SBJ/July 21-27, 2014/Opinion

The awakening of Bonner Paddock

He credits sports with the realization that his gift is to help others

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Bonner Paddock was filling out a job application with the Anaheim Ducks. The basics were easy: Age, education, employment history. But he paused at “personal history” before finally doing something he’d never done before. He wrote on the application that he had a disability, cerebral palsy. 

“It was the first time I ever wrote on an application that I had cerebral palsy,” he tells me as we sat together recently. “That’s how afraid I was. I started working at McDonald’s at 14. From that first job, I was terrified to write ‘cerebral palsy’ on my application. I thought everyone was going to judge me and not hire me.” 

The Ducks would only judge whether Bonner had the right background for their corporate sales opening, and he was hired in 2005 in an awakening that changed his life. Since then, he has climbed one of the world’s greatest mountains, completed an Ironman Triathlon, created a foundation and raised more than $1 million for children with disabilities. But before he could do any of that, before he could find ways to use what he now calls his gift to make a difference, he had to find a way to accept himself, just the way he is. 

Sports would allow Bonner Paddock to heal.

‘I knew I had something’

“I was born with cerebral palsy,” he says. “The umbilical cord wrapped around my neck twice, and when you come out of the birth canal with the lack of oxygen, random parts of your brain die. You don’t know what parts of your brain. Is it going to be speech? Is it going to be muscle control? Is it going to be hand-eye coordination? That’s why there are such varying degrees of cerebral palsy.” 

Bonner’s OM Foundation has raised more than $1 million for children with disabilities.

Growing up in Arcadia, Calif., Bonner’s parents and two older brothers knew he had a condition, but no one could figure out what it was. “I was misdiagnosed for 11 years. It wasn’t until I was 11 years old that I got properly diagnosed. I knew I had something. My mom and dad never said, ‘Hey, you have a disability. You’re going to be OK.’ They were more like, ‘If he’s doing fine falling down, great.’ My brothers were athletes, so I’d go out and kick the ball just like them, but I don’t have balance. I have conditions that basically make it like you don’t have equilibrium.”  

Life went on, as Bonner would constantly drag his left leg behind him, have trouble walking and with balance, would tire easily, and would be sore and stiff throughout the day. “We weren’t an emotional family. We were a very siloed family,” he says. “My family never talked about the disability, so it was very odd in the sense that I didn’t know anything about cerebral palsy, even at 30 years old when I was with the Ducks. I just started learning about my own disability.”  

‘Huge burden off me’  

After graduating from San Diego State University, he worked two years for Ron Seaver and the National Sports Forum, where I first met him in 2003. Bonner’s very easy to like with his big smile and kind, relaxed manner. Working for Seaver, he was connected to Bob Wagner, who was CMO of the Ducks when the team was in the process of being purchased by Henry and Susan Samueli in 2005.

“The Ducks just got bought by the Samuelis and I knew Bob. There was an opening as senior manager of corporate partnerships, charged with selling,” Bonner recalls, acknowledging that Wagner knew of his condition. But the job process still entailed filling out that application. “The first time I wrote CP on my application was because Bob told me that the Samuelis are so huge giving back to the community and they would really understand.”  

But Bonner was still unsure of letting others know. “It was scary as hell,” he recalls. “All I was trying to do was work like everybody else and make a career. I was trying to climb the ladder and be successful and I thought that was going to lead to happiness. I wasn’t ‘happy.’ I was scared, because I didn’t walk up to you and say, ‘I’m Bonner and I’ve got CP,’ because I wanted people to judge me for Bonner. It was my own damn head. I guarantee no one would have even judged me differently and probably would’ve still hired me.  But I totally thought in my head, ‘Oh yeah. No way. I’m not getting that job if I write that on that.’ It was just terrifying to write it down. If they somehow found out about CP later, then I was fine with it and I could tell them all about it.”

But this time, in early 2005, it was different. “Wrote it and got the job,” he smiles and lets out a breath. “Huge burden off me. Oh man. That was when the thousands of pounds came off my shoulders. It was like, ‘They’re hiring me for me!’”

The awakening began. “My life changed greatly, instantly, because I felt free,” he says. “I finally felt, ‘I feel safe.’”

Hired in March 2005, during the NHL’s seasonlong lockout, there was little sponsorship selling Bonner could do. “It was the lockout, and there was a lunch a week or two into the job, and they gave an update on the lockout and encouraged all the employees to stay positive,” Bonner says. “Henry Samueli was standing on stage and he said, ‘We have a little more free time than normal and we have it really good, but the best thing is to just find something you’re passionate about and volunteer for it.’ I was really unsure and nervous. I never did that. I stayed as far away as I could from things like that because that meant I had to identify myself.”   

Bonner again took a different approach. “I went home, went online, and typed in ‘cerebral palsy’ and ‘Orange County.’ The United Cerebral Palsy of Orange County came up. I was ‘out’ now. I had written it down, and it is technically public information. So I called the executive director and said, ‘My name is Bonner Paddock. I work for the Ducks and I have cerebral palsy. I’d like to volunteer.’ We talked for a bit and he asked, ‘Can we have lunch?’ We did, and at lunch he said, ‘You have an incredible story.’ That was the first time anybody ever said I had an incredible story. He then asked me to speak to the entire board, and that’s when I met Jake’s dad.”

For Jake 

Steve Robert was a board member who sat next to me in the boardroom. He sent me an email that night when I got home saying, ‘I went home and told my wife your story. Your story gives our son hope.’ I read that email and it blew my mind. Their son, Jake, had a very severe case of CP. He was in a wheelchair and couldn’t even talk. He barely even had eye movement.”

Paddock was asked to join the board of UCP Orange Country and decided to run the Orange County Half Marathon to raise money for UCP. But there was a lot going on in his life. Work roles changed and he didn’t train. “I had a director role for a bit and oversaw service and sales and that wasn’t for me, because it’s all meetings,” he says. “I’m a seller. The team wanted me back out in the field and brought in Wendy Grover as the new director, and I was moved back to senior sales manager. I didn’t train. I only ran twice before that marathon. Twice. But during this adjustment and getting demoted, Ducks GM Brian Burke called me into his office. He said, ‘I heard you’re running a half marathon.’ I said I was doing it for a charity, and Burke handed me a huge check and said, ‘You could’ve quit here after you got demoted, but you didn’t. You took it dead-on and made it work and were positive about it. I respect that.’ I didn’t know what to say. I walked out of there with goose bumps, with this check in my hand, and I went and did the half marathon with Jake’s dad.”

The full awakening hit on marathon day. Steve Robert was running the full marathon for his son, Jake. “He was raising funds, and I was just so inspired by him. The first time I met Jake was after the race. He’s 4 1/2, and Steve was carrying him across the finish line after almost six hours. He carried Jake across and there wasn’t a dry eye.”

The joy was painfully short lived. Jake died that night.   

“I called in sick to work the next day because I couldn’t even move. I got a phone call from my UCP director and he told me, ‘We lost Jake.’ I was a mess. I was told that my story gave them hope — most people don’t ever get told that — and Jake was an innocent 4 1/2-year-old kid. I told myself that day I was going to do everything in my power, or my life, to never let something like this happen again. After his death, I committed to doing the full marathon the next year. I was going to run the full for Jake. I thought back to when Brian Burke handed me that check, and I began to think I could use my disability in a positive manner and use my sales and marketing skills to do a lot for these kids afflicted with CP. That’s when the light bulb went on: That is what I’m supposed to do in life.” 

Living with purpose

The following year, Bonner ran the full Orange County Marathon in just over five hours for Jake and was overwhelmend by generosity toward his effort. “Everybody started to make donations and we raised over $30,000. I was in shock over how much we raised,” he says.

But he wanted more. “I kept thinking, ‘What is global? Let’s go big, beyond anything that I’ve ever thought’ and hiking Mount Kilimanjaro came to mind. Everest would’ve been a suicide mission; I would’ve died.” So he focused on becoming the first person on record with CP to climb Kilimanjaro, at more than 19,000 feet. “I hate mountains, because of my equilibrium,” he says. “But I believed this was going to address all my fears because I knew I was still in fear of so many things. But now I was getting these opportunities to channel it somewhere positive and I was beginning to feel better.”

Bonner and Oakley’s Dane Howell at the launch of a signature line of sunglasses
Photo by: SHANE REICHARDT

His goal was to raise $100,000, and his sports contacts were on board. “The sports industry was unbelievably receptive to my efforts around Kilimanjaro. So many of the Ducks sponsors were jumping in — amounts of $10,000 from the likes of Toyo Tire and Rubber. Our bank sponsor, a regional bank, made a donation, and the woman that was my sponsorship contact said, ‘I’m going to go to Kilimanjaro with you,’ and so one of my biggest sponsors is coming with me on the trip. The Ducks did a send-off party. Fox Sports West got behind it and ran a whole piece on it. 

“Only my doctor told me to slow down. He said, ‘This is dangerous. You’re going over there and I don’t know who is going to help you.’ He said, ‘We don’t really know how your brain is going to do because the pressure is going to expand against everything so much.’ 

