An open mind made way for an open door for the Louisville football star.
Carolina Panthers’ running back and former Louisville football star, Reggie Bonnafon is currently training in his mom’s house in Louisville, Kentucky. His workouts begin with weightlifting in the garage. The 6-foot-3 running back usually goes outside and practices agility drills to strengthen his cardio and footwork. Then watches virtual learning sessions from the Panthers’ coaching staff to learn Matt Rhule’s offense. Bonnafon’s preparing himself for whenever NFL teams are allowed to resume in person offseason programs.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced on March 16, that the NFL and NFLPA agreed to indefinitely delay the start of teams’ offseason programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams were told to shut down their facilities to players.
This can create difficulties for players like Bonnafon who need organized team activities, voluntary and mandatory minicamp to continue establishing themselves in the NFL. However, Bonnofon – who after spending his first year in the NFL on the Panthers practice squad emerged last season as a promising backfield cog — is accustomed to overcoming adversity.
“This situation has been more of a positive impact for me,” Bonnafon said. “I’ve been more optimistic about it. This does give me time to focus on things that I wanted to hon on as a player. In an offseason, it always says like you don’t have enough time to continue to work on stuff.”
Bonnafon created a slogan called “Why Not Me”. “When somebody else has something you want, you should ask yourself ‘Why not me?’” Bonnafon said. It’s daily motivation he uses to tackle challenges his life may bring.
How the former Louisville football star got here
A weekend this April reminded him of a past obstacle. Bonnafon sat on the edge of his couch as he eagerly watched the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. His friend Mekhi Becton, Louisville offensive left tackle, was expected to be drafted early. When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Becton was selected by the New York Jets with the 11th pick, Bonnafon quickly congratulated him. However, he watched the remaining rounds with conflicted emotions.
“It refocuses me,” Bonnafon said. “Me not getting drafted in 2018 always leaves a sour taste in my mouth. There were guys that were drafted above me that weren’t better than me.”
Bonnafon doesn’t take being an NFL player for granted. He understands his career can be over. He learned the mental challenges of the NFL his rookie year. He considered his first year unofficial because he was on the Panthers’ practice squad in 2018. During training camp, he barely received reps. “I would literally just be standing there and have the best view of the practice,” Bonnafon said. He was surprised to even make the practice squad. He stayed focused and continued learning how professionalism looked from leaders like quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Julius Peppers. He found a new study habit from his former teammate Kenjon Barner by putting plays on flashcards. “Anytime a guy like me, had a question, they never held back their advice,” Bonnafon said. That year made him realize how much he loves the game.
Bonnafon used what he learned in 2018 to help him make the 53-man roster in 2019. When he finally got an opportunity to contribute on Sundays, he didn’t disappoint.
In week five, the Carolina Panthers were leading the Jacksonville Jaguars 28-27 with three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Panthers lined up on their own 41. Quarterback Kyle Allen took the snap and handed the ball to Bonnafon who attacked the right hash then hit a quick jump cut and sprinted up the middle of the Jaguars’ defense. Once Bonnafon crossed midfield, he juked towards the sideline, bolted past safety Ronnie Harrison before scoring while the crowd roared in celebration. He scored his first NFL touchdown on his third career carry to seal the victory.
Bonnafon recalled that moment as an out of body feeling. “I’ve never had that experience,” Bonnafon said. He compared himself to Raven Baxter, A fictional character from a Disney’s show called That So Raven, who could see the future. “I was thinking like Raven Baxter, but it was going in reverse. I was thinking about all the old stuff from little league all the way up to now.”
At six years old, his mother Rosalind Bonnafon, took him and his brother to the open field next to a Louisville apartment complex. The grass ranged over two acres as they played catch and ran around for a few hours. His mother signed Bonnafon up for flag football then switched him to contact at nine years old, and his love for football only grew. One Halloween, he wore a Brett Favre Packers jersey with shoulder pads and a helmet to emulate the Hall of Famer, while he spent the night trick or treating.
Bonnafon, 24, rarely set his sights on playing in the NFL though. After a Pop Warner practice, his mom picked him up from the park and asked, “Do you want to go to the NFL?” Bonnafon responded with “Um, I’m just going to take it one step at a time.” But throughout the years in youth football, his athletic ability had him on a track to at the least play in college. Therefore, his family decided to send him to Trinity High School, a Catholic all-boys college preparatory institution in Louisville.
“Trinity eliminated anything that could pull me back from being the best that I could be,” Bonnafon said. “They had a great athletic program.”
The decision worked out. After Bonnafon’s senior year, he was the 4-star dual-threat quarterback for the 2014 national recruiting class and was nominated to play in the U.S. Army American Bowl. A plethora of schools were recruiting him, but he only reciprocated interest in programs that solely viewed him as a quarterback.
“Lord knows how many offers are turned down because I wanted to be a quarterback,” Bonnafon said. “Schools like Ohio State were recruiting me, but they will always labeled me as an athlete. At the time I was like ‘I can do this, I can come into a program and run the show.’”
The program that gave Bonnafon that assurance was his hometown school, the University of Louisville. Head coach Bobby Petrino promised Bonnafon he would compete for the starting job.
During a press conference on National Signing Day, Petrino said the following:
“We’re very excited about Reggie Bonnafon, a guy who can really throw the ball, who can really run and who has great instincts. We’re telling Reggie Bonnafon that we want him to compete for the starting job right away, because we do. That’s the mindset he should have.”
Bonnafon was determined to fill the void former Cardinal star Teddy Bridgewater left, after he became a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft. This was a dream scenario for the local star to lead his childhood team. His trajectory pointed to stardom. However, when the season started, Bonnafon lost the open competition to redshirt sophomore quarterback Will Gardner. But eventually, opportunities arose during his freshman year.
A freshman season never to be forgotten
In the second game of the season, Bonnafon made his debut against Murray State in the second quarter. When Louisville got in the red zone, Bonnafon took the snap and ran a read-option with running back L.J Scott. Once he saw the defense crash in, he pulled the football from Scott and scurried into the endzone. The train horn blasted a deafening sound as a crowd of 50,000 cheered while his offensive teammates swarmed around him in celebration.
This was the first of three touchdowns Bonnafon scored as Louisville football won 66-21.
“I couldn’t have written a better opening script,” Bonnafon said. “I was playing in front of my hometown and that was the only game my dad got to see me play.”
Soon, however, tragedy struck. Bonnafon received a phone call on a Monday morning after Louisville’s loss to Virginia. It was a call from Baptist Health Louisville telling him that his father, Wallace Bonnafon, was in the emergency room. Bonnafon rushed over to spend the last moments with his dad. Wallace Bonnafon died due to heart failure on Sept. 14, 2014.
“We didn’t expect that, I was with him the day before,” Bonnafon said. “I’m 18 at the time, so I was messed up mentally. I lost my best friend.”
That following week Louisville traveled to play Florida International, but Bonnafon stayed home to grieve. When he returned, he dedicated the rest of his career to his father.
In the game against FIU, Gardner suffered a left knee injury and wasn’t going to play the next game against Wake Forest. Bonnafon returned and Petrino gave him his first career start. He led Louisville to victory by throwing for 206 yards and rushed for 46 yards to win 20-10. He started the following week as Louisville defeated Syracuse 28-6. Gardner returned as the starter for the two weeks, but reaggravated his left knee and sustained a season-ending injury against Boston College. Louisville’s next opponent was Notre Dame and they were an underdog.
Bonnafon was thrust back into action for the biggest game of his early career. “Before my dad passed, the schedule was out and that was literally the only game he talked about,” Bonnafon said. The Cardinals jumped out to a 14-3 the first-quarter lead after Bonnafon ran for two touchdowns. Louisville won 31-28 and Bonnafon finished with three touchdowns.
The roller coaster ride of his freshmen season continued.
