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

November 16, 1986|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

LA VERNE — 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."

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