Defensive linemen are big, strong, quick and fearless. Their job is all guts, little glory. They steamroll anything that stands in their way. They do what needs to be done, instinctively and without hesitation.
So it’s not surprising that Jonathan Bonner, a key member of the University of Notre Dame defense since his sophomore season, dug in his heels and remained firm, resolute and almost stoic when his beloved mother, Consuelo Hampton, was diagnosed with cancer — for the third time — after the 2017 campaign.
“My mother and I, I would even say, we act like twins and we look so much alike,” explains Bonner.
“She knows exactly what I’m thinking. We have a real, tight-knit group and we’re always communicating, always there for each other.”
Although he had a fifth year of eligibility, Bonner thought perhaps the best option for him, in light of his mother’s illness, was to graduate with his class in May and take his degree in information technology management from the Mendoza College of Business to Chicago where his mother now lived. He would find a career opportunity in IT, a passion he discovered while a student, and support and care for his mom through her debilitating treatments.
But Hampton, a physician who works for the medical staff of the Chicago Bears and a former student-athlete at the University of Kansas, would hear none of it.
“My children (Jonathan has a sister, Cherokee Hubbard, a 2016 Syracuse University graduate) were very strong,” says Hampton.
“They wanted to be strong for me. They knew I had been through cancer before. But now they’re adults, and they knew my parents weren’t going to be there for me this time. They wanted to be my backbone.
“They kind of took charge and were like, ‘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?’
“Because, at first, in a sense, I really wanted to give up. This wasn’t my first bout with cancer so I really was just like, ‘I can’t do this again.’ I felt defeated because this time around I didn’t even have one of my parents.”
But, Hampton is fierce, bold and confident. This is a woman who had two children by the time she was 20, was diagnosed with cancer for the first time at 23 and still finished medical school.
She skydives, having taken up the sport after her first round with the dreaded disease, goes rock climbing and just began training for the 2019 Chicago Marathon with daily three-mile runs. Hampton had faced obstacles before — this was just one more hurdle to clear, albeit a big one, for the former track athlete at Kansas.
“I had my children very young, so I tell them that we kind of have to be a team because I had to grow up with them. We had to grow up with each other.”
Bonner’s flirtation with the idea of moving to Chicago and giving up football — along with a chance to perhaps vie for a berth in the College Football Playoff — didn’t last long. Cherokee and Spencer Bonner, Jonathan’s dad and Hampton’s ex-husband, a man she still calls “her best friend,” would step up, and Jonathan would do what he could from South Bend.
“My mom is the centerpiece of our family,” explains Hubbard, now a student at the Harold Ramis Film School at Chicago’s Second City.
“She’s brilliant, independent, kind, funny, well-educated. She’s driven us to be better people.”
Bonner texted and called his mother every day — he still does — and traveled to Chicago as often as he could between football workouts and meetings, classes and rehab sessions for a wrist that was broken three games into the 2017 campaign.
“I know one thing my mother always says is, ‘Do what you want,’” says Bonner.
“She’s supportive of whatever I want to do — I don’t feel bound to any path in life. She has encouraged us to chase our passions.”
Bonner giving up football when so many opportunities and goals remained was “not an option” anyone in his immediate family seriously considered.
After all, his connections to football — and particularly Notre Dame football — run deep.
Bonner’s grandfather, Elmon Hampton, who died when Bonner 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, Hampton 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 father, Spencer, 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.
Consuelo Hampton 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.
Hubbard has followed Irish football for as long as she can remember.
And as a middle-school student, Bonner, who had tagged along on several of his grandfather’s trips to South Bend for the Irish spring game, attended several three-day Notre Dame football camps.
“Jonathan has achieved a lot of his goals,” says Spencer Bonner.
“He had graduated in December and struggled through a wrist injury last year. But he had an opportunity to return to see what other goals he could achieve and be a true leader.”
Irish associate head coach Mike Elston, who also coaches the defensive line, recognized the tug Bonner felt toward his obligation to help his family . . . but suspected he wanted to stay at Notre Dame for another shot at a national championship.
“He’s not only been a role model for the players, but for everyone in our program in displaying his ability to handle adversity,” says Elston.
“He thought about hanging up his cleats, but with his parents’ blessing, he returned for his fifth season to compete with his brothers and display another level of commitment to our program.”
Despite his family connections to Notre Dame football, Bonner’s path to wearing an Irish jersey involved a complicated mixture of hard work, perseverance, timing and good fortune.
Notre Dame always ranked at the top of Bonner’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 defensive end wasn’t on the Irish radar screen.
“My grandfather was convinced I was going to Notre Dame,” recalls 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.
Bonner 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,” says Bonner.
“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, 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,” says Bonner.
“This is something that’s been on the back burner my entire life.”
Bonner has used his mother’s tenacity and drive as inspiration and his father’s heartfelt advice on technique to contribute as 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. But his mother’s bravery and will in her latest struggle against cancer has refueled his fire in his fifth year as the Irish move to postseason play.
“My mother’s work ethic, her focus has always been amazing,” says Bonner.
“When we were little she worked in the ER and had to spend a lot of late nights there, but she never really cracked. She stayed strong for us, always. She showed me how to put a lot of things aside and focus on what needs to be done and be successful.”
And that, along with his parents’ insistence that education always come first, has helped Bonner achieve the dream of attending Notre Dame, playing for the Irish and walking away with a degree — a vision that at times only his grandfather, Consuelo’s father, could see as a real possibility.
“I know that his Notre Dame career is coming to a close, and it’s actually pretty sad,”Hampton says.
“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 for Hampton, who forges ahead with her cancer in the rearview mirror. The mother-son duo, along with his sister and his dad, have faith that everything happens for a reason and that they should never have doubted his grandfather years ago because dreams do come true.
“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.”