Three months ago, Maikon Bonani was crossing the stage to receive his diploma from Lake Wales Senior High School. Three weeks ago, he was watching the Bulls play from the sidelines, waiting for his turn on the field.
Three days ago, with two seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter, freshman Bonani kicked the field goal that kept South Florida from going into overtime against No. 13 Kansas, ending the game 37-34 and helping catapult the Bulls from No. 19 to No. 12 in the Associated Press poll.
Shortlt thereafter, Bonani’s teammates engulfed the 5-foot, 9-inch kicker, hugging him and raising him on their shoulders. One of the first to reach him was the man he replaced — junior Delbert Alvarado, who had been 1-of-4 in field goal attempts this season.
There were no bitter feelings, just support, Bonani said.
“Delbert’s a great guy. He’s one of the best,” he said. “Our goal is to win the Big East, no matter who kicks.”
At first, the tradeoff didn’t sit well with USF coach Jim Leavitt, though he said he felt confident in Bonani’s abilities.
“I don’t like to make changes (to the team) until it’s time,” he said, adding that he talked to defensive coordinator Wally Burnham before making the decision. “I knew it was the right thing to do.”
While Bonani converted 34-yard and 23-yard kicks in the second half, not all of his attempts were successful. During the second quarter, in Bonani’s first test as a college football player, he missed a 41-yard field goal. For the first time this season, the Bulls were trailing their opponent, failing to put a point on the scoreboard while Kansas led by 10.
As the football whizzed left of the goal post, Bonani turned to face his team and its reaction. Instead of being frustrated or angry, the Bulls stayed positive, he said, reminding him to “keep (his) head up” no matter what.
“That was what motivated me the most (later on). Nobody said they didn’t believe in me … they just had my back,” Bonani said.
The 41-yard miss made some players and fans anxious when Bonani stepped onto the field during the fourth quarter, preparing for the final kick of the game.
This one was 43 yards.
Wide receiver Taurus Johnson started to pray, he said. In a game where the Bulls had trailed, tied and taken the lead only to tie again, he said he was feeling nervous.
“He’s one heck of a kicker, but that’s pressure,” Johnson said.
During that moment, Bonani said he tried to push his thoughts out of his head, feeling confident after making two prior touchdown conversions but worried about this attempt.
“I figured I couldn’t do much worse than the first one,” he said.
This time, the ball sailed through the uprights, and as it did, Johnson said he dropped to his knees and pointed toward the sky.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said.
Bonani said he never got to see the ball pass through the goal post, however. He was tackled by players he thought were his teammates, but turned out to be the Jayhawks.
“All I could do was just hope it went through,” he said. “Thank God it did.”