Florida’s No. 1 football fan won’t let anything, especially cerebral palsy, stop him from seeing the Gators
The doctors told Karen Bonner her son wouldn’t survive his first night. He proved them wrong, so they reluctantly let her take him home from the hospital.
Their advice was to put him in a dark room, keep him comfortable and let him live out a short life.
“He’s totally blind,” Bonner was told, “and mentally retarded.”
Fast-forward half a century. It’s the final home game of Florida’s 2022 season against South Carolina. That supposedly blind, mentally challenged boy is now 54 and weaving through a forest of humanity outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
It’s not easy.
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Mike Bonner looks like Emmitt Smith or some other Florida ball carrier he’s cheered for over the years. Only imagine Fred Taylor trying to find running room against 40 or 50 defenders.
And doing it in a wheelchair.
Bonner makes it through the maelstrom and parks in the disabled row at the top of Section 26. Contrary to that early diagnosis, Bonner’s eyes work just fine. His problem is seeing over fans.
If it’s a good viewing night, Bonner won’t have to rely too much on the TV dangling from the overhang. And if it’s a really good night, he won’t be jostled, growled at or run over by fans intent on beating the crowd to the beer line or bathroom.
“I’m sorry to say this, but they can act stupid,” Bonner said. “But you don’t let it get you mad.”
Getting mad would be negative, and he’s never been one to dwell on the negative. In a couple of hours, almost everyone at Florida Field will lock arms and sing the school’s unofficial fight song. The key phrase:
“In all kinds of weather, we’ll all stick together.”
If Bonner knows one thing, it’s how to endure storms.
South Carolina kicks off. Florida quickly drives 75 yards toward the opposite end zone. Anthony Richardson caps it with a 3-yard run.
Everybody jumps up and raises their arms to signify a touchdown. Bonner reaches for the sky, but his spindly arms barely make it past shoulder level.
Half a TD signal is fulfilling enough.
“The glass is either half full or half empty,” said Elizabeth Ellison, one of the fans in Section 26 who’ve become Bonner’s support system. “With Mike, it’s always half full.”
Karen Bonner recalls her response to the doctor who told her her son was blind and mentally impaired.
“If he is, you are,” she said.
Mike Bonner’s life a struggle from the start
Mike’s delivery had gone terribly wrong, and oxygen had been cut off to his brain.
His limbs were fragile as a sparrow’s wings and speaking didn’t come easily. But Karen gave him tasks as he got older. He folded his clothes, played with toys, verbalized words.
She took Mike to work with her at the family’s grocery store. He was playing with cash register keys one day. A customer was curious.
“Do you mind if I ask what’s wrong with him?” he asked.
Karen didn’t have that answer. The man suggested she take him to United Cerebral Palsy. The medical mystery was quickly solved.
Physically, Mike’s symptoms were bad. His motor skills were severely limited. He’d never walk. He’d need help doing almost everything people take for granted.
Mentally, there was nothing disabled about him.
Karen spent much of the next decade raising hell with school officials, fighting to get her son treated like every other student. It paid off in June 1987. Mike got his diploma from Gainesville Eastside High School.
His GPA was 3.16.
Bonner has a Facebook page for his nonprofit named “Never Say Can’t.” He gives motivational speeches to raise money to help disabled people renovate their homes and buy wheelchairs.
“I’ve learned so much from my son,” Karen said. “Patience. His tenacity. He never gives up. He never says, ‘I can’t.’ ”
It’s late in the first quarter. Trevor Etienne dashes 85 yards for a score. Pandemonium.
Fans make beelines for beer and bathrooms. There’s railing behind the wheelchair lane and an orange stripe on the floor. It’s supposed to keep people from cutting through.
Good luck with that.
Angie Godwin, another one of Bonner’s buddies, tries to shield him from the stampede.
“This is crazy, right?” she said. “We about get run over every week.”
Gator fans run in the Bonner family
Bonner’s fascination with UF sports is partially genetic. His grandfather grew up in Lawtey reading about the football team down the road. When Arthur Taylor got home from World War II, his Gator love affair really blossomed.
“He’d walk to games,” Karen said.
It was a 40-mile trek. One way.
Taylor’s grandson had it easier, though not by much. Bonner’s first game was the 1982 opener against the hated Hurricanes. Miami quarterback Jim Kelly wore a T-shirt with the caption “GATORS EAT BOOGERS.”
If there were disabled viewing spots back then, the Bonners weren’t told about them. On a sweltering afternoon, Mike’s parents carried him to their bench seats near the top of the stadium.
James Jones made a one-handed touchdown catch in the final minute. The booger-eaters won 21-17. The 14-year-old kid propped in his father’s lap was hooked.
“He wanted more and more,” Karen said.
Bonner’s had season tickets since 1989. He’s been through the Fun ‘N’ Gun glory. Through Ron Zook. Through Urban’s renewal. Through the lost decade of Muschamp, McElwain and ultimately Mullen.
“We were horrible sometimes,” Bonner said. “But I absolutely love the Gators.”
