Notre Dame's Jonathan Bonner motivated by mother's cancer battle

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Consuelo Hampton looks at her son, hears her father and sees herself.

It’s a fall Saturday in South Bend, and she’s perched in a seat inside Notre Dame Stadium, a place she knows so well. Hampton’s brother, Dan Knott, won a national championship here as a reserve running back in 1977. She attended countless spring games in the ‘80s with her father, Elmon Hampton, making the trek east from Chicago for a glimpse of her favorite team.

“My dad would take me, and I would be so excited, because they were superstars in my eyes,” Consuelo Hampton said this week. “They were what I wanted to be.”

It’s no coincidence, then, that her son also grew up dreaming of Notre Dame. When he was in eighth grade, Jonathan Bonner wrote a letter to his older self.

“Hopefully you played hard enough to go off to Notre Dame,” the burgeoning tight end and defensive end wrote. “If not, you better at least be going off to college.”

This letter from my 8th grade self shows that my life is headed in the right direction. I had high expectations too! pic.twitter.com/0oafDRpHBn

— Jonathan Bonner (@The_Realest55) May 30, 2014

That’s why Hampton is here, staring down at an all-too-familiar face. It’s eerie, almost, how much Bonner resembles his mother. They have the same eyes, the same smile.

The same face, and the same fight.

“Jonathan and I look so much alike that I’m always thinking, ‘Wow, he’s like the boy version of me,’ ” Hampton said with a laugh. “So I get the opportunity to experience it through his eyes, and it’s a wonderful feeling. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

In his senior season in 2017, Bonner — now a 6-foot-4, 293-pound defensive lineman — started all 13 games for the Irish, registering 30 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

He made it here, and so did the Hamptons. It’s a family reunion.

It feels like fate.

“When I was a kid I was going to games with my dad and now I see my son out there,” said Hampton, whose father passed away in 2010. “(Elmon) always said when Jon was a kid that he was going to go to Notre Dame. I was like, ‘No, he’s not. Whatever.’

“Every time he walks out there I feel like my dad’s spirit is out there with him. I feel like he’s always protected, because my dad is rooting for him and I’m rooting for him.”

Now, more than ever, Bonner’s rooting for his mother, too.

***

Consuelo Hampton earned a degree from the University of Kansas, became a doctor, raised two kids and beat breast cancer. Twice.

She is a single mother, a survivor, a doctor, a fighter, a fan, an example.

Or, in Bonner’s words: “She’s the biggest driving force in my life.”

Hampton’s life has been littered with obstacles, each seemingly more menacing than the last. In October, she was diagnosed with endometrial (uterine) cancer. She had surgery at the end of February and is set to start radiation in the coming week.

It isn’t easy, but she’s fighting.

She has at least two reasons why.

“Cherokee and Jonathan,” she said, referring to Bonner and his older sister. “There’s been many times when I felt like if I wasn’t around they would be better off, but Jonathan especially is very up front with me. He’s my biggest cheerleader. He’s like, ‘Mom, you have to do this. You have to do it for us.’

Consuelo Hampton is supported through her battle with endometrial cancer by her children, Cherokee (left) and Jonathan (right) (photo courtesy Consuelo Hampton).

“It has been hard. You keep going through something different, and this time the cancer came back and it’s in a different place. I won’t say it’s been easy, but having Cherokee and Jon, they are my family. That’s my family. When Jonathan has down time, he comes to see his mom. He calls me every day in between classes, before practice. We talk about everything.

“I appreciate that, because some people become adults and they rarely talk to their parents. But we talk all the time. That definitely keeps me going, knowing that this guy could be doing anything. But he makes sure he calls me two or three times a day, and that’s every day. Every. Day. That’s amazing to me, because he doesn’t have to do that.”

He doesn't have to call. He doesn't have to visit.

But Jonathan Bonner's a product of his environment.

So he keeps her going, and she keeps him going.

"When they say Notre Dame is a good place to be, I truly understand it — not just from the outside, reading articles or seeing him on TV," Hampton said. "I know what type of man he's becoming.”

***

Jonathan Bonner graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in IT management in December.

And in doing so, he faced a decision: utilize his fifth and final season of eligibility and return in 2018, or take the degree and secure a job in Chicago to support his mother.

Hampton’s preference was obvious.

She wanted Bonner to do his part.

“We are a team, and I made a promise to (Jonathan and Cherokee many years ago): ‘If you do your part, I’m going to do my part. The only way this team is going to work is if all of us do what we’re supposed to do,’ ” Hampton said. “I wanted him to show that we all have to overcome some obstacles, and this (cancer diagnosis) was just one obstacle that’s in the way.

“We’ve had to overcome a lot of obstacles since I was a very young parent, and I told him, ‘We’ll get through it. As a family, we’ll make it.’ He saw all of the sacrifices I had made for him and his sister, and he wanted to make a sacrifice. But I wanted him to complete the job.

“ ‘You went there to do something; complete it. You want to go for the national championship; go there and do all that you can. Be someone that everyone can look up to.’ ”

While his teammates look up to him, Bonner looks up to his mother. She’s why he didn’t complain while spending the majority of three seasons fighting his way up the Irish depth chart. She's why he overcame being jokingly tagged by teammates as "the smallest 3-technique (defensive tackle) in the country," before transitioning to nose guard this spring.

She’s why, after he discovered his right wrist was broken three games into the 2017 season, he put off surgery, swallowed the pain and completed the job.

She’s why he’ll run out of that tunnel again this fall, with his mother and his grandfather looking on from different seats.

“Jonathan Bonner wasn’t done playing football in his heart,” said Notre Dame defensive line coach and associate head coach Mike Elston. “Listen, you’re in the middle of the season. You’ve got a broken hand. It’s wrapped up every day. You’re out there and you’re beating your head against Quenton Nelson in practice.

“So it doesn’t sound all that good to come back for another year and do the same thing, unless there’s something at the end of the road. What are we building this thing up for? He does have a future in football. There’s more football in him.”

There’s more football — and there’s plenty of fight.

Notre Dame nose guard Jonathan Bonner is motivated by his mother, Consuelo Hampton, who is currently battling endometrial cancer (photo courtesy Consuelo Hampton).

He got that — along with his love of Notre Dame, his facial features and plenty more — from his mother.

“Seeing her fight is why I have the fight that I have, why I didn’t want to just run away from football,” said Bonner, who had wrist surgery in late January and has been limited this spring. “I came back. I’m going to fight through the wrist problem I have and everything and get back on the field.

“Seeing her fight makes me want to fight even more.”

To support Consuelo Hampton's battle with endometrial cancer, visit: https://www.gofundme.com/consuelos-cancer-fund.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Jonathan Bonner (55) celebrates sacking Georgia’s Jake Fromm (11) during the ND's 20-19 loss to Georgia, Sept. 9 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)