When Bo Bonnheim arrived at Fresno State as a recruited walk-on two years ago, the former Paso Robles High standout’s biggest athletic thrill was making a quarterback sack.
In his third season as an offensive lineman for the Bulldogs football team, guess what? It still is.
“I still have that wish that I can take some reps at D-line,” said Bonnheim, the product of a longstanding North County cattle-ranching family and an academic all-conference honoree. “But, shoot, I’m playing at a D-I school. I don’t think it can get any better than this. I didn’t think I was going to be able to get to this level.”
The 6-foot-2, 295-pound redshirt sophomore will suit up as the second-team center when Fresno State hosts Cal Poly at Bulldog Stadium tonight at 7. But you’re most likely to see him as a blocker on the Bulldogs’ special teams units.
In Fresno State’s 52-51 overtime victory over Rutgers in last Thursday’s season opener, Bonnheim was helping pave the way for Bulldogs returners and protecting the punter.
He helped open a lane for Dillon Root on a 56-yard fourth-quarter kickoff return that set up the tying field goal in the final three minutes of regulation.
Bonnheim’s ascension from a recruiting afterthought to a contributor on the two-deep roster is a unique triumph all its own.
Originally brought to Fresno by former head coach Pat Hill’s staff, the all-CIF-Southern Section and Tribune All-County performer has made a big impression on second-year head coach Tim DeRuyter.
“Bo’s one of the toughest guys on our team,” DeRuyter said. “He’s a gritty competitor. He’s a guy that originally came here as a walk-on, who last spring we put on scholarship because of his tenacity. I like him. He’s a guy who earns it.”
Bonnheim was lightly recruited out of Paso Robles following his senior season in 2010. He racked up 131 tackles and four sacks, captaining the defense for the 10-3 PAC 7 champion Bearcats, but there wasn’t much interest in his services at the collegiate level.
Cal Poly visited Bonnheim a couple times but encouraged him to play junior college football for a season before transferring in, Bonnheim’s father, Mike, said.
The Mustangs would have been a great fit. Bonnheim is on track to enter the family business, the management of Las Tablas Ranch, a 9,000-acre property in West Paso Robles that’s been in the family since 1919, and Cal Poly’s agriculture education program is well respected.
Then came Fresno State, luring Bonnheim away from Allan Hancock College and offering a chance to play offensive line.
The last time Bonnheim had played as an offensive regular was his freshman year at Paso Robles. Bearcats varsity coach Rich Schimke used him exclusively as a defensive lineman on a roster where few players went both ways.
“Being an offensive coordinator, I was chomping at the bit to get him over, and we did a few times,” Schimke said. “He was just quick off the ball, a very quick reader if a guy is heavy or light off their hands.
“We use him as an example” with current players, Schimke said. “Here’s a kid that didn’t receive a scholarship right out of high school … That just speaks volumes about his perseverance and his work habits.”
Bonnheim wanted to show Fresno State coaches he was a better fit at defensive line. When he showed up to his first training camp at 245 pounds, he was easily the smallest lineman on the offensive unit anyway.
But then-offensive line coach Derek Frazier made it very clear: Bonnheim was on campus to play center. Period.
Frasier and Hill, it turned out, targeted defensive linemen to convert to offense, prizing a defender’s honed aggressiveness and strength using hands.
Mike Bonnheim could help his son adjust. Mike was recruited out of Paso Robles to play guard at Cal Poly and joined the Mustangs for the 1971 season. He said he gave up his scholarship his sophomore year to focus on academics as a way to stay in school and out of the Vietnam War.
“There’s not a lot of glory to it like there is on defense,” Mike Bonnheim said, “but there’s a lot of personal, deep satisfaction to playing on the offensive line.”
It’s a mentality Bo Bonnheim easily embraced.
He derived his raw-bone toughness, and hand and core strength from the volume of grinding ranch work he grew up with. There wasn’t a ton of glory in that upbringing either.
“He’s always understood,” Mike Bonnheim said, “that you finish what you start, and life is not always a lot of romance and fun. You’ve got to go through the stuff that’s not fun to get where you want to go.”
Said Bo Bonnheim: “We know how to work.”