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No surprise USF's Bonani becomes a star

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-yarder as time expired to give now No. 12 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 upright, his parents were on a cruise ship leaving Cozumel. When they boarded days earlier, they didn't know their son would be taking over field-goal duties.

His father, Sidney, who got updates during the game from a friend, was still at sea Saturday when he connected with his son. Turning 42 Sunday, Sidney told him it was the best birthday present he could have gotten.

Bonani found out he was taking over on field goals before Wednesday's practice. 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 kicks before the game, then sent his first try wide left. But he said the miss relaxed him, and the response from his teammates gave him unexpected confidence.

"I went to the sidelines, and nobody was negative, absolutely nobody," he 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."

In Lake Wales, his brother, Marcelo, had just gotten home from his high school game when he turned on the TV to see Maikon's final kick. "The craziest curve I've seen in my life," said Marcelo, who played with Maikon last season and talks with him daily.

Bonani 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 (in English), and that was, 'I don't speak English,' ''said Bonani, who speaks without an accent. When he spoke to his parents Saturday, the conversation was in their native language, Portuguese. "Quarenta e tres," he said when asked how long his kick was.

Football, like English, was something he 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. He kicked on the junior varsity team as a sophomore, then made 16 of 19 field-goal attempts as a junior, earning All-State honors. He was Polk County player of the year in soccer last fall and was Lake Wales' No. 1 tennis player, helping it 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 loves sports. I think you're just seeing the beginning of him."

Even his name stands out. 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 get little more than a polite smile.

The kid who learned English at 11 was valedictorian of his senior class. In the day after his winning kick, he picked up 108 friend requests on Facebook.com, but it meant more to him that the first person to congratulate him on the field was Delbert Alvarado, who lost the job after going 1-for-4 in the 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 (on the field), 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 his piece of USF history in the past.

"It makes me nervous," he 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."

No surprise USF's Bonani becomes a star 09/14/08 [Last modified: Sunday, September 21, 2008 7:42pm]

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