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Column: Jim Bonds is a teacher and coach who’s made a difference

St. Francis football coach Jim Bonds has been battling cancer for months.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Jim Bonds, the beloved football coach for 20 seasons at La Cañada St. Francis, is very sick. He has quietly battled cancer for months, not wanting to worry others with his struggles through chemotherapy and uncertainty.

Enough. It’s time for those who have long admired and appreciated his leadership, friendship and wisdom to speak up to let him know how special he has been in everyone’s lives.

My introduction to Jim came when he was known as Jimmy, a hotshot high school quarterback who led Newhall Hart to a Southern Section championship in 1986. He was three years behind his brother, Tom, another star QB who guided Hart to a 1983 section title. It was the glory years for the Bonds family, with lots of references to James Bond, 007 and secret agents. Tom became a prolific passer at Cal Lutheran. Jim got a scholarship to UCLA, where he ran into Troy Aikman and Tommy Maddox and studied under coaches Terry Donahue, Homer Smith and Rick Neuheisel.

To no one’s surprise, Bonds would become a teacher and coach. One of his mentors, Dean Herrington, remembers taking Bonds to an L.A. Express vs. Houston Gamblers game. Both went crazy over the innovative four receiver formations. Their futures would be forever intertwined in coaching, playing golf, going to Bruce Springsteen concerts and teaching the passing game.

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“There was no doubt he was going to be a coach and a real good one and competitive,” said Herrington, the head coach at Lancaster Paraclete.

Bill Redell gave Bonds his first real coaching job in 1992, hiring him to be offensive coordinator at St. Francis. He also got a teaching position.

“He did a fabulous job in the classroom and as offensive coordinator,” Redell said.

Of course, there were stories, such as the time construction was going on at St. Francis and Redell decided to use a portable toilet. Bonds organized players to lift up the latrine while Redell was still inside. “I had to hold on to all sides,” Redell said. “I came out wet.”

Bonds would become the most sought-after assistant coach in the San Fernando Valley, and Mission Hills Alemany hired him away in 1997. I’ll never forget Alemany losing to Santa Ana Mater Dei in a playoff game, and Alemany’s quarterback, Casey Clausen, calmly answering questions afterward in tears. He was setting an example his coach taught him.

“That was the most important thing, to treat everybody the way you wanted to be treated,” said Clausen, now the head coach at Alemany.

When Redell left St. Francis to begin the football program at Westlake Village Oaks Christian in 2000, Bonds jumped at the chance to return as head coach. Principal Tom Moran always admired him and the hiring was quick. He hasn’t left since.

For 20 seasons, the 51-year-old has taught lessons to teenagers at the all-boys Catholic school that go far beyond what the scoreboard reads after games.

As I write this, tears come to my eyes, because it’s so difficult to accept this era of parents wanting to judge coaches based solely on how many wins they have or how many scholarships their players have attracted. Bonds’ teams have made the playoffs 19 out of 20 years and he’s sent plenty of players to four-year schools, but his program has been about so much more.

“They pick up leadership skills, how to make right decisions, how to be accountable, how to set an example for others,” said the 79-year-old Redell.

Greg Dulcich, who recently earned a scholarship at UCLA after walking on as a tight end, said, “I’d say the biggest thing I’ve learned from Coach Bonds is when you really love what you do, you’ll be driven to find success in it every day. During off seasons, he’d joke about walking around campus feeling like a ghost since he couldn’t be on the field coaching for a few months.”

These are clearly difficult times with Bonds transitioning into hospice care. “He’s fighting like heck,” Bonds’ brother said on Monday.

Tom Bonds sent an email last week seeking stories about his brother. “We would love for it to be a collection of love, stories and/or great memories,” he said.

Brian Jacobs played football with Bonds at Hart and UCLA. His son, Jack, joined St. Francis last season as a freshman to play quarterback for Bonds.

“There’s nothing more important in life than your children,” Jacobs said. “I was sending Jack there, and a big reason was Jimmy.”

Say your prayers, tell your stories, offer your memories about the kid from Newhall who grew up to be a great coach, great teacher and great person.


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