O’Leary: Bonner ready for his chance with the BC Lions

He’s never been to Canada and he’s never played Canadian football, but something about the next step in Tim Bonner’s football career feels familiar to him.

“Me personally, I’m looking at it as when I went to JUCO and I was at East Mississippi. I’m looking at the CFL, I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to go a different route now,’” Bonner said from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He signed with the BC Lions on Dec. 9.

If talk of junior colleges and the name Tim Bonner rings a bell, it’s for good reason. Bonner was a key figure in Season 2 of the Netflix series Last Chance U. He came to East Mississippi Community College after being kicked out of the Louisville Cardinals program, when the school alleged he had a gun in his dorm room. The gun was never found but the penalty stuck, landing the talented d-lineman at the powerhouse JUCO program where everyone’s looking to play their way back to Div. 1 college football.

If you’re a CFL fan and you’ve watched Last Chance U, it’s not hard to see players on the field in Canada with a similar mentality. Bonner sees the similarities but also sees some positive differences.

“This route, I’m getting paid and playing at a professional level and I can get film and get back to the NFL. That’s what I’m trying to do,” he said, before quickly correcting himself.

“I ain’t say try, I AM going to get defensive player of the year. I’m trying to get 10-plus sacks. I’m going to get it too. I want to get good film and get back to the NFL in 2022.

“I’m getting prepared to go out there and handle my business, to be honest.”

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Bonner was a positive, lighthearted presence on that EMCC team in 2016. As part of coach Buddy Stephens’ squad, the Lions went 11-1 and won the national junior championship. Bonner made the jump back to Div.1 football with Florida Atlantic University, playing from 2017 to 2019. He had 37 solo tackles and 58 total, with 15.5 tackles for loss, with eight sacks and two forced fumbles.

He was hopeful that his pro day and one-on-one interviews with NFL teams would help him in the draft this year, but the pandemic took those options off of the table for him and he went undrafted. When he was playing at the Senior Bowl in January this year, he was approached by a scout from the BC Lions.

“I talked to about 18 NFL teams (at the Senior Bowl) and (the scout) said, ‘I know you don’t want to talk to me because your dream is to play in the NFL but I’ve got to do my job.’ We talked and we’ve stayed in touch since then,” Bonner said.

“BC saw something in me that they liked.”

He’s been able to gleam some info on the league and the Canadian game from a few friends that have played here. Edmonton DB Trumaine Washington is one of them, as is Brandin Bryant, a former FAU teammate that spent time with Winnipeg and is now on the Buffalo Bills’ practice roster.

“I’ve been asking them this whole year for tips…they said you’re going to love it, it’s an experience you’ve never had before.”

Bonner comes to the CFL like many American players before him, hoping it’s a pit stop on the way to an NFL career. For that to happen, the 25-year-old will need to play at a high level and help his team win a lot of games. If that’s the case, a short and sweet stay in the CFL is never a bad thing. Bonner said he works hard and makes that work environment a fun one when he’s in it.

“I cut up, 24-7. Ain’t no quietness out of me. I have fun, I bring fun to football teams,” he said. He knows when to turn it on and off, but when the time is right, he wants to see smiles on his teammates’ faces.

“I like to be happy. I like to be around my teammates, I like to keep them happy,” he said.

“I don’t want to see anybody sad. We’re playing football, we’re doing something we’ve wanted to do our whole lives so why be upset or sad? You signed (up for this), ain’t nobody forced you to do it. I’d be happy to play football and go to practice. I just do my job.”

For the winter, he’ll continue training and will keep thinking about making the trip to a country he’s never been to, to play a version of the game that’ll be new to him. Bonner has shown what he can do when he’s given a chance and he’s excited that BC is taking one on him now.

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