Sports

Some former MSHS athletes speak on behalf of Bonnie Moxley

By FRED KRONER
fred@mahometnews.com

Maureen Scott Renaud graduated from Mahomet-Seymour High School in 2002.

Melody Smith Fonner graduated in 2003.

Jennifer Fall Peters graduated in 2006.

Julie Jarrett Gregory graduated in 2008.

Dani Bunch graduated in 2009.

Sarah Iverson  Burgener graduated in 2011.

Jessica Burke graduated in 2012.

Twinkle Mehta graduated in 2015.

Lauren Whitehouse graduated in 2017.

The dates are significant.

Between them, they cover completely the past 19 years, the final 19 seasons that Hall of Fame coach Bonnie Moxley coached the girls’ track and field program at M-S.

Renaud, Fonner, Peters, Gregory, Bunch, Burgener, Burke, Mehta and Whitehouse were all coached by Moxley throughout their prep careers.

They are all on record saying there were no improprieties that they were aware of during their association with Moxley, who was relieved of her coaching duties on Feb. 26, less than 90 days before her announced retirement was to begin.

Citing “personnel reasons,” M-S administrators have not provided reasons for dismissing the veteran coach. Moxley has declined to comment, but her former athletes have had plenty to say.

“She was a tough coach and people would complain,” Renaud said. “Workouts were tough, but never to the level to get fired over.

“She advocated healthy (eating) choices and nutrition, and being strong for our body weight.”

Renaud continue to run in college, at the University of Arkansas.

“When I think of all the people I was involved with, she’d be one of the top people as far as being a positive influence,” Renaud said. “We can’t save her job, but it’s about preservation of her reputation.”

Bunch was a two-time shot put state champion and is still in training, hoping to land a berth on the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team.

“Bonnie wouldn’t pamper us, but taught us what it took to be strong-minded,” Bunch said. “We were held to a higher standard.

“Without that type of coaching, I would not have been prepared for my college experience (at Purdue). She set me up for where I am now. Nothing is handed to you. Her intentions were to build us up and mold us into strong athletes.”

Bunch said in her four years in the M-S program, she was weighed one time, “to figure out what we could do weight-training wise,” she said.

Bunch remembers the reaction when she brought that subject up to Moxley once.

“It was before the state finals,” Bunch said. “I’d put on some stress-type weight and asked what I needed to do to drop a little weight. She said, ‘You’re fine. You don’t need to worry about it.’ “

Some former Bulldogs said they have heard reports — which are unsubstantiated — that Moxley promoted negative body images with some of her athletes.

Bunch believes it’s possible some remarks might have been misconstrued.

“She was a college athlete, a P.E. teacher and she understood good nutrition is essential,” Bunch said. “She would not ask someone to risk their health that way.

“Pole vaulters, you had to be a certain weight to use a certain pole. High jumpers can’t be heavier than what their body can handle. She was, ‘Let’s do more in the weight room and try to be the most athletic you can.’ “

Burke said Moxley was a coach and a confidant.

“When I was a sophomore in high school my parents got divorced,” Burke said. “It was something that I didn’t talk about a lot because it was hard for me to talk about.

“The track team was what helped me get through that hard time. I remember having a morning practice with Bonnie, because I was in the fall play and would miss the afternoon practice with the team.

“After I was done with the workout, Bonnie asked me how I was. She also told me some of her life story. This one moment is something I will always remember because she was the only other adult that had talked to me about this situation other than my parents. She made me feel like everything was going to be okay. She gave me a family during a time that my actual family was breaking apart.”

Moxley accompanied Burke on a college visit to Western Illinois University.

“The sport of track is not what made me the person I am today,” Burke said. “Bonnie is the person who gave up time with her family, and doing other things she enjoyed to build the track and cross-country programs. She is the reason there has not only been many athletic successes, but also personal ones.

“She isn’t just a coach. She is a mentor and a friend. I knew that Bonnie always had my back. I will never be able to thank Bonnie for what she did for me.”

Whitehouse, who is now competing at Ball State University, credits Moxley for her own continuation in the sport.

“She taught me how to be a great leader to my teammates, how to not give up on my dream of running in college, how to accept the bad days and use it turn them into something good, how to run for my teammates instead of just for myself, and that running is a lifetime sport,” Whitehouse said. “Bonnie helped shape me into the runner I am today with the lifetime of life lessons she blessed me with over the years.

