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Brazil Native Maikon Bonani's Journey to Titans Includes Fall from Sky

Posted Aug 8, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Maikon Bonani heard the screams as he sized up his approach.

He knew there was concrete later and didn’t know how long he could hang on. When Bonani saw bushes and grass, he let go, free falling about 35 feet from a Skyride gondola at Tampa Bay’s Busch Gardens.

“I remember looking around and seeing people screaming once they realized that someone was holding onto it, but then the focus went back to where I was going to land and how I was going to land,” Bonani recalled. “Once I was down on the ground, people came around to make sure I wasn’t moving (to prevent further injury).”

Bonani hit the bushes and landed with both feet. Momentum jerked him forward and he went to the ground.

Adrenaline and shock consumed him as help arrived. He felt out of breath and the sudden contraction in his muscles. The severity of the situation penetrated those feelings during the ambulance ride when a paramedic sternly said, “Stop trying to move or you’ll be paralyzed forever.”

Bonani obeyed, and MRIs and a CT scan at the hospital revealed a compression fracture of the thoracic 12 vertebrae of his spine. Physical pain caught up with him five or six hours later when he tried to adjust himself in the hospital bed.

“That’s when you felt the pressure and that something wasn’t right,” Bonani said, “but the biggest pain was the emotional pain when the doctor came in the room and told me that I had the fracture and that I would miss the season.”

Realizing things could have been much worse — there was a pile of bricks about a foot from where he landed that he hadn’t seen from the sky — helped him cut through the disappointment.

“At 35 feet, many doctors, many physical therapists told me, ‘You’re extremely blessed. One, you could have died, and two, honestly, have been paralyzed,’ ” Bonani said. “You hear stories of people unfortunately falling off horses and breaking their backs and becoming paralyzed, so I’m very blessed.”

Kicker Maikon Bonani joined the Titans as an undrafted rookie free agent in April and is believed to be the first Brazilian-born player to make it this far in the NFL. His journey includes coming back from an injury he sustained when he fell approximately 35 feet from a ride while working at Busch Gardens in 2009.

Bonani vowed to teammates at South Florida that he would be back. He returned to kick for the Bulls from 2010-12 and showed Titans scouts enough talent that the team offered him an opportunity to sign as an undrafted free agent this April.

Ironically, with the Titans likely to rest veteran kicker Rob Bironas in today’s preseason-opener because of his back, Bonani is likely to handle all kickoffs and field goals for the Titans. He is believed to be the first Brazilian-born (in location and with both parents) player to have made it this far in the NFL. 

“I think it’s a great opportunity for (Bonani),” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “He’s been kicking well out here. He’s another perfect example (of a player to evaluate). You want to see someone kick maybe before halftime for a big kick or at the end of the game for a big kick. See how he kicks off in a real game.”

“WHERE DREAMS COME TRUE”: Bonani has welcomed opportunities in the past and excelled at them. His early years were in Brazil, where he, like other young people in the world’s fifth-most populous nation gravitated toward soccer. One day, Bonani’s father came home and said the family was moving to the United States.

“You immediately think of the fun stuff, at least I did,” Bonani said. “I was like, ‘Cool, I’m going to go to Disney World.’ Reality sets in, and once you are here, you realize you don’t speak the language. The only thing I made sure to memorize on the way here was, ‘I don’t speak English.’ ”

Bonani went to school in Lake Wales, Fla., as a 10, 11-year-old with an English-to-Portuguese and Portuguese-to-English dictionary during the early years. His new classmates took advantage, tricking him into saying a bad word in front of the teacher. It resulted in a trip to the office that caused him to be “a little freaked out.”

He kept working, picked up the basics in a few months and kept striving. He became a lot more familiar with American football and took up tennis, which had been limited in Brazil to families with higher incomes, but here he was able to get a $10 racket and use a ball and a wall to learn the game. Although Bonani enjoyed integrating American culture and customs, he and his parents and brother (a kicker at Missouri State) maintain pride in their heritage and still speak in Portuguese to each other.

Bonani earned valedictorian honors at his high school, and his ability to kick a football garnered the opportunity to go to South Florida, where he graduated with a degree in exercise science. He said he is grateful to his parents for positioning him toward the opportunities he’s enjoyed.

“I feel they were the best parents that I could ask for, not only because of the values, morals and everything else they taught me but also because they gave me the opportunity to come to the United States, which is where people still see as where dreams come true,” Bonani said. “Learning the language and getting a degree here was something that was going to help me if I played football or not.”

South Florida teammates hoisted Bonani in 2008 after he hit a game-winning kick to beat Kansas.

15 MINUTES OF FATE: Bonani handled kickoffs and placekicking duties for the Bulls in his freshman year of 2008 with a solid start. Like other players, he got a summer job at Busch Gardens, which was convenient in location and allowed him to maintain his fitness. His role was to assist the park’s guests into the gondolas.

