Coach Aaron Bonds ('72) shuttled 40 students from his tiny South Texas school district to a minor league baseball game in Corpus Christi last spring and saw their mouths drop open.
Few had ever been to the big Gulf Coast city nearby. None had experienced a baseball game at the next level; that is, anything beyond a high school team.
"It's mind boggling," says Bonds, a longtime high school coach who helps student-athletes succeed in school and life. "What I try to do is get the kids to understand even though you might have been raised in Agua Dulce, that doesn't mean you have to stay here."
About 360 students are enrolled in the district. "Agua dulce" is Spanish for sweet water. Bonds strives to give youth in this rural, working-class community a taste of something more.
Finding a way to win
As a coordinator for Agua Dulce's Project Real-Time, an after-school tutoring and life skills program, Bonds works with students in sixth through 12th grades.
Agua Dulce High School Principal Michael Gonzalez says the coach is at his best with students who are at risk of dropping out of school, whether they come from dysfunctional families or are new immigrants struggling to overcome language barriers.
"He does a great job of motivating them," Gonzalez says. "He seems to relate to kids who need a male role model."
Bonds spends summers refereeing a basketball program for poor youth from a rough north Corpus Christi neighborhood. He doesn't tolerate profanity. The children respect him and mind their manners.
"You've always got to find a way to win," says Bonds, reciting one of his many inspirational slogans. "You've got to believe you can win before you can."
More than seafood
Not surprisingly, Bonds is a motivational speaker. He's made presentations at Black Coaches Association seminars and clinics.
In 2006 he was named deputy commissioner of the Texas division of the LaBelle Community Football League, a semi-pro football organization endorsed by entertainer Patti LaBelle.
But his passion is getting scholarships for talented student-athletes who might otherwise be overlooked by college recruiters and coaches.
Because of limited funding and time, recruiters rarely go to South Texas looking for stellar student-athletes, says Bonds.
"They'll come down here to get some seafood. But they'd rather go to Houston, Dallas or San Antonio (to recruit players) because they've won state championships."
Bonds — whose daughter, Ashlea, and son, Brandon, attended universities on volleyball and football scholarships, respectively — created the A&B College Exposure Program to give athletes from small towns a fair shot at being looked at.
"He knows how to get your name out there and show people what you can do," says Gerald Johnson, a freshman attending Abilene Christian University on a partial football scholarship (Bonds knew the coach and helped bring Johnson to his attention).
"Coach Bonds didn't just help me in terms of football. After games and practice, he was helping me with life, helping me set goals, telling me what I needed to do in terms of the classroom."
A heck of an effort
As a child, Bonds says, he was fortunate to have mentors, people who helped him make the right choices. He's trying to do the same for others.
Bonds, whose parents divorced when he was 6, grew up in Alice — about 12 miles west of Agua Dulce. He was the oldest of four children whom Vivian Bonds raised alone. He says his mother, a head cook at a nursing home, taught him the importance of taking pride in one's work.
When he started playing football, he made sure his opponents knew "I'm here for business. I felt a need to make every tackle," says Bonds, Alice's first all-state linebacker.
He went to Tyler Junior College on a football scholarship. In 1970, Coach Fred McCain recruited Bonds to play Mean Green football for two years.
"I wanted to go up there and see what ‘the North' looks like," Bonds says, chuckling.
He credits the university with instilling the "Three Ps" in his life — pride in his alma mater, perseverance and the pursuit of happiness (he met his wife, Rogenia, while in Denton.)
Bonds earned his bachelor of business administration degree and went on to coach various sports at high schools in Alice, Calallen and Robstown.
As he strides across Agua Dulce's campus, students affectionately greet him as coach, dad and sometimes grandpa.
"They know I'm there for them," Bonds says. "If one out of 10 says, ‘Thank you for leading me in the right direction or motivating me,' I've done my job.
"I'm very mindful that everybody is not going to be saved. But I'm going to put a heck of an effort forward, to do the best that I can do."