His house is proof. It’s a tidy little place on a shady street in Keystone Heights. Blue front door with orange trim. Gator flag flying on the front porch.
Bonner’s parents live across the street, but technology has given him a lot of independence. He can open doors and manage all sorts of tasks by touching the small keyboard on his motorized wheelchair.
His walls are covered with autographed pictures from ex-players, a Tim Tebow poster, a Trey Dean towel and framed newspaper articles chronicling Gator glory.
Arthur Taylor, God rest his soul, would be proud.
“Most of my family are Gator fans,” Bonner said. “There are some Georgia fans, some from that team from Tallahassee. We won’t talk about that.”
It’s 24-0 Gators with 1:52 left in the first half. Florida’s much-maligned defense is about to go four quarters without allowing a point.
South Carolina lines up to punt, but it’s a fake. The punter chunks the ball to a wide-open receiver, who scoots in for a 48-yard yard score.
“I’m not happy about that,” Bonner said.
Who is Florida’s biggest fan?
If there ever were such a contest, what would be the criteria? Donations can be measured. Devotion is trickier.
“He could choose to stay home,” Elizabeth Ellison said. “But that’s not Mike.”
Her husband, Mike, and his buddy, Kevin Godwin, started driving down from Jacksonville to games more than 30 years ago. Their families got to know the guy in the wheelchair at the top of their section, and a bond was forged.
Bonner gets around in a handicap-accessible van. His caregiver sometimes drives him to games, but he’ll often meet his Section 26 buddies at the Sonny’s in Starke.
Kevin or Mike will drive Bonner’s van and the rest will follow. Florida has ample disabled parking, but Bonner didn’t get a space near the stadium until last year.
It was due to a combination of poor communication and red tape. But the practical effect led to some challenging afternoons.
Bonner would sometimes leave four or five hours early to scour for a parking spot around campus. Many lots had only regular parking spaces, which made it impossible to lower the ramp from the side of his van.
The van would have to stop in the street to let Bonner out. Most people understood, but patience wasn’t always a virtue.
Bonner’s heard his share of honks over the years. One lady exploded like Steve Spurrier used to on incompetent refs, only she was far more profane.
“She’d been tailgating too long,” Karen Bonner said.
Some fans can be jerks but Mike Bonner forgives
Fandom brings out the worst in some people. It brings out the best in others.
That’s apparent in the way Angie Godwin refills Bonner's Big Gulp with Mountain Dew and lifts the straw to his lips. Or her husband makes sure to turn around and fist-bump Bonner whenever high-fives start flying.
But even the jerks usually earn Bonner’s forgiveness. If they are wearing orange and blue, he figures they can’t be all bad.
Unless they say something nice about a couple of schools.
“As much as he loves the Gators,” Mike Godwin said, “his disdain for FSU and Georgia is beyond measure.”
The third quarter ends. Florida’s up 31-6. Fans reflexively get up, lock arms and start swaying as they sing “We Are the Boys from Old Florida.”
Behind them, Bonner sits alone. He can’t stand or sway and can barely be heard.
A man walks past and glances at the scene. He looks sad.
“I don’t see myself as most people do,” Bonner said. “I have cerebral palsy, but I don’t let it keep me down.”
The best games keep people entranced till the end. Bonner almost jumped out of his wheelchair when Jarvis Moss blocked a field goal to preserve Florida’s win over South Carolina in 1996.
The latest game against the Gamecocks was pretty much drama free. The upside for Bonner was that many of the 89,453 other fans had filtered out early.
He stayed until the end. Then it was time to say goodbye to the 2022 season.
Godwin put his wheelchair in reverse and started the slow roll toward the exit. His friends formed a human wedge in front of him, making sure nobody wandered into the path.
They got to Gate 9, where Bonner’s caregiver, Kela Hayes, was waiting. The sun had been down for an hour, so Bonner touched an icon on the control panel. Two small headlights popped on.
Bonner said goodbye to the Jacksonville crew and headed toward his van. Short walks for most people are often adventures for the disabled.
A section of sidewalk was splintered. A slab of concrete jutted from the ground. Bonner hit the brakes, surveyed the scene, and swung wide into the dirt.
Good thing his headlights were working.
“They need to fix that,” he said.
A couple of minutes later, his van was in view under the dim glow of a streetlight. The lot had already emptied out, so Hayes could get right to work.
She slid the door open and engaged the ramp. It slowly unfolded and Bonner rolled into the van.
She tethered the chair and its passenger securely into place. Then the ramp whirred and folded back into place.
Bonner’s 34th straight season at Florida Field was in the books. He drove away with one thing on his mind.
“Season 35!” he said.
Does all this make Bonner the Gators’ No. 1 fan? He’s never really thought about such a mythical title, but he knows there’d be plenty of good candidates.
He’s not the only fan with a bedroom painted orange and blue. He’ll never be able to donate enough to have a building named after him.
But if a song counts, every Florida fan knows one by heart.
There have been plenty of sunny Saturdays in Gainesville over the years. There have been a lot of storms.
In all kinds of weather, nobody has stuck with the Gators quite like Mike Bonner.
David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun’s sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley