Pound for pound

I was a freshman.

I was young.

I was immature.

I was not ready.

But John Bonavita thought I was. So, I was.

The conversation now is a bit foggy, as it was 17 years ago, but it, in essence, was a man standing in the coach’s office of Sheffield High School, who I had known for years prior, looking me straight in the eyes and telling me what I didn’t know at the time I needed to hear.

“I want you to move up. I want you to play for me.”

That in itself probably doesn’t come off as a grand accomplishment or life-changing moment, but often times it is those subtle shifts or moves we make in life, the ones that seem to have minimal impact at the time, that truly affect us later in life. I played four years of Varsity football at Sheffield, and still look back on that freshman year, where I never started and had very little field time, as my most memorable.

John Bonavita was not just a football coach. He was an energy, a charisma, a passion. From game film to Homecoming bonfire speeches to Saturday afternoons on Wolverine Mountain, John was a leader, a fan, a mascot, and a teacher.

Going back even further than 2001, to a time when I was an 11-year-old kid about to begin my own football career is when I first got to witness Bonavita as head coach. I was helping my dad on the Chain Crew in 1997 at the time and even though I was there to help and also watch my older brothers play I took the time to learn the game from a different perspective, however as any fan who attended Sheffield football from ’97 to ’01 could tell you, your attention was constantly being pulled towards the sideline. At first, the fire and intensity from Bonavita might make an 11-year old a little hesitant to go down the football road, but oddly enough, it was those same memories that made me trust Bonavita four years later. I knew, if all else failed, I would be playing for a coach that would do everything he could to ensure we were the epidemy of concentration, strength, and force. And most of all that we, as a team, put every ounce of our pride into our game.

I unfortunately only had the chance to play for Bonavita for one year before he resigned, yet for much of the next three years of my Varsity football life, I feel part of me still longed for that same energy. I can’t speak for my teammates, but there was something about John that just connected with the very definition of who we were as Wolverines. Those of us that grew up around it, we knew what it was. It was rabid.

Fast forward seven years to my first year covering sports for the Times Observer, I had the opportunity to interview Bonavita following several of Sheffield’s games during his second stint as the head coach. In looking back on those interviews, the first thought that comes to mind is that in many ways the times may have changed, the game may have changed, but the man has not. I credit John Bonavita with reminding me what Sheffield football was meant to be, and without a doubt that is why for almost 10 years I have been traveling hours all over western Pennsylvania, just to write about the orange and black.

Memories make up who we are. Memories of those lost, and memories we give to others. Maybe it was the 11-year-old kid me, on the cusp of his football career, or myself at a freshman crossroad just needing a push forward, or most recently the realization that as a reporter I had come full circle. Regardless of what memory it was that made writing this one of the most difficult tasks I have put upon myself, I know one thing will always remain the same; John Bonavita will be remembered as a mentor, a motivator, and pound for pound, an icon in the heart of the Allegheny.

Cody has been a sports reporter and writer for ten years. His inspiration and motivation have come from all walks of life, including his own. He can be reached at codyjelms@gmail.com.

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