Darryl Bonner’s underdog tale is the latest “Rudy”-like story that often has played out at Navy. Similar stories over the years take place at Army and Air Force, too.
That’s what makes academy football a special opportunity for undersized athletes with the hearts of overachievers. A high school athlete that doesn’t measure up to standard Division I football recruiting profiles gains more time to develop at the academies.
Consider the 5-foot-7, 171-pound Bonner. The Navy junior slotback hung around long enough to help the Midshipmen upset a Top-10 team for the first time since 1984. His first career touchdown catch on Oct. 8 helped Navy beat No. 6-ranked Houston, 46-40.
“It’s a process at the academy,” Bonner said. “It teaches you a lot about patience and growing up. Throughout middle school and high school, players are used to having a spot right away. Here it takes patience. The offense is complex and takes time to learn. I’ve always been a student of the game, and I tried to make the most of it.”
The Power Five schools don’t look at a 5-foot-7, 171-pounder. From Notre Dame to Washington State, coaches can find a taller and heavier player with equal speed. If he’s a bust, they’ll bring in another one to replace him in the next recruiting class.
In fact, the story of an undersized player with heart is so rare at a place like Notre Dame that a creative Hollywood producer turned it into the hit movie “Rudy,” even though Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger possessed nowhere near Bonner’s talent.
Bonner has already passed Ruettiger in playing time when opportunity presented itself in 2016. He is third on the depth chart behind two seniors, Toneo Gulley (5-foot-8, 196 pounds) and Calvin Cass (5-foot-10, 206 pounds). He hasn’t started a game and he didn’t play against Tulane and Air Force, but he was ready for Houston.
His 17-yard touchdown reception was caught in stride as he crossed the goal line. It broke a halftime tie for a 27-20 lead less than four minutes into the third quarter. The defender bit on a play-action fake and Bonner streaked past him.
“It was an especially great feeling because of the magnitude of the game,” Bonner said.
“I was thinking, ‘This is unbelievable. This is what I dreamed of when I came here.’ But I couldn’t get too caught up in the moment. We still had two quarters to play, and the game was close.”
Bonner’s journey from Fayetteville (N.C.) Terry Sanford – ironically, in the shadow of the Army’s Fort Bragg – began with a year at the Navy prep school in 2013. Upon admission to Annapolis, he was a freshman on the JV and scout teams in 2014. As a little-used sophomore backup in 2015, he played in two games with only two carries for two yards and no catches.
Five games into this season, Bonner has carried nine times for 86 yards and caught two balls for 42, with a long of 25. He is third among slotbacks in rushing. Tillman leads the team with 18 catches, but next on the list are five Midshipmen that include Bonner with three or two catches.
That’s what’s special about academy football. An undersized 5-foot-7, 171-pounder with a big heart can find himself contributing to a team that is ranked No. 24 in the AP poll and No. 25 by USA Today.
Last week’s postponed East Carolina game provided Navy with another week of practice to prepare for Memphis. Navy surprised Houston one week after losing 28-14 at Air Force in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score.
“We started the year 3-0, but we knew we could play better,” Bonner said. “We didn’t feel we were playing the best football we could be playing. We did some soul-searching after the Air Force loss. We responded against Houston. That game gives us a lot of confidence for the rest of the year.”
A 5-7, 171-pounder with heart can fit in fine at Navy.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055