Bonani: 'I just want to keep working hard'
Here's an early look at a feature on USF kicker Maikon Bonani that will be in Monday's paper ...
TAMPA – Maikon Bonani laughs about it, but at every practice for the past six weeks, USF coach Jim Leavitt has walked up to his freshman kicker with the same message: “Be ready. You might just have to kick a game-winning field goal.”
“The funniest thing,” Bonani said Sunday, two days after he made a 43-yard field goal as time expired to give USF a 37-34 win against then-No. 13 Kansas. “He said that, I swear to you, every practice. ‘Yes, sir, I’m ready.’ I knew that it could change, but I wasn’t expecting it to.”
How unexpected is Bonani’s sudden stardom? When the last kick of his first college game hooked inside the right uprights, his parents were on a cruise ship off the coast of Mexico, a few hours removed from Cozumel. When they got on board days earlier, they didn’t know their son would be taking over field-goal duties for the Bulls, let alone starring on ESPN2.
His father, Sidney Bonani, who got updates throughout the game from a family friend, was still at sea Saturday when he connected his son Saturday. Turning 42 Sunday, he told his son it was the best birthday present he could have gotten.
What a start for Bonani, who found out he was taking over on field goals before Wednesday’s practice, just two days before the Kansas game. He called his mother, Marcia, on Thursday night: “Mom, please pray for me,” the 19-year-old said. “I’m nervous right now. I can’t sleep.”
He missed a few practice kicks before the game, then badly missed his first field goal wide left, but said the miss relaxed him, and the response from his teammates gave him an unexpected confidence.
“I went to the sidelines, and nobody was negative, absolutely nobody,” Bonani said. “That was eye-opening. I thought ‘I just shanked a kick, and everybody’s just keep your head up, we trust you.’ It just motivated me even more.”
After making two field goals, he was ready for the game-winner. Senior quarterback Grant Gregory, his holder, warned him Kansas had a time out and would use it to throw him off, but anticipating that kept him focused.
Back in Lake Wales, his brother Marcelo, a sophomore kicker, had just gotten home from his high school game and turned the TV on to see his brother lining up for a huge kick. “The craziest curve I’ve seen in my life,” said Marcelo, who played with his brother last season and talks with his him daily, following in his footsteps.
Thing is, Bonani’s was a great story before Friday night. He was born in Brazil, and was 11 when his family moved to Lake Wales, where his father still works at the CitroSuco citrus plant on State Road 60.
“I moved here knowing how to say one phrase and one phrase only, and that was “I don’t speak English,” said Bonani, who now speaks English without any accent but is still fluent in Portugese. “I was just thrown into a normal school, not much help. … I picked up the basics in (fifth grade) and then by middle school, I was fine. At first, I carried around a dictionary, but just being around people, with friends, that’s how you learn the best."
When he spoke to his parents Saturday, the conversation was entirely in his native language. “Quarenta e tres," he told them, asked how long the kick was.
Football, like English, was something Bonani picked up late, trying out for the team in the spring of his freshman year at Lake Wales after earning team MVP honors in soccer as a freshman. He kicked on the junior varsity as a sophomore, then made 16-of-19 field goals as a junior, earning all-state honors in a sport he still didn’t entirely understand. He stayed with soccer, earning county player of the year honors last fall, and also was Lake Wales’ No. 1 tennis player, helping his school finish fifth in the state.
“Anything he does turns to gold,” said Robert Kirkner, his soccer coach at Lake Wales. “He can do pretty much anything athletically. I watched him Friday and I saw the same Maikon: totally focused and calm. He’s just a driven kid who love sports. I think you’re just seeing the beginning of him.”
Even his name is unique – his mother was a fan of an American TV show in Brazil and liked the name of its charismatic hero, Michael Knight. To this day, Maikon (rhymes with icon) hasn’t seen “Knight Rider.” Joke with him about David Hasselhoff and a talking car and you’ll get little more than a polite smile.
Bonani as a person? The same kid who learned English at age 11 was valedictorian of his senior class at Lake Wales. In the day after his game-winning kick, he picked up 108 friend requests at Facebook.com, but it means more to him that the first person to congratulate him on the field was Delbert Alvarado, who lost the kicking job after hitting just one of four field goals in USF's first two games.
“Delbert is a great kicker,” Bonani said. “I don’t care what anyone says. I see the guy kick every day at practice. … When we were in the pile, he was yelling at me, saying congratulations. He’s so supportive, a great guy, one of my best friends on the team.”
Having celebrated well into Saturday morning, Bonani woke up with that same focus, saying he had to put that piece of USF history in the past.
“It makes me nervous,” Bonani said. “Though it was the greatest game of my life, it was just another football game. I have to keep doing my job to help this team. We all have the same goal, to win the Big East. I don’t want people thinking, ‘Ooh, he’s the guy.’ I don't want the hype. I just want to keep working hard.”
(Times photo by Brian Cassella)