Notification after notification have come up asking for change. After years of reminders being pushed down and recirculated, Reggie Bonnafon knows the time for an update is now.
In his hometown of Louisville, the Panthers running back is well known among locals. Not only was he a three-star dual threat quarterback coming out of high school, but he also stayed for college, playing at the University of Louisville.
Staying in the city during the pandemic has allowed him to see firsthand what has taken place in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and so many more.
With racial inequality in the forefront once again, he’s beginning to understand what it means for football to be a platform for change.
“It’s really, really, really really personal for me and it’s something that I just feel obligated to do, like crazy enough it’s deeper than even me,” Bonnafon said in an interview with The Observer. “My grandfather has been the only African American fire chief for the city of Louisville. He was appointed that job in like the early 70s. It just lets you know the climate, how it is in Kentucky.
“I can only speak on where I’m from, what I experienced. I found out that it’s a lot different than a lot of my friends, a lot of my teammates, a lot of people. Kentucky is just one of those states that kind of has struggled with accepting everybody, especially where I’m from it is a very high population of African Americans mixed with a lot of different other races. There’s a lot of things built up over time, just like across the whole country, even in Louisville got fed up with.”
Bonnafon has spent the past week helping out in a variety of ways, from joining peaceful walks to helping clean the city after protests, following the death of David McAtee, a “pillar in the community” who operated a barbecue stand that was known for giving out food free of charge, including to local police officers, in a police shooting early Monday morning. Curfews have been in place in the city. Bonnafon said he could feel the tension in the air.
He and his friend and former teammate Jamon Brown, an offensive guard for the Atlanta Falcons, went out Tuesday after rioting and protests across Louisville to help clean up the the streets. They’ve participated in peaceful walks, spoke in front of crowds by the courthouse and listened to the mayor speak downtown.
“It’s a fight that we all are facing. I’ve been here in Louisville in my hometown, which is the same place Muhammad Ali was born. It’s really deep,” Bonnafon said. “I’m pretty calm, pretty chill, pretty quiet, but I don’t know. After seeing so much go on and seeing some of my friends actually put their bodies on the line literally to grab attention from our councilman, things like that, I had to step in and use my voice as well, because we needed to be heard from and make things happen.”
During a peaceful march this week, the demonstration he was part of was kept out of certain parts of a higher socioeconomic neighborhood with police officers telling the group they could not be in certain areas.
Bonnafon believes the streets he’s walking now in protest were likely marched by his grandparents and their friends during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“I’ve had ‘classmates’ or ‘friends’ say some of the most disrespectful, degrading things and I went to majority white preparatory high school,” Bonnafon said. “My whole life has just been kind of tough, but you can feel it. It’s there. It’s hard to explain. You just had to be there to kind of understand the hurt from the community. Everybody’s tired. It’s beautiful to see everybody coming together though and protesting.”
A quote that resonates with him in describing what Northern Kentucky has been like for African Americans for decades is something Ali said when he refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
After his interview with The Observer on Thursday, Bonnafon was planning to spend more time on the phone talking to judges about what change can be done. He says a priority is trying to organize things the “right way” and avoiding too much chaos. Part of that is using his company, Total 360 Management, to help raise over $30,000 in the West Louisville Initiative, partnering with a local organization to give back to the underserved neighborhood.
Panthers team owner David Tepper and coach Matt Rhule have expressed their support in what he’s doing. As far as what others can do to help, Bonnafon said he hopes people do whatever feels most comfortable for them, whether it’s expressing themselves through art or writing, all he asks is that people just do something — and be “relentless” in it.
“Relentless is a continuation, do not stop. I feel that’s where we’re at in this country. Relentless. This situation has happened before in a different time and it’s different now,” Bonnafon said. “Obviously, people are still continuing to be relentless about having justice and having equality, just from me being a little history nerd, and in like the civil rights movement, our ancestors and being slaves — each and everyone one of them were relentless. That’s what we have to continue to do for sure.”
It’s not easy work, but Bonnafon feels that it is something he needs to be a part of.
“Everybody kind of has some different views. It’s just time to update the system. We spend a lot of time updating our iOS, iPhones and things like that, but it would be foolish of us not to update our minds and the way we think about things as well,” Bonnafon said. “I feel like this is a time where our country is going through a little adversity so we can grow.”