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Master of this Arena

After 14 seasons, Arizona Rattlers quarterback Bonner is considering retiring, but his name is unmistakable, at least when it comes to the league's records

June 11, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — Arizona Rattlers quarterback Sherdrick Bonner is the Arena Football League's equivalent of Dan Marino. In 14 seasons, the former Cal State Northridge passer has thrown for 40,979 yards and 829 touchdowns, and is among the most popular players in league history.

Still, he suffers one indignity: Just about everyone fumbles the name Sherdrick.

"It happened today on a conference call with ESPN," said Bonner, whose first name is pronounced Cedric, despite its spelling. "It doesn't really bother me; there are a lot worse things somebody could call me. Anyway, if people don't know it by now, there's no sense trying to correct them."

That's because Bonner's last home game could be tonight, against the Avengers. After 14 seasons in the AFL, and a brief stint in the NFL, Bonner is considering calling it a career. He plans to talk things over with his wife this off-season before making a final decision.

If he does step aside, it will be the end of an era, one that started with his paying $15 for a tryout; living through lean years when his off-season included jobs as a telemarketer, a factory worker packaging nuts and bolts, and selling Phoenix Suns tickets; and eventually becoming one of the league's elite six-figure-salary players.

"He's been the face of this franchise for a long time," Rattlers Coach Gene Nudo said of Bonner, 38, who joined the club in its second season and owns the league record for longevity with a single franchise.

Among Bonner's other accomplishments, he owns virtually all the league's postseason passing marks, including 6,761 yards passing and 127 touchdown passes. Even competitors feel compelled to applaud what he has done.

"His knowledge of the game is unsurpassed," said Casey Wasserman, owner of the Avengers. "If he's not in a class by himself, he's up there with two or three guys in the history of the league."

Bonner, whose status tonight is unclear because of a nasty hip pointer, has been through more than his share of ups and downs with the Rattlers. They were once the AFL's model franchise, regularly ranking near the top of the league in attendance and twice winning ArenaBowl titles. The crowds have been smaller in recent years, however, for various reasons.

First, the Rattlers aren't as good; they're 4-10 this season, the second-worst record among the league's 19 teams. Second, the decision to move the season from the summer to the spring didn't help them, because part of the appeal of a Rattlers home game was escaping the blistering heat. And third, in its early years, the franchise didn't have to compete for fan interest with the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes (began play in 1996), WNBA's Mercury (1997) or Major League Baseball's Diamondbacks (1998).

The landscape has changed a lot more than Bonner. He remains remarkably consistent, despite losing his four best receivers to season-ending injuries. He has completed 63.5% of his passes and has a 117.4 rating, among the best numbers of his career, and in April had a performance that his coaches still can't quite believe. In an 83-69 victory over the Utah Blaze, he put up numbers that were downright silly: 17 of 19 for 348 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions.

"That included a dropped ball," Nudo said. "It was basically perfection."

And it went largely unnoticed. Bonner says he's frequently recognized in Phoenix -- he's distinctive at 6 feet 4, 240 pounds with ice-blue eyes -- but not often elsewhere. He and his wife, Lindsay, spend the off-season in Lakewood, Colo.

"Anonymity can be a great thing," he said.

At Northridge, Bonner was anything but another face in the crowd. Not only was he the football team's two-time captain and most valuable player on offense, he also played basketball and volleyball and was a 7-foot high jumper on the track team. He flirted with the notion of playing baseball -- as he did at Azusa High -- but Northridge's coach thought he was spread too thin.

Bonner didn't play volleyball until college, and that began as merely a hobby. He played for his fraternity, and tried out for the school team only on a whim. Northridge was ranked among the top 10 volleyball teams in the nation at the time.

"Before that, he'd never played volleyball in his life, and at one point we were ranked third in the country," recalled Coley Kyman, who played college volleyball and football with Bonner. "He wasn't playing all the time, but he was definitely getting in the game for a point here or there, big points when we needed a block. Once, we went on a road trip, and the coach took Sherdrick over a guy who was on scholarship and had been on the team for two years. It was his ability to be a leader and his understanding of team concepts."

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