Sports helped Skip Bonner find his way in life

| Sunday, March 25, 2012

William "Skip" Bonner moved to Verona in 1969 with an athletic pedigree and a bad disposition. That's when he received a valuable lesson from soon-to-be teammate Butch Shook.

"A young girl came up to me and said, 'If you're half as good as Butch Shook, we'll be really good this year' -- and that infuriated me," Bonner said. "That fall, we were scrimmaging and I was playing QB. I screwed up and gave the ball to Butch instead of the halfback, and (Shook) wasn't ready. This kid hit him and broke his vertebrae. Butch wasn't able to play (the entire season), but he never said a bad word about me."

Bonner, 59, will be inducted into the Alle-Kiski Valley Hall of Fame on May 19 at the Clarion Hotel in New Kensington. The Penn Hills resident credits the Shook family -- Butch, brother Randy and their parents -- for aiding a young black man's transition to Verona, where Bonner excelled in football and basketball.

"Things would've been a lot rockier without them. They accepted me into their home and treated me like an equal," he said. "Plus, I have to say, those guys were tough as nails."

At 6-foot-3, Bonner took center stage for Verona's basketball team. Butch Shook quietly took a backseat.

"I'm scoring 26, 27 points a night and his average dropped, but he never complained," Bonner said. "I realized how much of a mature, unselfish individual it takes to do that. He taught me how to be a better person."

It still was a difficult time for Bonner. His father's death had forced the move to a mostly white suburb in the late 1960s, when race riots were erupting across the country. Bonner connected to his new surroundings through sports.

"I had a chip on my shoulder. I would've rather stayed in Wilkinsburg," he said. "But what I noticed was the desire to succeed at a small school was much greater. At Wilkinsburg, I was one of many good athletes. At Verona, it was about everyone banding together to win -- not who had the most talent."

In two seasons, Bonner totaled 1,224 points and more than 700 rebounds, leading the WPIAL in scoring his senior year at 31.9 points. For the football team, Bonner piled up 25 touchdowns in 20 games -- 10 rushing, 10 receiving and five returns.

He was recruited to play basketball at the University of South Florida, where he led the freshman team in 1971-72 at 19.5 points and 11.4 rebounds. At the time, freshmen were not permitted to play on the varsity team.

"It was the same year (former NBA all-star) David Thompson played on his freshman team at N.C. State," Bonner said. "He was one of the guys who made me realize you've got to get a whole lot better."

Bonner played out his sophomore year as a reserve, then enrolled in the Army. After leaving the service in 1975, he attended night school at Pitt and reached out to coach Johnny Majors about walking on to the football team.

Instead, Bonner accepted a job with the Penn Hills Police Department. He worked the next 20 years as a patrolman and nine more as a juvenile detective involved with D.A.R.E.

Bonner, who now works for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, realized how far he had come when he saw Butch Shook about 10 years ago when the two attended funeral services for Shook's mother.

"I asked him, 'How come you never did or said anything bad toward me?' He just said, 'Because you were better than me, and I just wanted to win,' " Bonner recalled. "To this day, I still try to be half as good as Butch Shook."

Additional Information:

Hall of Fame banquet

Alle-Kiski Sports Hall of Fame banquet

When: 7 p.m. May 19

Where: Clarion Hotel, New Kensington

Inductees: William Bonner, George France, John Kratsas, Tom Myers, Tom Nagy, Tony Petrarca, Warren Riddinger and Terri-Ann Gizienski Ulewicz

Tickets: $25. Contact Al Uskuraitis at 724-727-7259. Tickets will not be sold at the door.

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