Illinois announced Saturday that Bonner and offensive lineman Jake Cerny would be sitting out because of “personal reasons” and confirmed reports that wide receiver Ricky Smalling will not return to the team for his senior season for undisclosed reasons.
Seeing teammates test positive for the coronavirus during team workouts this summer made Bonner, who has asthma, reassess playing. The idea of a shortened season -- and the threat of an even shorter one should the season be canceled midway through -- also didn’t appeal to Bonner.
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“That was already on my mind prior to returning to campus,” he said. “Playing football, I feel we’re more at risk with the amount of guys we have. In football you have to touch someone else. You can spread that to family members. That’s not what I want. I don’t want to not see my family, my sister, my girlfriend.”
Athletic director Josh Whitman, coach Lovie Smith and teammates supported his decision, Bonner said.
The Big Ten announced earlier this month that scholarships would be honored for players who opt out. It also eliminated nonconference games and initiated testing protocols at all 14 schools.
Illinois has declined to release numbers of positive coronavirus tests. Players returned to campus for voluntary workouts in June.
Linebacker Milo Eifler expressed his concerns about those workouts on social media in early July, tweeting: “I understand that people want to see us play this season but in reality how can a team full of 100+ student athletes fully function during a pandemic.”
Michigan State and Rutgers suspended workouts last week as players quarantined following multiple positive tests. Ohio State temporarily suspended workouts earlier this month.
“I’ve seen some people get sick from it,” Bonner said. “I don’t want that to happen to me. It’s the confirmation that people our age can get sick. (Some) try to make it seem like we’re immune.
“It was more so that than the number (of cases at Illinois) itself. We’re doing a lot better than other schools in terms of numbers. But the fact that someone can get really sick -- I don’t want that.”
Bonner said he’s “very, very hopeful” he will play again as a fifth-year senior in 2021, though he said Illinois’ obligation to honor his scholarship is only for this year.
But he wants a full, healthy season in hopes of impressing NFL scouts. The Cincinnati native rushed for 822 yards and 10 touchdowns over his first three seasons and ranked second on the team last season with 225 yards.
“I don’t want to go out like that my senior year,” Bonner said. “If I test positive, I’ll miss the season. I’m already missing (part of the) season. … It’s obviously not easy. I really love football. However, the risks are greater than the reward. The reward doesn’t sound as great with a short season.”
Bonner said he’ll remain in Champaign for now. He might opt to return to Cincinnati for remote studies in his graduate courses in social work with an emphasis in mental health.
“I just want the best environment for me,” he said
No stranger to being outspoken as a speaker at Black Lives Matter protests, Bonner hopes other players see him as an example if they feel uncomfortable playing.
“Some players are afraid to speak up,” he said. “I know that not everyone is blessed to have the type of AD I have. He’s made it abundantly clear from the start: ‘If you don’t feel comfortable, your scholarship is protected.’ I’m not so sure it’s like that at other schools. I’m at peace with my decision.”
Meet the verbal commitments in the Class of 2021
Meet the Illinois football verbal commitments for the Class of 2021
More than 1,200 tests returned 23 positive results, for an overall positivity rate of less than 1.9 percent. Of the 23 positive tests, only three remain active with all others having recovered and returned to activity. Twelve student-athletes tested positive upon arrival to campus.
Alex Palczewski took his seat in front of a computer screen, socially distanced from a media group that usually surrounds players and coaches on the campus recreations field at Illinois football training camp.
A few hours after practice concluded for the University of Illinois on Tuesday, the Big Ten announced the postponement of fall sports due to the "ongoing health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic."