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Liberty realized
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

Donna Bonawitz has never used the word "normal" to describe her 70-year old husband.

That's because Bob Bonawitz is not a typical retiree.


Bonawitz, who lives in Willmar, Minn., has turned a few heads by playing semi-pro football for the Fargo-Moorhead Liberty the past two months.

Donna Bonawitz had some initial reservations about her husband's interest in returning to the football field, but knew he would enjoy it.

"Bob does what he wants and is a very unique individual," she said. "He's not your typical run-of-the-mill retired person."

Bob Bonawitz glances up to the scoreboard as he walks along the sidelines during the Fargo-Moorhead Liberty's football game Saturday at the Fargodome.

And she was right. He's having fun and is trying to make the most out of his experience.

"I never thought I'd see the day where I'd be playing football again," Bonawitz said. "For me, it's just fun to be around the team and watch the younger guys play."

Desire to play again

Bonawitz, a 1955 Moorhead High School graduate, played offensive guard and defensive line for the Spuds. He turned down an opportunity to compete in football and wrestling at Concordia College to pursue a degree at the University of Minnesota.

After two years of wrestling for the Gophers, Bonawitz put his athletic career on hold to concentrate on his studies.

He earned his bachelor's and master's degree in industrial education from the U of M in 1959 and 1961, respectively.

He also received a Master of Business Administration degree from St. Thomas University in St. Paul in 1981.

Bonawitz went on to a business career, working for several organizations including 3M and Honeywell. But retirement never sat well with him.

"I got really bored with retirement after a couple of months and started looking for things to do," he said.

Bonawitz has always enjoyed football. When Dale Heffron - who Bonawitz met in Willmar while advising small-business owners - started a semi-pro football team, Bonawitz began to inquire if he could suit up.

Heffron, who builds and leases motels, started the Liberty in hopes of drawing talent from the local college football programs.

Heffron got that and a little more from Bonawitz.

"I'm not really sure where I got the idea to play, but whenever I followed up with Dale he kept telling me to get lost," said Bonawitz, who filled out an online application to play for the Liberty.

"I told him to give me a call and kept at it and finally Dale said, 'You're on the team.' "

Heffron's initial reluctance turned into admiration for Bonawitz.

"Bob has been a great supporter of our team," Heffron said. "It's a pleasure to have him on the team and be around him."

Getting in the game

Bonawitz, who doesn't attend the team's weekly practices, got in for 10 plays at linebacker during the Liberty's first five regular-season games.

He started at linebacker in the Liberty's 78-18 victory over the Willmar Mustangs on Saturday at the Fargodome. About 30 family members attended the game, sporting green shirts with Bonawitz's No. 44 pinned to them.

Bonawitz appreciates the team and coaches for letting him participate.

"It's always a blast even though I get kicked around out there," Bonawitz said. "Playing for the Liberty has been more than I expected."

Former NDSU standout and starting Liberty quarterback Tony Stauss said he's glad Bonawitz came out for the team.

"Bob is a class act," Stauss said. "A lot of people don't know this, but he buys the entire team meals on the road. He works hard and deserves to get out there and play."

Dispelling myths

Bonawitz knows he isn't going to be the team's leader in tackles or score a winning touchdown, but he said he had two objectives when it came to playing football at age 70.

"I wanted to be the oldest football player to play semi-pro and dispel the myth that a person my age can't participate in a contact sport," Bonawitz said. "I think I have a lot left."

It's unsure whether Bonawitz is the oldest to ever play semi-pro football.

Nevertheless, Willmar Mustangs player Jeremy Sather, who is Bonawitz's nephew, said his uncle is setting a good example.

"I think it's great he's playing and not buying into that whole age thing," Sather said. "He's playing the game the right way."

Whether he's giving a player job advice or cheering from the sidelines, Bonawitz will continue to help the team wherever possible.

"I hope I can become a settling influence on the team," he said. "I'll try to give the players and coaches as much encouragement as possible."