“Thanks to the support and confidence received while on my high school team I signed with Ball State University. I would still call Bonnie before some of my races to discuss my goals, and to help me prepare mentally. I have kept all of the state meet letters Bonnie wrote me during the four years I was in high school. She pushed us everyday to be the best we could be and I am beyond thankful for that. Bonnie loved us with all her heart.”

Whitehouse said her reaction to the news that Moxley was dismissed was disbelief.

“I couldn’t believe after all that she did for our team during my four years that she could have been not coaching from a few misunderstandings,” Whitehouse said.

Twinkle Mehta, who went on to run two years at the University of Illinois, said Moxley was a supporter of all squad members, not just the elite performers.

“She was just as excited about the slowest girl getting a PR as she was about a star athlete doing well,” said Mehta, a UI junior. “She dedicated her life to making everyone’s life better.

“She took me to college visits.”

Mehta said comments she heard about Moxley while in junior high proved unfounded.

“I heard she had ‘fat talks,’ but I was on the (high school) team four years and that’s not true,” Mehta. “She might say, ‘If you gain five pounds, it will slow you down,’ and that’s true and not dangerous for a girl to hear.

“But by the time it goes around the grapevine, it’s something completely different and gets taken the wrong way.”

Mehta said as she became an upperclassman, she was someone the younger M-S squad members would approach about problems. Eating disorders was not a topic of conversation.

“I was close with most of the girls on the team,” Mehta said. “They came to me with personal things, but nothing ever like that.”

Peters echoed many of the sentiments expressed by Whitehouse and Mehta.

“I believe Bonnie is the reason I got a scholarship and ran in college (at Arkansas),” Peters said. “She believed in you and pushed you to be the best you could be.

“She saw the potential in me when I didn’t. Self-confidence is what she taught me.”

She said Moxley didn’t just care about students while they were competing  on her teams.

“She was at my wedding and at my brother’s funeral,” said Peters, who lives in Texas. “I talk to her regularly.

“She loves her athletes and helped shape me to be the person I am. She pushed us to our limits physically, academically and emotionally so we would be successful women.”

Peters said Moxley emphasized the team aspect.

“Track can be an individual sport, but she made it a team sport,” Peters said. “She created camaraderie and team bonding. I’m 11 years out (of high school) and still talk to my teammates.”

Fonner not only ran for Moxley, but also returned as one of her assistant coaches for the past 11 years.

She prepared a statement for Monday’s school board meeting.

“As coaches we would be negligent not to teach about the importance of good nutrition and how to make healthy life choices,” Fonner said. “This program focused on educating athletes on the difference between foods that fueled your body and those that did not. Weights or numbers were NEVER relevant.

“The goal was always to be strong in relationship to your body weight, so you could perform at the best of your physical ability. This is why our program spent so much time devoted to being in the weight room.

“I stand by my coach 100 percent. I find the way her career is being tarnished so close to retirement after a lifetime of complete love and devotion to this program, this sport, and the lives of these children, is a complete dishonor after all her selfless years of service.”

Fonner said Moxley’s influence and impact was immeasurable.

“She has devoted her entire life to building this program and investing in the lives of these girls.

Her philosophy has always focused on creating strong, successful, independent young women who are not only prepared to succeed on the track, but who set goals and learn valuable life lessons in order to succeed in life,” Fonner said. “I credit everything I am today to all of the values she instilled and the time she spent investing in my life.

“She has never been just a coach. She is a mentor, friend, teacher, inspiration, and motivator to all. This was not just her job — coaching for her was a lifestyle. I have been truly blessed to learn and coach by her side over the last 20 years.”

LeRoy native Mary Toohill first worked with Moxley as a volunteer assistant coach at Urbana Uni High and then spent several years on staff at M-S after Moxley returned to her alma mater in the 1990s.

“The kids loved her,” Toohill said. “She kept it as a family atmosphere and made it fun.

“She set up scavenger hunts that ended up at the Dairy Queen. Her traditions with the kids were incredible.”

Toohill continued her coaching career at Davenport (Iowa) North and also at Scott Community College.

“I always said I learned my craft from the best,” Toohill said. “I learned how to be a coach from Bonnie.

“She poured her heart and soul into that program. My heart is breaking for her.”

Gregory said Moxley didn’t try to draw attention to what she did.

“She was like a third parent,” Gregory said. “She’d pay for warm ups for people if they were not well off, so they’d feel like part of the team.”

Gregory said any conflicts were soon forgotten.

