For Miami, you stop the boat.
That’s not a figure of speech. You literally do it. Shut down the engines, kill the motors. At least that’s what Braxton Berrios did over the Fourth of July weekend the summer before his senior year of high school.
It’s not like Berrios had any warning the moment was coming. He and his dad’s side of the family were at Lake Lanier in Atlanta, water-skiing and lounging on a boat at the time, when a 305 area code popped up on his phone. Berrios looked over at his father, Rico, and mouthed to him from across the vessel: It’s Al Golden.
You’d have thought the Pope or the president was calling, how quickly they shut that boat down. Any semblance of noise, muted. Berrios told Golden, then the head coach of the Miami football team, that he’d call him back shortly, that he was on the water and the coach deserved his undivided attention.
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And ... that was the end of the boat ride. They docked, and Berrios called Golden back from the driveway of his family’s lake house. Even today, he remembers pacing. Golden answered, invited Berrios down to Coral Gables for a visit.
Consider it his official scholarship offer.
“At that point, I had 20-something offers from D-I schools and that was one of the main ones I was kind of hoping for and waiting on,” Berrios said Monday, days before Miami faces Clemson in the ACC Championship game in Charlotte. “It’s one of those moments that you don’t know if it will ever come, and you’ve been waiting on it for as long as you can remember.”
For a lifelong Miami fan, even one who grew up hundreds of miles away in Raleigh, the moment was a culmination of sorts. But how Berrios got to that point is only half the story. Where he’s gone since – and where No. 7 Miami has gone with him – reveals as much about the rebirth of ‘The U’ as it does about the lifelong fan now spearheading that revival.
‘That’s all I knew, Miami’
Maybe it was all the knick-knacks, the orange and green baby sweaters and Miami-branded playthings, that first swayed Berrios to the Hurricanes as an infant. Or maybe it was when he was 7, staying up until the early hours of the morning with his father and older brother Austin to watch the 2002 national championship, and in his aunt’s neighborhood restaurant in South Miami at that. Or maybe just the legacy factor, that his dad had grown up 10 miles down the road from the old Orange Bowl, had watched ‘The U’ rise to prominance in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s.
“That’s all I knew, Miami,” Berrios said. “As a little kid, it was always my dream to come here, ever since I knew what football was.”
That, by his mother’s estimation, was when he was about 5. If not for Lee Berrios-Smothers sticking him in gymnastics and soccer and anything but football, it probably would’ve been even sooner. But eventually Berrios-Smothers gave in to Braxton’s pleas, and from that point on, football was the future.
“He took off,” Berrios-Smothers said. “It was, ‘Give me the ball. Let me run. Let me score.’ I wouldn’t say he was a standout, but you could tell he was on a different level than the majority of the 5-year-olds.”
And that’s not just a mother’s perspective – local coaches in Raleigh noticed soon after. Chad Smothers, Berrios’ high school coach at Leesville Road, said his predecessors were aware of Berrios by the time he was in the fifth grade.
Then came his teammates. Before fall football workouts, many upperclassmen would gather in the spring to start practicing on their own. But every day, those seniors and juniors would wait by the breezeway that connected Leesville Road’s middle and high schools for over an hour after classes ended ... for Braxton, still in the eighth grade.
If all of this sounds mythical, it’s because to a small community in North Raleigh, Berrios was almost that. Smothers recalled one play early in Berrios’ freshman season (where he started on both offense and defense from Day 1) that set the tone for the rest of his career. A rival high school attempted a long field goal before halftime, and after it was partially blocked, Berrios got his hands on the ball.
“We counted up, it was a 90-yard return (for a touchdown) and I think he made 11 guys miss tackles, and a couple guys missed him twice,” Smothers said. “That was one of those moments when you’re like, ‘OK, he’s special. This is something you’re not coaching here.’ He had the it factor the day he walked in the door as a freshman.”
‘Everything happens for a reason’
By his junior season, Berrios was among the nation’s most sought-after receiver recruits. At The Opening, an annual Nike combine at the company’s headquarters in Oregon, in 2013, Berrios was the No. 5 athlete out of 100 top recruits, out-testing current Carolina Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel and Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (especially in quickness and agility drills). From there came the Miami offer – “the last offer,” according to Rico – and subsequent commitment. As one of his final acheivements in high school, Berrios was named to the Under-Armour All-America game.
As always, Berrios excelled, even catching a touchdown in the fourth quarter after temporarily leaving in the first quarter with a knee issue. When the camera flashed on him after, he threw up ‘The U’ hand signal.
A week later, after training and packing for school back in Raleigh, Berrios finally arrived in Miami for early enrollment. But during his routine physical, doctors noticed Berrios had some knee pain and swelling. An MRI confirmed the worst.
“I walked into college with a torn ACL, “Berrios said. “Everything happens for a reason, and in those times you really have to have full faith in that. Sometimes when you’re in the moment it’s hard to understand that and hard to really rationalize it that way.”
Berrios had surgery, the typical return window being nine months to a year after the procedure. But by August, only seven months later, Berrios was out at fall ball practicing with just a sleeve on his knee. That only lasted a bit. By the first game of his freshman season, Berrios was in the lineup.
But for the work ethic he had, and the obvious talent despite his 5-foot-9, 183-pound frame, Berrios never emerged as more than a rotational piece in Miami’s offense his first three years there. Now as a senior, he leads the Hurricanes – who will play in their first ever ACC Championship Game – in receiving yards (574), receptions (44), and touchdowns (nine). For his efforts, he was named third-team All-ACC.
“I think the lightbulb moment was when we started getting the ball targeted to him a little bit more than in the past,” Miami coach Mark Richt said jokingly Monday. “He was probably ready for that two years ago, three years ago.”
As impressive as he’s been on the field, Berrios has been just as good off it. He’s one of 13 finalists for the William Campbell Trophy, also known as the Academic Heisman, largely by virtue of his 33 consecutive A’s at Miami (his one B came last semester on a group project, which Rico said Berrios was, “not very happy about”). He also won the 2017 Jim Tatum Award on Thursday, given to the ACC’s top senior student-athlete.
And as Berrios has blossomed in his final season at Miami, so too has his entire team. In knocking off Florida State for the first time in four years, Berrios had arguably his best game in a Hurricanes uniform: Eight catches, 90 yards, two scores.
“He came out to meet me (after that game) and he hugged me and said, ‘Mom, we did it,’” Berrios-Smothers said. “He was so excited – it was almost like he broke through, like ‘I showed them exactly what I can do.’”
Now if Miami has hopes of knocking off No. 1 Clemson and sneaking into the College Football Playoff, it will need that same excellence from Berrios once again in Charlotte.
And if this season, the one he’s built toward his whole life, is any indication, that’s exactly what the Hurricanes will get.