Football Tragedy : Bonita High School Struggles to Deal With the Death of an Athlete

Times Staff Writer

The play was a simple sweep to the right, with Bonita High School tailback Sam Bonanno carrying the ball.

"Nothing out of the normal," said Bonita football Coach Thom Young, whose ineffective but scrappy Bearcats were on the verge of losing their eighth game of the season.

Bonanno cut downfield, racing four or five yards along the sideline, before a tackler plowed past a Bearcat blocker and wrestled him to the ground. It was, everyone agrees, a clean tackle.

Bonanno, a 18-year-old running back, sat up and took off his helmet, looking dazed. Someone asked him if he was all right. "No," he replied, and lay back down on the field, lapsing into a coma from which he never recovered.

Three and a half days later, on Nov. 10, Sam Bonanno died. According to a spokesman for the county coroner, the cause of death was "cranial injuries." Further tests are being conducted to determine exactly when the injuries were sustained, the spokesman said.

Because the tackle did not involve a blow to the head, the coroner's office is interested in a report that Bonanno had suffered a mild concussion during a game five weeks before the fatal accident.

"He was taken from the field and examined by a doctor," said Assistant Principal Bill Brinegar. "He was cleared to play again."

It was the second death of a local high school football player in the past two weeks. Hawthorne High School offensive lineman Jeff Chai, 16, collapsed on the field and died of a heart ailment during a game against Culver City High on Oct. 31.

"This was a horrible tragedy," said Brinegar. "One of the things we're trying to help the students deal with was that it occurred at an event that was supposed to be one of the good parts of high school."

To lose the popular Bonanno seemed doubly hard--enough for the school to bring in a crisis team of school psychologists to help the students cope.

By all accounts, the striking-looking senior was "special," a charmer with looks and brains and a model citizen in the student body of 1,700. Not only was he a co-captain of the football team and one of its driving forces, but he was also an elected senior-class representative.

"Just a nice kid," said Brinegar, who had known the youth since he was a sixth-grader at Ramona Intermediate School. "Ask him to do something and he'd do it. If you said, 'Sam, I need some help with this,' Sam helped with that."

"He was the kind of person who really cared for everybody," said a friend of Bonanno's, Tony Leal. "He'd go out of his way to say 'Hi' to you."

Bonita High School, situated on an uncluttered field on D Street, with mountains looming to the north, was a welter of raw sensitivities last Tuesday, the day after Bonanno's death. A group of students clustered around the school's marquee, which still bore the announcement of the Nov. 6 football game with Gahr High School.

They didn't want to talk much, except to say that they were taking it hard.

"For the seniors, it makes a lot of things seem really important now," said one girl, her arms folded tightly, her eyes squinting in the sun, ". . .things that weren't so important before."

According to Brinegar, the obvious signs of pain were there in the school's classrooms and hallways.

"Of course, you see kids crying," he said. "There's a lot of being together and hugging in groups, too."

But the curious thing about the students' grief was the way it had served as a kind of glue, bonding them together, particularly those who had been closest to Bonanno. "Taking refuge in themselves," Brinegar called it.

When outsiders were around, they turned quiet. But among themselves, the students turned last week into a kind of extended rap session.

It probably started last Friday evening, said Young, when it had become apparent that Bonanno had suffered irreversible brain damage.

"We didn't want an impersonal thing to inform them, so we brought the team members together at one of the parents' houses," coach Young said. Also present were the cheerleaders and many friends and acquaintances of the injured player.

"There was so much emotion there," Young said. "There would be a long silence, then somebody would remember something that Sam had done. By 2 or 3 in the morning, they were all still there. We were mentally and emotionally exhausted by all the tears and sadness and loving that was going on there. The kids were really close before, but this really brought them together."

"It's better when everybody talks to each other," said Leal, a brawny 17-year-old.

'No Good Sitting at Home'

"It's no good sitting at home, thinking about what we would be doing if Sam was there," added Robert Enriquez, 17, who described himself as so close to Bonanno that "I was like his shadow."

"The counselors come around, but I don't feel comfortable talking with them," said Leal. "I'd rather be with friends. We've all been sticking together, at my house, at Robert's house."

The incident has sent shock waves beyond La Verne, all the way to Cerritos, where a pall settled last week on Gahr High School, the home of the opposing team in the fatal game.

"The team was very saddened and disappointed," said football Coach Daryl Walsh, who had to contend with early erroneous reports that Bonanno had died after being brutally "gang tackled."

'Handled It Well'

"It was one of those things that nobody had any control over," Walsh said. "There was no wrongdoing on anybody's part. We kept the youngsters abreast of what was happening. I'd say they handled it pretty well."

Walsh said administrators from Bonita High had called Gahr to assure the team that no individuals bore any responsibility for Bonanno's death. A delegation of Gahr football players planned to attend the youth's funeral on Saturday.

According to his friends, Bonanno, so immaculate in his appearance he was sometimes referred to as "G.Q.," for the men's fashion magazine "Gentleman's Quarterly," was one of the team's greatest football enthusiasts.

"If we were watching a game on television, he used to say, 'Just watch, someday you'll see me on TV, running that ball,' " recalled Enriquez.

'I'm Ready'

Young said Bonanno was so determined a player that he once tried to insert himself into a game after a contact lens had cracked under his eyelid.

"The contact was lost in the eye, and Sam kept saying, 'I'm ready to go in right now,' " Young said. "When the doctor wanted to examine him, he said, 'Can't it wait 'till halftime?' The doctor pulled the lens out in halves."

Like the rest of the team, Bonanno was small, Young said. "He was listed in the program as 5-11 and 175 pounds," Young said. "But he was a lot close to 5-10 and 160. He always went hard, though. He just had a lot of desire."

In the nine games in which Bonanno played this season, of which the team won only one, he averaged 4.8 yards a carry.

Voted to Play Game

To the dismay of Bonita administrators, the team voted to play the final game of the season, against Ontario High School, on Thursday evening. All team members wore decals with the number 18--Bonanno's jersey number--on their helmets.

"The kids said that it was what Sam would have wanted," said Brinegar before the game. "But it's going to be excruciating for the adults on the sidelines. Just the sound of a hit gives you the creeps now."

According to the boy's father, Samuel Bonanno Sr., Sam aspired to play college football.

"He took the college test a few weeks ago," the father said. "He just wanted to be accepted in a college somewhere."

Self-Sufficient Youngster

He described his son as a self-sufficient youngster who helped around the house. The boy worked 20 hours a week at a San Dimas Safeway store "to help out the family and to buy gas for his truck and to take care of the little things that kids are responsible for."

He said Sam often performed chores around the house, like mowing the lawn, as well as taking care of his 11-year-old brother, Dominick.

"He was a very neat boy," said the father. "He had a $40 bottle of cologne, even though he was just making $5 an hour. He bought his own letterman jacket for $180. This has left a lot of blank spots in our hearts that nobody else could understand."

Both Bonanno and his wife Mary are brewery workers for Miller Brewing Co., in Irwindale. The family was moving to a new home when the boy died.

By early afternoon, the students had rearranged the lettering on the school marquee. It now read:

SAM BONANNO NO. 18 WILL REMAIN IN OUR HEARTS FOREVER

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