“Teen-aged girls can be hard to deal with,” Gregory said. “You butt heads over certain things, but you take those moments to be a better athlete and a better person and apply it to the real world.”

Gregory, who now lives in Texas, devoted several years to coaching at Normal West.

“She taught me how to make people the best they can be and how to get the best out of them,” Gregory said. “She has this legacy.

“Hundreds of athletes look up to her as a mom, and one or two people have something (negative) to say about a misinterpretation of a message what it means to be fit. Someone took it that to be fit, they had to lose 30 pounds.

“It’s about getting enough sleep, eating vitamins, putting effort in the weight room. Think of all the athletes who came out of her program, the state champs because she pushed them to reach their potential.”

Burgener said Moxley was “an incredible role model. Bonnie was like a second mom. She believed in you even when you didn’t think you could do it.

“From the day I stepped into the program, it was nothing but great things.”

The Mahomet Daily made multiple efforts to speak with individuals who said they had issues with Moxley while in high school, but neither they nor family members have yet agreed to speak on the record.

*****

The Mahomet Daily reached out to area superintendents with general questions, emphasizing that they were not being asked to respond to any specific instance.

The wording of the inquiries:

“These are general questions, not about any particular person or any particular year.

“What could be some factors that would go into a school district parting ways with a coach during the season?

“From your experience as an administrator, how often would something like this happen? Every year? Every five years? Every 10 years? Every 20 years?”

Oakwood superintendent Gary Lewis responded, “People deal with things I wouldn’t know about, but I can’t think of anything that would be so bad you’d have to do it during a season unless it’s a legal matter that keeps them from being able to coach.

“In 17 years as an administrator, I’ve never had someone (removed) during the season.”

Tolono Unity superintendent Andrew Larson acknowledged the topic includes a “lot of gray areas.”

Added Larson: “Every situation has to be looked at individually. Coaches can be released for cause, which can include numerous different issues that play into the sport climate of that district and of course anything that is a criminal act in nature would justify removing an individual. I am not a fan of removing coaches mid-season as long as they give me no reason not to support them. We want to keep our coaches and help them succeed, and in today’s climate it’s tough to be a coach for any length of time.”

As for the frequency, Larson said, “Not many have I had to address, but sometimes the situation calls for it. Unfortunately, I have had to remove a couple of coaches during a season and I had to help other individuals understand it was better for the whole situation, theirs included, to resign at end of the season.”

From his experience, 21 years as an administrator, Monticello superintendent Vic Zimmerman said, “all decisions are made by administrators and school boards after asking the question, ‘what is best for kids?’ “

M-S superintendent Lindsey Hall said she was hesitant to respond to even the general questions.

“I am concerned that my responses could be used in conjecture about a current personnel issue, so I’m going to answer in a very general manner.

“There are numerous reasons. I am sure I couldn’t list all of the possible reasons for there to be a need for a public school district to separate themselves from a coach.

“There isn’t an all-inclusive list. Personnel decisions are handled on a case-by-case basis looking at evidence, history, patterns of behavior and other factors and always, always — no matter the situation — considering the safety, health and well-being of our students.”

Hall said “it isn’t very common” for school districts to part ways with a coach during the season, adding, “but I’ve seen it several times in my 24 years as an administrator.”

 

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2 Comments

  1. I am the father of Melody Smith Fonner who wrote such a touching letter to the school board and have known Coach Moxley and her family for almost 20 years. I echo everything my daughter expressed in her letter and find the dismissal to be shocking. I cannot imagine what other Coaches must think about their own jobs working for a school district that feels it necessary to end a “hall of fame” career this way.

  2. I have been one of Bonnie’s fans for over 22 years, ever since she helped what was then the Mahomet Area Boys & Girls Club (now MAYC) plan organize and conduct the first Mahomet 1/2 Marathon & 5K races as a fund raiser for the Club. She, along with “her girls” have been an important part of making that event a success every year since. She is one of the finest, most dedicated people that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and working with. She has selflessly coached, counseled and encouraged countless young women in our community to achieve their full potential in life, and has served as a wonderful role model and positive influence for many, many young lives. I was therefor shocked and appalled when I read about her dismissal in the News Gazette. In my view, there can be no excuse for the rude, ungrateful and unprofessional manner that she was treated. Even if there was just cause, which I seriously doubt, she did not deserve to be publicly humiliated in that manner, especially after all of her past years of service and pending retirement only a few months hence.

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