“I trained for Kilimanjaro for 11 months. Our original goal was $100,000, but we blew past that in the first week. So then it became $250,000, and we did a little over $260,000. I think it was $263,000. It was crazy. In 11 months.” 

He successfully completed Kilimanjaro over eight days in September 2008, but the feeling afterward was bittersweet. “I got home and I was like, ‘I should be feeling better. I don’t feel happy because I did it all in fear.’ I didn’t enjoy the journey at all. When I got back, I started thinking about forming a foundation. I started asking people that had already supported me if they’d like to be on my foundation board, and they all said yes.”  

One man, one mission

The OM Foundation was formed in 2009 to aid children with disabilities.  Bonner wasn’t finished. He had a new job handling marketing at California-based Young’s Market Co., and his story was getting noticed. There were feature articles and a documentary, “Beyond Limits,” by director Kent Bassett and narrated by actor Michael Clarke Duncan. Bonner increased his alignment with Orange County-based Oakley, which had supported him during the Kilimanjaro climb and signed him as an endorser when he began training in 2012 to become the first person with CP to complete the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. In October 2012, Bonner’s awakening reached yet another level when, over 16 hours, he completed the Ironman, an effort for which he raised a startling $800,000. 

Overall, he’s raised more than $1 million for children with disabilities.

The work continues today.  The OM Foundation celebrated its fifth anniversary in April; Bonner‘s introduced a national ‘Team Jake’ program, competing in events around the country and raising funds; and he’s writing a book targeted for release next year, co-written by Neal Bascomb. Represented by IMG, he has been on the speaking circuit and sharing his story around the world. 

He credits the sports industry, and especially the Samuelis, for his awakening. “I credit the Samuelis, who gave me that platform and belief in myself to go do all these things and support it at all,” he says. “That organization did amazing things for me. They allowed me to send out requests for donations to friends and sponsors. They were literally right behind me the night the documentary premiered. There are 500 people there and the Samuelis were right behind me. Susan and Henry and the staff of the Ducks. They were there for me.”

Sports also led him to Jake and his recognition that he had a gift to help others.

“Sports played the biggest role in getting me to be honest,” he says, thinking about the people across in the industry who have supported him along the way. “They were the first people to help me get comfortable and accept me for having CP: Ron Seaver, the Samuelis, Brian Burke, who sent me an email the day after I finished Ironman. After a story appeared in SportsBusiness Daily after I did Kilimanjaro, a team owner called my direct line at the Ducks. A team owner gets on the phone with a salesperson and said, ‘I read this article in SBD and that’s incredible. I’d like to donate $10,000.’ That was huge! It blew my mind. I didn’t know this guy from anybody. That’s exactly what this family of sports is. This is family for me. Young’s Market has taken my foundation on as the company charity and they’ve allowed me to live my dreams.”

Bonner struggles to finish. “You can only love people as much as you love yourself. You cannot love somebody more than you love yourself. I finally started loving myself a lot more, which meant I can love other people a lot more.”

Living every day

Bonner’s happier, but at 39 years old his days are not any easier. “I tire fast. Every morning I wake up stiff, like the feeling you have the first time you work out hard in six months. That’s what it’s like every morning; it’s a lot of pain up through my feet. I always say your attitude is everything, so I make a mental note that I’m going to have a good attitude right before my feet hit the ground out of bed, because I know the pain is going to come. But there is nothing I can do about it. Why not have a good attitude?”

We’ve spent two hours talking, longtime friends catching up. But before we part, I ask what he wants any organization — in or out of sports — to learn from his story. 

“Treat us like we’re like everybody else,” he says. “It’s OK to talk openly about a disability, but don’t make it bigger than it really is. It’s a balance. There are some that say, ‘Let’s not talk about it,’ and there are others that make a huge deal about it. I believe it’s somewhere in the middle. 

“Organizations, especially in sports with the platform that we’re so fortunate to have, have an amazing opportunity to celebrate people. You can be a subplot, but you should never lead with ‘I have cerebral palsy.’ You lead with Bonner is the senior vice president of marketing and he’s the founder of giving back to kids with disabilities. I say it that way. People say, ‘Why do you give back to them?’ I say, ‘I was born with this and now I’m giving because I realize I have a gift.’ I don’t have a disability. I actually was given a gift, because I wouldn’t be here talking to you without this gift. That’s the kind of gift I have. It’s something I have for a reason, and now I know what I’m supposed to do with it. I’ve never come so far in terms of pushing myself and being open to other people. 

“Do I have my struggles every day? Yes. Do I have bad days? One hundred percent. Do my feet hurt? You’re goddamn right. Does my back hurt? Of course! Do I really care? No, because I can use my legs.

“Am I just like everybody else? You’re damn right.”

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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