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Class AA blog: Checking in with Toombs County...and remembering Barney Bonfield

Barney Bonfield. (courtesy of ToombsNow)
Barney Bonfield. (courtesy of ToombsNow)

When Toombs County takes the field next season, it will be the first in more than two decades without longtime announcer and reporter Barney Bonfield covering the Bulldogs. Bonfield died from complications of leukemia on Sunday at the age of 60. He came to Toombs County in 1998 and covered all levels of the county’s athletics including rec league while working for local radio stations and founding ToombsNow.

(You can read ToombsNow’s tribute — written by his protégé, Bryce Braddy, here.)

"It didn't matter if it was a T-ball game or (Bulldogs baseball standout) Jeremy Beasley trying to make it to the Majors," Bulldogs football coach Richie Marsh said. "He loved covering the community and he was so selfless in the way he lifted their accomplishments up. He had a major impact on a lot of people's lives and I don't think you can replace Barney.

“His was just one of those great eras. Like the Patriots. They’re not going to be able to replace Tom Brady, I don’t care who they’re bringing in. He could be successful but he’s not going to be Brady.”

Bonfield provided extensive coverage of the Bulldogs. He was not only the play-by-play announcer for the sports teams, but he’d also produce video, game write-ups and other content for ToombsNow.

In addition, he hosted a morning show in separate stints for Lyons radio stations WLYU and WYUM. It was during those shows that he struck special relationships with his listeners, as he opened large chunks of his time slot to callers.

That’s how Bryce Braddy got to know him.

Braddy, a class of ‘20 student at Toombs County, is now running ToombsNow. As a kid, he would call into Bonfield’s show so often that Bonfield ended up giving him his own show. From age 8-12, Braddy would call in every day, Monday-Friday, and they would talk as part of that show.

Over time, Bonfield would become a mentor to Braddy, who next fall will attend Georgia Southern to major in journalism. Braddy intends to continue running the ToombsNow website while attending college, with Matt Lynn taking Bonfield’s place as announcer for football.

“If there’s one person in this world I’d want to be just like, it’s Barney Bonfield,” Braddy said. “Just because of the way he lived his life and the way he treated people and his career. He was good at what he did and he treated people with respect. No one has a bad word to say about him, and for as long as he’s lived here and worked here and for as many people as he knows, that says a lot.”

Braddy is just one example of Barnfield’s outreach to the community. He would put his callers before his job so much so that he got fired from WYUM for ignoring orders from the station manager to focus more on programming and less on call-ins. When a caller used a word not allowed by the FCC in 2004, he was let go.

Still, Barnfield covered the Lyons-area community on a freelance basis before settling in at WLYU in 2007, where he was allowed to host a show and cover the community under his terms.

“They loved him at WLYU,” Braddy said. “They never wanted him to go.”

Braddy knew something was wrong when he was heading to school one morning in December of 2017. He tuned in to WYLU as he did every day, but Bonfield wasn’t hosting his show.

Braddy emailed Bonfield to find out why he was absent but didn’t get a response until January.

“At first he didn’t want anyone to know,” Braddy said. “He waited to tell people because he didn’t want anyone spending money on him during the holiday. He didn’t want people showing sympathy and he didn’t like that kind of attention.”

After his leukemia diagnosis, Bonfield was unable to do play-by-play in 2018. However, he still covered Toombs County through the website and attended games when he could.

He would return to the booth in 2019 in time for baseball season. Braddy and Bonfield would travel together to games and that’s when he noticed that the diagnosis had changed Bonfield.

“He really opened up those last two years,” Braddy said. “He used to be more reserved and wanted to hear about you and not talk about himself. But with his health declining, I guess he felt like there was no sense in hiding anymore, so we talked about everything there was to talk about.”

Last fall during football season, Bonfield fought his declining health to cover games. Marsh recalls specific examples.

“We go to play at Bacon County and our defensive coordinator, Buddy Martin, was in the press box,” Marsh said. “He said that Barney was there. I said, ‘I know. He’s been coming to the games.’ He said, ‘No, he’s covering the game from the top.’ Bacon County has a new stadium and it’s a steep walk to get to the top. He walked one step at a time with his cane just to cover the game. Then, in our second round game, he made the six-hour drive to Rabun County to be there.

“That’s the kind of man he was. If he could walk, he was going to cover a game to make someone feel special.”

Not only did he passionately cover Toombs County, but Bonfield was also an astute observer of the sports he covered. And because he’d covered Bulldogs players dating back to their rec league years, he was able to provide valuable insight to Marsh.

“I’d do his weekly radio show and he’d be trying to interview me and I’d be trying to interview him,” Marsh said. “He had such great vision. He’d tell me things I should look at more, especially during in-season breakdowns. I’d call him and say, ‘Barney, talk to me.’

Bonfield’s advice would pay off in a big way. In 2017, the Bulldogs won their first playoff game since 2008, 34-31, against Fitzgerald. To gain an edge on Fitzgerald’s scouting, Marsh — then in just his second year at Toombs County —  listened to Bonfield about one of his tackles.

“We had Kyle Reynolds, who was an offensive guard,” Marsh said. “Well, Barney knew he could do a lot because he saw Kyle play quarterback and other positions in middle school, so we moved him to tight end for that game and he caught a touchdown.”

Because of social distancing guidelines, Bonfield’s funeral Wednesday was attended only by select family and was held in his hometown of Birmingham. However, Marsh said that at an appropriate time, a memorial service will be held for Bonfield in Toombs County.

Marsh said the team will wear a patch next season and also commemorate him in other ways.

“A patch is the least of what we’ll do for him,” Marsh said. “We’ll have to talk about it but that’s been hard since we’re not allowed to be around each other. But we’ve talked about doing something special as a team. He’ll never be forgotten regardless, but we want to have a visualization of how special he was to our program.”

Braddy is looking forward to the memorial service.

“In my head it’s at The Pit (the Bulldogs’ football stadium),” Braddy said. “I see it packed and I see it as a celebration of his life and us thanking God that we got to know him for as long as we did, and that he came to Toombs County.

“Someone like him should have been in the big leagues because of how good he was at his job. But he chose Toombs County. It’s like he was meant to come here.”

The Bulldogs went 8-3 last year and advanced to the second round. They have six returning starters on offense and eight on defense. Senior Chandler Lynn, junior Josiah Smith and sophomore Gavin Hall will compete for the quarterback job to replace the graduated Trey Cloud.

The Bulldogs have reached the playoffs every year since Marsh took over in 2016.

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