In the final regular-season game, Bonnafon suffered a knee injury against Kentucky and his backup redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin replaced him for the rest of the season.
Entering his sophomore year, he was competing for the quarterback job again. But this time, a future NFL MVP named Lamar Jackson was added to the battle. Bonnafon started the season opener against Auburn in 2015, but midway through the second quarter, Bonnafon and running back Jeremy Smith fumbled a handoff. Auburn’s linebacker Justin Garrett recovered the loose ball and bolted 82 yards for a touchdown to give Auburn a 14-0 lead. Bonnafon was benched for Jackson and Louisville lost 31-24.
Petrino kept Jackson as the starter as he went on to have an illustrious career by winning the Heisman in 2016 and setting multiple collegiate records. “Dude showed out,” Bonnafon said. “There was nothing I can take away from him and I was happy for him.”
The position switch that almost didn’t happen
Since Bonnafon wasn’t the starting quarterback, he was switched to running back for the 2015 season but wasn’t receiving much playing time. “It wasn’t as hard physically as it was mentally,” Bonnafon said. “At the time, that’s something that I didn’t want to do. I thought it was an agreement that I wouldn’t be coming there if I would ever be put in a position where I would change positions.”
He contemplated transferring the after the season so he could play quarterback. Drew Bailey played defensive tackle for Louisville with Bonnafon and viewed him as a brother. Bailey convinced him to stay. “I told him to normalize discomfort,” Bailey said. “When you go to your new school you still gotta compete at quarterback.”
Even with transferring weighing on his mind, he never showed it.
“The coaches never knew that he wanted to leave,” Bailey said. “He wasn’t an asshole by showing people he wanted to leave. If it was known, that would have been a big thing, ‘O Reggie leaving because of Lamar.’”
After considering transferring, Bonnafon stayed at Louisville.
“There was uncertainty of where I can actually go, because at that time there wasn’t a portal,” Bonnafon said. “It was like jumping off the port and just go out here to the fishing. Or you can stay on your boat and ride the wave. Some schools indirectly reached out to me, but they weren’t the caliber of school that I would consider myself playing at. I just prayed about it with my mom a lot and asked what my dad would tell me. I don’t regret staying.”
The coaching staff wanted Bonnafon on the field and moved him to slot receiver during spring of 2016. Jaylen Smith, who played receiver with Bonnafon, witnessed his development.
“They wanted both of them on the field, but you can’t put two quarterbacks on the field. And it’s hard to keep Lamar Jackson off the field, that was an undeniable talent,” Smith said. “The spring was valuable for Reggie. His route running became so consistent that it you couldn’t him off the field.” Bonnafon playing time increased as he scored five receiving touchdowns and Louisville had one of the best offenses in the NCAA in 2016.
He was preparing for a bigger role at receiver for the 2017 season, but Louisville needed something else.
During spring practices, all the running backs were injured which caused Petrino to switch Bonnafon to the backfield. Running back Dae Williams was the projected starter, but he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear in spring practice. Williams recalled how Bonnafon handled the transition as a teammate.
“It’s was kind of hard to just be cool with that knowing that your spot was gone,” Williams said. “But Reggie came in and he was humble. There wasn’t any type kind of tension or any jealousy. He could have come in a whole other way and messed up the running back room.”
His natural ability allowed for a seamless fit. He produced seven rushing touchdowns on 4.9 yards per carry for 459 yards for the fifth-ranked offense in the country. Even though Bonnafon was determined to play quarterback, he became versatile and it’s the sole reason why he’s in the NFL. College provided him the mental fortitude and patience needed for the beginning of his NFL career.
In limited action, Bonnafon rushed 116 yards with a TD with six catches for 57 yards and is projected to be the backup to star running back Christian McCaffrey. Bonnafon could end up having a career similar to Kansas City Chiefs’ running back Damian Williams.
“It’s been a journey. I just learned so much and just realizing how consistent and patient and focused that you have to be in order to stick around.”