“In the mornings I would work out with the team and do everything football related,” Bonani said, “and I’d work in the afternoons. It was fun to work and earn your own money and you also got to see people and interact with them. It’s the summertime, so a lot of tourists are around, and you get to see Brazilian people and talk to them a little bit.”

His last scheduled day was July 18, 2009, shortly before Bonani was set to report for the training camp before his sophomore season at South Florida. He was due to be off at 3 p.m. and it was about 2:45 when he didn’t think the gondola door had been properly secured for a lady and a child. Bonani went to check it, and before he knew what was happening, the gondola had left the ground with him clinging to it on the outside.

He held on for five, maybe 10 seconds, before deciding to let go because the gondola was climbing higher.

After the accident, family, friends and teammates visited from time to time to keep his spirits up.

“For the time that I was home, family and friends were taking care of me and motivating me, saying everything would be OK,” Bonani said, “but the fire in the belly really came from wanting to prove that was just a speed bump in a healthy career.”

He said the “driving force” in his return was how much he missed his teammates.

“That’s the thing that I’ve always liked so much about football is the fact that you’re around those guys,” Bonani said. “The season might only be 12 or 16 weeks but you’re around them year-round and have that bond, so not being around it really bothered me.”

It’s quite possible that Bonani’s strong legs and core that helped him earn a scholarship also reduced the amount of stress on his spine when he landed. Bedridden for about a month, Bonani had to get past the atrophy to “stabilize the core.” He worked on abs, obliques and the muscles in his back. Then came the leg swings.

Progress occurred at a faster rate than expected. He made sure his parents saw the first kick he made after his accident.

By November he was able to kick before games, generating cheers from the student section that appreciated what he had been through. Coach Jim Leavitt, however, opted to preserve Bonani’s redshirt. Skip Holtz became coach in 2010 and decided Bonani should handle kickoffs in the first nine games and placekicking the final 11.

“I made the first (field goal) and went on to have my best season in college (in 2010), so it’s one of those things that I can’t look back and be mad for how everything turned out because of how everyone was, the support I had and where it led me,” Bonani said. “There’s no saying that had I played that year and done well or poorly that I would be where I am today. This has always been the dream, to make the NFL and represent not only my hometown in Brazil and the country but also the people that have been in my life here.”

“EXTREMELY WELCOMING”: The Titans re-signed Rob Bironas, the second-leading scorer in franchise history, this offseason, and Bonani knows that Bironas is the favorite to keep the job he’s held since 2005. Bonani said Bironas, punter/holder Brett Kern and long snapper Beau Brinkley have been “extremely welcoming” to him.

“First and foremost, I have only positive things to say about Rob,” Bonani said. “He’s one of the best kickers that’s ever played the game, so it’s an honor to be kicking alongside of him and competing with him. We’re pushing each other. He helps me out.”

Often during the Titans’ offseason program and training camp, it’s been common to see Bonani’s kicks soar through the uprights with room to spare and strike the camera lift tower behind the goal post or clear it completely.

Special teams coach Nate Kaczor said Bonani’s power in light of the injury he overcame is “really incredible.”

“Anyone that’s watched Maikon kick, he’s got what we call a fast leg. He’s not a tall player but he’s powerful,” Kaczor said. “I think he’s put on a few pounds of muscle since (strength and conditioning coach Steve) Watterson has had him, but his leg is fast and explosive so one of the things he’s been working on is his tempo to the ball.

“Guys that are explosive sometimes want to rush with the ball. We want to move quickly but not hurry things,” Kaczor continued. “A lot of the sports like golf or swinging at a football, you want the power to happen as you’re controlling it, not bludgeoning the ball like maybe you would on a kickoff. He’s been excellent at that, and the result of coming through that injury and still being able to produce that speed and power through the football is really incredible.”

As American football continues to grow in Brazil, Bonani doesn’t shy away from what it would mean to be the first to have a career in the NFL. Hundreds have communicated with him through social media to tell him they are pulling for him. Since arriving in Tennessee, Bonani has expressed gratitude for the opportunity and the willingness to put those hopes on the same back that withstood his fall.

“We’re extremely blessed to be where we are,” Bonani said. “All of us have worked extremely hard, and to be at an organization like the Tennessee Titans is really an honor, so coming in and seeing the other guys, you are kind of nervous but you’re excited.

“I’ve always been a true believer that if you’re not nervous it’s because you don’t really care,” Bonani continued. “There’s a fine balance. Too nervous is bad but not nervous is bad as well. There’s that middle ground, and that’s where I found myself (when he joined the Titans). I was nervous but excited to get to work and prove that I do belong and can kick and kick well.”

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