“It was probably the most selfless move I’ve ever seen somebody make,” All-American sophomore Vernon Hargreaves said of Jonathan Bullard’s decision to return to the University of Florida and play his senior season with the Florida Gators.
As a senior on a young football team Bullard is looked to as a leader by default. He’s a veteran — one of just seven seniors on the roster. He’s been around the block at Florida, through the highs and lows and the decision to come back to school opened up the eyes of his teammates.
“I could have went, I could have been drafted,” Bullard said. “I just decided that one more year wouldn’t hurt; my family’s not hurting.”
To really understand what went into Bullard’s decision to stay in school you need to know more about him, how he grew up and what one special woman who helped raised him would have wanted him to do.
The story begins in Shelby, North Carolina, where he was born and raised. Bullard’s mother and father went through a divorce when he was young and the separation took its toll on the entire family. Bullard’s mother, Monica, worked in order to provide for her family and that meant that a young Jon needed someone else to look after him growing up. That woman was Joyce Robbs, his grandmother.
“My parents went through a divorce that wasn’t too pretty. The first little bit of it was kind of hard on my mom and my grandparents just stepped in,” he said. “My grandma didn’t really want us to be in the middle of all that, to see that, so she kind of pulled us away and taught us, raised us.
“They were the ones taking me back and forth to practice because my mom worked the third shift. I stayed at their house every night. They took me to school every morning.”
Naturally, being around his grandparents that often, Bullard developed a unique relationship with them. He still had his mother and he has a good relationship with his father, but his grandparents became like a second mother and a second father to him.
Life lessons were taught by his grandfather and grandmother — who he affectionately called “Maw Maw” — and those days of driving to school and baseball practice turned into months and years and an unbreakable bond.
Bullard always dreamed of playing in the Army All-American Bowl game. He worked out on the weekends, missed social events to become the best player he could be and he earned the invitation he had dreamed of. He also earned the attention of most every Division I college football program in the country before narrowing his list down two Florida and Clemson.
Bullard had built a strong relationship with Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and the Clemson campus was just 100 miles from his home, from Maw Maw. He also developed a strong relationship with Will Muschamp, Dan Quinn and D.J. Durkin at Florida. He loved the coaching staff at Florida but the 489 mile, seven-hour drive, wouldn’t allow Maw Maw to see him play. It would be the first time in Bullard’s life that his grandmother wasn’t by his side and he wasn’t sure that he was ready to move away.
“To me, she was telling me not to factor her into the decision because it was my life,” he said. “I think she just didn’t realize how much of a factor she was in my life.”
The Bullard’s made the trip down to the Army All-American game, where Jon was set to announce his commitment to either Florida or Clemson. In the end, as he always would, Bullard listened to his grandmother’s advice. He reached down and put on an Orange and Blue hat, chose the school he loved and the coaching staff that felt like an extension of his family. He did what his grandmother had advised him to.
It was tough to move away but Jon would call back home and speak to his family and grandmother. He kept pushing and working to make his next dream — being a professional football player in the NFL — a reality.
During his freshman season, Maw Maw grew ill. Her declining health weighed on Jon, who felt helpless being so far away. He kept in touch with his family but they encouraged him to stay in Gainesville and keep playing, keep pursuing your dream. To their credit, the coaching staff at Florida was completely understanding of the situation and tried to make the difficult situation as easy as possible for Bullard all the way down to the end.
“Muschamp and those guys did an unbelievable job of letting me go when she really got sick and not holding it against me, not letting me play and giving me a decision to stay with her and miss a game if I wanted to,” Bullard recalled. “They did a good job, I respect them for that.”
Maw Maw’s situation soon turned critical and Jon needed to go home to see her. As he watched someone who had been like a second mother to him slipping away he couldn’t even think about going back to Gainesville to play football. The game he loved paled in comparison to the desire and need he felt to be next to Maw Maw in her final hours.
In his mind, Bullard was going to skip the Louisiana Lafayette game in 2012 and it wasn’t even a tough decision. His grandfather talked him into going back to play against the Cajuns.
“It was probably the toughest deciding to come back to the game,” he said. “They had said they don’t know how long it could be, a week, a couple days, a couple hours.”
Joyce Robbs passed away on November 10, 2012. She was 65 years old.
By this point Bullard knew that it was inevitable but that didn’t make facing the grim reality any easier. He was able to return home to be with his family and was comforted by the love he felt from his brother, friends and family, but specifically his older brother Nelson.
“My grandma was a big factor and [Nelson] kind of understands that,” Bullard said. “I could talk to her about everything and she was a person that never wanted to hold me back. She was a big part of my life.”
Not a day goes by that Bullard doesn’t think of his grandmother. He knows that she’s looking down on him, guiding him, and that he’s making her proud in everything he does.
She was even on his mind when it came time to make a decision about his future following Florida’s win over ECU.
“She probably wouldn’t have given me an answer to be honest with you. She would have probably said go with your heart, you know what is best and either way you go, you’re going to kill it,” Bullard said of what he believes Maw Maw would have told him.
Bullard will now have an opportunity to finish his career in Gainesville and he hopes to be invited to the green room for the 2016 NFL Draft. His family will be there and Maw Maw will be there in spirit and, who knows, maybe Maw Maw will even influence where Bullard is selected.
“She would probably have given me a little bit of advice and then said go to the Dallas Cowboys, her favorite team,” he said.