Let's be completely honest about this right from the start. Tom Bonds doesn't belong at Cal Lutheran. No more than a thoroughbred such as Temperate Sil belongs out on the north 40 hauling a moldboard plow.
A more suitable place would be Boston College--or any place, really, where a talented, Flutie-like 5-foot-9 quarterback could display his gifts in front of a national audience. Can't you hear Keith Jackson drawling on and on about the way that dawggone, squirmy little fella's only knee-high to a country hound doggy, but, goodness, he sure can fire 'em up with the best of 'em.
As it is, Bonds has carved out a name for himself in Thousand Oaks and the Western Football Conference, a decent but backwater Division II league that extends from Northridge to Portland. His dreams don't include the Heisman Trophy, just something called the Harlon Hill, a 1-year-old annual award given to the player who supposedly is the best in Division II. If Bonds reels in the coveted Harlon, he'd join the lofty company of last year's winner, Jeff Bentrim of North Dakota. Brings chills, doesn't it?
Over the past four years, Bonds has been named WFC Player of the Week five times. He has completed 568 of 1,055 passes for 7,201 yards and 52 touchdowns, all Cal Lutheran records. He owns the Division II record for most completions (44) in a game and is closing in on the Division II career passing mark of 8,521 yards set by Jim Lindsey of Abilene Christian from 1967-70. Earlier this season, Bonds said he considered setting the career record "inevitable," but now, with three games left, he would have to average more than 400 yards a game to surpass it. Not altogether out of the question, though, considering he threw for more than 400 yards twice last year against two of the teams remaining on this year's schedule.
Either way, some say Bonds has been one of the best quarterbacks in Division II since his sophomore season. "He's the best quarterback in this league," Cal State Sacramento Coach Bob Mattos said last week. "He's elusive and has a strong arm. He's a great quarterback."
So what's he doing in this league, anyway?
He was, in a word, shortchanged.
"When I came out of high school," Bonds said, "I got letters from coaches everywhere. As soon as I put my height on the forms, I never heard from them again."
The exception was the Air Force Academy. Even that idea was short-lived, though, when it was discovered that Bonds is color blind. He couldn't distinguish subtle differences between red and green. "I couldn't become a pilot, and the thought of leaving home at 18 with a nine-year commitment to the Air Force was too much," he said.
In a move that even Bonds says was one of desperation, he enrolled at Cal Lutheran in 1984.
That fall he began his big-number, but gyral college career when he became the Kingsmen's starting quarterback midway through the season. He passed for 954 yards in '84 and 2,427 in '85. Bonds then started second-guessing himself regarding his decision to attend Cal Lutheran. Even though he was named an NAIA All-American in his sophomore season, the Kingsmen finished 1-4 in conference and 6-5 overall, by virtue of playing nonconference teams such as Western New Mexico State.
"We were struggling. I thought about transferring," Bonds said. "It wasn't enjoyable to lose."
A stirring, season-ending 29-24 win over Cal Poly San Luis Obispo changed his mind.
Bonds dropped back to pass, looking left and right before finding receiver Joe Monarrez over the middle. Cal Lutheran was undefeated in 1986 after two games and a zillion passing yards. The prospects were wide open for a winning season. The quarterback had guided the Kingsmen to a first-half lead in their third game, at Cal State Hayward. During the first series of the third quarter, Bonds drilled the pass to Monarrez. While the receiver caught the ball and dove forward for a 10-yard gain, Bonds was knocked to the ground in a heap of pain.
"Their defensive end fell into my knee," he said. "His helmet hit me on the outside of my knee and I could feel it pop. I was so worried that the season was lost. That's all I could think of, 'Oh, no, the season is lost.' "
Gone with the Bend.
"It was scary," Bonds said. "I didn't know what was in my future. I thought I'd be in a cast for eight weeks and rehabilitating my knee for the rest of my life."
Even though the injury wasn't as bad as feared--Bonds missed just three games--the season was all but lost. CLU managed to win just one more game, a 27-24 victory over Azusa Pacific. The Kingsmen finished 3-8 and 0-6 in WFC play and spirits dropped to all-time lows.
"The whole thing was discouraging," the quarterback said. "I wouldn't say people didn't want to win, but there were people on the team who didn't take it serious."
While the team sang the blues, Bonds' personal statistics continued to soar. Despite the injury, he finished last season with glossy totals, 198 completions in 350 attempts for 2,402 yards and 18 touchdowns.