive depth throughout the 10-year tenure of head coach Ken Niumatalolo.
After attending the Naval Academy Prep School during the 2013-14 academic year, Bonner did not see any varsity action as a plebe. As a sophomore in 2015, he appeared in two games. Bonner etched his lone mark on the statistics sheet with one carry for two yards against SMU.
“It’s hard to play here as a freshman, and it takes a while to grasp our offense and do all of the things our A-backs have to do,” says Danny O’Rourke, Navy’s slot backs coach. “We were really deep at that spot last year. It’s a credit to Darryl for always working hard to improve and continuing to be in the right place at the right time.”
Before his coming-out performance last fall in the season’s fifth game – a showdown with then-No. 6 Houston at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium – Bonner had worked his way into a stacked, slot backs rotation. That day against the Cougars, Navy temporarily lost then-senior Calvin Cass to a concussion, and it was Bonner’s turn to fill a void and shine.
Early in the second half, with quarterback Will Worth moving the Mids downfield in a back-and-forth scoring affair, Bonner found the right place at the right time again. He sprinted down an open alley on the right side, hauled in a pass from Worth and galloped into the end zone untouched to complete a 17-yard touchdown play that stunned Houston.
Unranked Navy went on to outlast the Cougars, 46-40, marking the school’s first victory over a top 10 opponent since 1984. And Bonner, who had registered a total of five carries before the Houston game, had created a personal turning point by producing 62 yards on seven touches.
“That touchdown pass came into the end zone where we were sitting,” recalls Darryl Bonner, Sr., who was watching the game next to his wife and Darryl’s mother, Tonia. “I remember saying, ‘Oh my God, that’s my son.’ I wanted to rush the field. I still watch the replay.”
“When he scored, I was screaming and I was thinking, ‘Am I dreaming? Somebody needs to wake me up!” adds Tonia Bonner. “I lost my voice that day.”
“Beating the No. 6 team in the country gave us the confidence that we could play with anybody,” recalls the younger Darryl, who rushed for 20 yards and added 42 more on two receptions that day and established himself as a dangerous threat in the passing game. “By stringing together some good runs and catches, I felt like a basketball player who knocked down a couple of jump shots early,” he added. “It just built my confidence.”
It showed, as Bonner went on to string together a highlight reel of impact plays during the rest of the Mids’ 9-5 season.
Against visiting Memphis the following week, Bonner helped ice a 42-28 victory with a 52-yard, fourth-quarter reception – his lone catch of the da
The play developed with Bonner dashing into a wide open seam down the middle. After Worth’s pass hit Bonner in stride, Bonner made several tacklers miss, first by changing direction then by fooling two defenders with a stop-and-go move and buying more yards, before being dragged down.
Two weeks later in Navy’s 28-27 victory over Notre Dame, Bonner evened the score at 7-7 by taking a pitchout left, cutting inside a nice block by Cass and sprinting untouched into the end zone.
A week later on Senior Day, in a wild, 42-40 victory over red-hot, visiting Tulsa, Bonner showed more athleticism by making his only catch of the day, on the final play of the third quarter. What a grab it was on third-and-16, as Bonner stretched out in full stride, tipped the pass upward, secured it with both hands then finished a 28-yard completion. Three plays later, Navy took a 35-27 lead it would not relinquish.
In the Armed Forces Bowl on December 23, a shootout that Navy lost to Louisiana Tech, 48-45, Bonner gave Navy fans one more memorable snapshot. Bonner took off out of the backfield, blew past the second level of the defense, caught the pass and broke a desperate tackle from behind to complete a 64-yard touchdown play.
That punctuated his day of 101 all-purpose yards on six touches. It also marked the longest pass play of the season and set Armed Forces Bowl records for longest for longest pass and longest TD pass.
On the season, Bonner left quite a mark and did it with remarkable economy. He averaged 7.6 yards on 30 carries with two touchdowns, and emerged as Navy’s prime, home-run threat by averaging 27.8 yards on 10 catches with three more scores. Bonner even chipped in two kickoff returns for another 71 yards, including a 46-yarder in a blowout win at SMU.
In the eyes of fellow senior slot back Jahmaal Daniel, one of two Mids who were also teammates of Bonner’s at Terry Sanford High School – senior outside linebacker Myles Davenport is the other – Bonner merely did the same things last season that he’s done for years.
