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Why Not Us

FAMU tailback Bishop Bonnett is running from his past toward a brighter future

He credits a conversation with his mother and divine intervention with turning his life around

Florida A&M senior running back Bishop Bonnett is in pursuit of his third degree and a winning season as the team’s leading rusher. After not playing last season, he’s trying to make up for lost time.

Not only is Bonnett the Rattlers’ leading rusher, he’s also one of the team leaders. He and Terrell Jennings have significant roles in FAMU’s offensive production. They have accounted for 540 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Bonnett, a redshirt senior, is a mentor to Jennings, a redshirt sophomore.

“Bishop has been like [a] big brother,” said Jennings. “He doesn’t know this, but I really look after him. He is the standard. I am trying to beat the standard. He [taught] me a lot, and he pushes me to work hard every day.”

The Rattlers enter Saturday’s game in Huntsville, Alabama, against Alabama A&M with a record of 3-2. Alabama A&M is coming off a 61-15 loss to Jackson State, and FAMU beat South Carolina State 30-7. Bonnett rushed for 118 yards and a touchdown in the victory.

“I know I always run hard. My mindset today was run and don’t get easily tackled. I felt that I should’ve had three touchdowns. There’s still a lot of things I need to work on in practice,” Bonnett said following the win over South Carolina State.

Safety Markquese Bell and Bonnett have been the faces of the Rattlers this season. Both players play down their individual accolades and instead focus on developing and winning as a team with their leadership styles.

“Bishop is able to go outside of himself to get everyone else hype. What I admire about Bishop is that he’s a vocal leader and also practices what he preaches,” said Bell, the 6-foot-3, 203-pound redshirt senior defensive back.

For Bonnett, Bell and other upperclassmen, this is their first competitive season since 2019. It is also FAMU’s first in the Southwestern Athletic Conference after the Rattlers decided to leave the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). The 2020 season was to be their last in the MEAC but it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Rattlers’ season will be chronicled in the ESPN+ series Why Not Us: FAMU Football, which premiered on Thursday. Bonnett will be one of the key players profiled throughout the series.

FAMU opted out of the 2021 spring season. Bonnett spent his time completing two degrees — interdisciplinary studies and construction engineering. Currently, Bonnett is finishing his third degree, in health leisure fitness. His ultimate career goal is to run his own construction firm.

You’ll more than likely hear Bonnett’s name called in Bragg Memorial Stadium, but he would point out his humble beginnings in Jacksonville, Florida.

Bonnett, at 5-feet-7 and 175 pounds, credits his introduction to the game of football to his father, Derrell Bonnett. Bonnett started his football career at the age of 6 with a team in North Florida. People from his neighborhood remember him touching a pigskin in his first game.

“My two front teeth [were] knocked out,” Bonnett said. “I went to the sideline, and they were trying to baby me with ice all in my mouth. [After] a minute, I went back into the game. And [I’ll] never forget the coach who asked am I ready. After that, I ran for 60 yards.”

However, he couldn’t quite run from trouble and found himself in difficulty after a fight his freshman year at First Coast High School. After a disciplinary hearing, he was sent to the Grand Park Education Center, an alternative school. Upon completing 90 days without another incident, he got the offense expunged from his record.

“Being at an alternative school, almost felt like prison. You walk through security and metal detectors every day,” said Bonnett. 

He was not taking football seriously and was struggling to grow up in one of the most underdeveloped areas of Jacksonville. In his words, he would “turn up even more.” He often left the First Coast High campus in the middle of the day to drive around Jacksonville and listen to music with his friends.

“I used to hang out with upperclassmen, and they had a car. We would just drive around Jacksonville and hang around [William] Raines Senior High School. Eventually, we would come back to our campus and skip class the rest of the day,” said Bonnett.

He continued down the path of self-sabotage and soon found himself in yet another moment of panic and unrest.

While playing junior varsity, he got into a fight with one of his teammates. The coach kicked him off the team and he missed his sophomore season at First Coast.

A moment of reflection with his mother, Shawn McCall, sparked change in his character and his future, as she gave him life-altering advice.

“It’s something you are doing in your life, and that’s the reason why [God] is taking football away from you. God knows how much [football] means to you. You need to change something in your life to get what you want out of this life,” Bonnett said his mother told him.

He cried in his mother’s arms about the direction he was headed in. In that defining moment, he promised to make better choices and focus on football.

He changed his journey to a familiar place with family ties and former childhood opponents, William Raines Senior High, where he transferred his junior year.

During his senior year, he was paired with top talents such as linebacker Michael Pinckney and wide receiver Rick Wells, both Division I prospects. William Raines High would eventually lose the state Class 4A championship, but Bonnett was noticed as a running back and cornerback. He also ran track. However, that did not help his case with recruiters. Most of his offers were limited to small schools and partial scholarships. The only full scholarship offer he had was from Tusculum University, a private Presbyterian school.

In February 2016, Bonnett prayed before making a decision.

“The night before signing day, I ended up praying for guidance from God. I wanted to ask God for clarity on the direction and path that I was taking. I did not want to feel rushed since I had just visited the school a week before signing day,” he said.

“I woke up on the [morning] of signing day, and the spirit told me [signing to Tusculum] was not the right decision for me. I did not sign [to a school] on signing day. It was a bittersweet experience to see all of my friends signing up for their dream schools.”

He was introduced to Florida A&M through a personal connection of his guidance counselor. After a few calls by his counselor, he visited the campus, receiving an academic acceptance letter on the spot.

In what he calls divine intervention, he attended satellite football camp at William Raines High. He competed as a running back and was offered a spot on the practice squad to challenge for a scholarship.

Bonnett joined the FAMU football team in the middle of Week 2 of the 2016 season as the team prepared for Coastal Carolina, but his first collegiate game experience was two weeks later at home against South Carolina State.

“I got in the game and ended up fumbling [on a kickoff return]. [Then-head coach] Alex Wood would never put me back in the game,” said Bonnett.

Bonnett spent the rest of his freshman season practicing with special teams and running back groups. His sophomore season, he had certain plays at running back, but most of his playing time was on special teams.

The night before the Norfolk State game in October 2017, Wood offered him a scholarship. But Wood resigned later that year, and Bonnett said he never received official paperwork for a scholarship.

In December 2017, Willie Simmons was introduced as the new head football coach at Florida A&M. In a conversation with Simmons, Bonnett mentioned his scholarship situation.

“The first meeting [Bishop and I] had was about his opportunity here as running back. Every guy will get an equal opportunity to show what they can do. The guy that deserves to play and be on scholarship will do that,” Simmons said. “[Bishop] showed us that he deserved to play and be on scholarship. [It was a] great decision by me, and he has been one of our rocks in our three seasons here. Running the ball hard, playing special teams and being a leader.”

Now that he’s in his final season at FAMU, what will he miss about being a Rattler?

“I’m going to miss playing at Bragg [Memorial] Stadium. All of the memories from the fans showing love, repeating amen after all of my big plays. Most importantly, the band [is] going crazy,” said Bonnett.

And what does he want to accomplish on the football field?

“To win out and to have a 1,000 yards.”

Calvin Sykes is a graduate student in sports science at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, Fla. A native of Miami, Sykes was the sideline reporter for the Florida A&M Rattlers football from 2018-2020, program director for the school’s radio station WANM FM 90.5, and has written for HBCU GameDay.