TAMPA — In his first college game, Maikon Bonani was carried off the field by his teammates after he hit a winning field goal as time expired to beat Kansas in 2008. His last miss was the opposite finish, a 27-yard chip shot at the end of regulation that allowed Rutgers to win in overtime in a 2011 season that saw USF football miss bowl eligibility by a single victory.
And for all the highs and lows of his college career, three years ago this week Bonani wasn't sure if he'd ever play football again. He was hospitalized with a fractured vertebra after a 35-foot fall from a ride while he was working at Busch Gardens.
"Going back, you're like, 'I could have been paralyzed. I could have been dead.' It could have gone anywhere. I could have never played again, even after I got healthy," Bonani said this week, preparing for his fifth and final season. "So now, my hunger's greater than ever."
He missed the 2009 season recovering but has made it back in every sense, becoming USF's all-time leader in field goals and graduating this spring with a degree in exercise science. Knowing this is his last go-round, the most accurate kicker in Bulls history doesn't want to miss anything this fall.
"The whole process is bittersweet. One, I can't wait for the season to start, to perform and see what this team can do," he said. "Then again, you look back and say, 'Let's enjoy these next 40 days, take it in and embrace it.' "
This summer, that has meant leading the kicking specialists as they lifted weights and ran with the rest of the team in early morning workouts, striving to dispel the notion that kickers have it easy.
"I absolutely hate with a passion the stereotype," he said. "I really can't stand the (thought) that, 'They're just the kickers, they shouldn't be working out.' We're going to work, and we're going to work harder than some of the other players. We have something to prove. I've made an effort to change that."
USF coach Skip Holtz appreciates Bonani getting in the best shape possible, but he was frank that coaches — and fans — look for only one real attribute in kickers.
"He looks great, but as I told him, whether his body fat is 4 percent or 44 percent, I don't care as long as the field goal goes between the uprights," Holtz said. "The way he's taking care of his body speaks volumes for the way he's growing and maturing. He's a guy that everybody on this team respects."
The Rutgers loss still lingers with Bonani, who not only met with reporters after the game but took responsibility for the loss: "I had an opportunity to win the game and I didn't. That solely rests on my shoulders." USF's defense had blown a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and the offense turned the ball over in overtime, so there was blame to be shared, though Holtz said he learned something from Bonani's accountability.
"He jumped on the grenade, so to speak: 'It was all my fault,' " Holtz said. "That's one of the things that makes him great. I don't think he missed another field goal after that. That type of ownership is what makes him such a special kicker, so accepted by his teammates."
Bonani was 12-for-19 at that point but was 7-for-7 the rest of the season, building momentum he hopes will carry over to this season. He has three of the four most accurate seasons for field goals in USF history, including a record 80.9 percent (17-for-21) in 2010, his first year back from the injury. His career mark of 75 percent is also a school record, but he wants to improve, remembering the impact any miss can have on his team.
"What hurt me the most wasn't my personal feelings," he said. "But going into the locker room, seeing seniors at the time crying because it meant so much to them. I know how much it's going to mean to me this year."
Special teams coach Vernon Hargreaves said Bonani will be judged based on results on the field, but there's no question about his preparation.
"I think there's nobody more committed than he is, to the team and to getting better and trying to win," Hargreaves said. "He knows how important he is to this whole thing."
USF's schedule gives him an early shot at redemption, with the Bulls hosting Rutgers on Sept. 13 in a game that will set the tone for the Big East season, establishing one team as a top challenger to preseason favorite Louisville for the league title. Bonani, confident in his teammates, expects big things from USF, but he's fine if that starts with a close game against the Scarlet Knights.
"Trust me, I'd like it to come down to a kick," he said. "I would not mind it."