In high school, Daniel said the pair called themselves “Flash” [Bonner] and “Dash” [Daniel, who won nine individual state sprinting titles at Sanford]. Bonner also was a two-time football captain and one-time basketball captain at Sanford, which hints strongly at his leadership quality.
As the starting quarterback in his senior year at Sanford, not to mention an outstanding point guard on the basketball team, Bonner was voted Athlete of the Year in his conference.
“[Bonner] doesn’t have the same land speed as I do, but you’re going to have a hard time touching him,” says Daniel, who lobbied for Bonner’s election as Navy's team captain. “We all knew he was a hard worker and a good leader who really loves this game. But I think once the team realized that the Houston game wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan thing, they got behind their leader.”
“Darryl is really mature. He might yell at you when you need to be corrected, but he picks people up and jokes with them when it’s time to do that,” adds senior wide receiver Craig Scott. “He’s not the biggest, strongest or fastest guy, but making guys miss is second nature to him. He was doing it on the practice field when he was a fifth-string A-back.”
“He’s just a good athlete who has a lot of class and a great family,” says Wayne Inman, who coached Bonner for all three of his seasons at Sanford. “You never had to worry about Darryl in the classroom. Tape measurements and 40 [yard dash] times don’t measure how big his heart is or what a competitor he is. As far as the player-student-person package, he’s as good as anybody I’ve ever coached.”
Bonner says that, even though he had been named a team captain three times in high school, the nod by his fellow Mids as offensive captain grabbed his attention and respect. Among Bonner’s increased responsibilities are keeping tabs on teammates’ personal, academic and disciplinary issues.
“It’s a large responsibility that I accepted with a real sense of humble pride,” Bonner says. “Knowing that you’re a leader of many leaders in this brotherhood is something very special. You’re part of the face of the academy. I’ll never forget the feeling when I first found out [that he’d been elected].”
And to think Bonner, the youngest of five children, was that close to never making it to the academy. Like many Navy players, Bonner was determined to play college football, but due to his lack of size and “land speed,” was short on choices. By the middle of his senior year, the best Division I offers were walk-on invitations. According to his father, only Division II Wingate offered a scholarship.
Then, shortly before National Signing Day in Bonner’s senior year, former Navy assistant Tony Grantham called to tell Bonner there might be a spot open with the Mids, depending on the decision another running back recruit on the Navy list made.
Shortly after that, Bonner received an offer to play Division I in Annapolis. He jumped at the offer
“Darryl struggled with the feeling he was being ignored and overlooked, although he never stayed in the dumps too long,” Tonia Bonner says. “It was a difficult season of his life. But he had tenacity and strength.
“It’s amazing now to think that my son, because he stuck with something, was voted co-captain of his Division I team. That has made me happier than anything in the past six months.”
The Bonner family is deeply rooted in their religious faith. Their children, ranging in age from 22 to 34, grew up worshipping with the family. Darryl took after his oldest sibling, Tanisha, and started playing the drums in the church band as a young boy.
Darryl, Sr., a longtime sales manager for Pepsi Cola, and Tonia, a former chemistry teacher who now works for the not-for-profit Center for Responsive Schools, met as church choir members in Fayetteville. They started their own ministry 10 years ago.
O’Rourke smiles as he recounts the steady progress Bonner has made, from the time when he was fairly anonymous to Navy football fans, but not to the coaches and players on the inside.
“Darryl is a very open person, but he’s humble and quiet and respectful,” O’Rourke says. “We want good people and the most talented, athletic kids we can find. It just happens that a lot of talented, athletic short kids don’t get a whole lot of [Division I] opportunities.
“Darryl takes an OK play and turns it into a big play. He tends to not get tackled by the first guy that gets a shot at him,” he adds. “That’s not luck. We knew he was a good player stuck behind a lot of other good players. I didn’t put him out there last year hoping he would do OK. He’ll be asked to do a lot this year.”
Bonner thinks back to his days on the youth football playing field, when coaches recognized his innate ability to avoid contact and make plays and would tell Bonner simply to take the snap and run left or right. He thinks about those great days on the field at Sanford, about dreaming of college football thrills and the anxiety that enveloped him during his senior year.
And he thinks about how it all worked out, as he looks ahead to his final season in a football uniform, before he begins to serve his country after graduating next spring.
“This is all a blessing,” he says.