Rico Berrios first realized his then-youngest son was a special athlete during a ferocious rain storm that kept almost everyone in their High Point, North Carolina, neighborhood shuttered inside their homes.
Except for little Braxton.
“We had a really big backyard, and all he wanted was to go outside and throw a football,” the father recalled. “I was like, ‘What?!’ ”
But feisty Braxton, then 6 and now an 18-year-old receiver for the Miami Hurricanes, was relentless. Rico — a former Miami Southridge High All-State soccer player who kicked for the Southridge football team in 1985 — succumbed to his son’s pleas to “throw the ball as hard as you can, over my head!”
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“He ran full speed, made a diving catch and slid across the mud,” Rico recalled.
Over and over, no matter how tough the throw, no matter how slippery the backyard, no matter how bad the resulting tumble, Braxton would catch the ball.
The pattern, regardless of the weather, continued for years.
“My neighbor would come out of his house and yell, ‘Rico, you’re crazy! You’re going to kill this kid’ — but his wife would say, ‘No, he’s not killing him. That boy is going to play in the NFL one day.’ ”
For now, competing for the Hurricanes, Berrios’ lifelong favorite team because of his father’s Miami-Dade-based family, is more than good enough.
“Amazing, a dream come true,” Berrios said of playing in his first college game at Louisville, though he lamented the loss.
Earning his first start last Saturday, Berrios is still fearless, still fierce and still catching nearly everything thrown his way as the Hurricanes (1-1) prepare for Saturday’s home game at 3:30 p.m. against Arkansas State (1-1).
Though the season and Berrios are young, the gregarious true freshman is UM’s second-leading receiver with seven catches for 62 yards. He led the team with six catches for 63 yards on Saturday against FAMU — four of those receptions for first downs.
Berrios’ 7-yard catch from Jake Heaps on fourth down led to freshman Trayone Gray’s first career touchdown. He also converted a fourth-and-12 opportunity with a 22-yard reception from freshman QB Brad Kaaya that led to a field goal.
In the season opener at Louisville, Kaaya hit Berrios on a fourth-and-5 slant for what would have been a first down, but the play was negated by defensive pass interference — and UM tied the score two plays later.
He also returns punts.
“He’s legitimately fast, so I don’t want to label him a possession receiver,” UM coach Al Golden said Wednesday of Berrios, who has run the 40-yard dash in as fast as 4.48 seconds and ran the 20-yard shuttle in high school in a “nation’s best” 3.81, according to USA Today.
His vertical leap of 40.9 inches more than makes up for his 5-9 height, and his bench-press max of 320 pounds this summer was better than eight of nine other UM wideouts. The other, Rashawn Scott, beat him by five pounds.
“He’s nifty, very smart and does really good things with his route-running,” Golden said. “He caught the deep corner route the other day, and he’s caught a couple of big third-down balls in traffic, so he’s not afraid to go inside.
“And he’s trustworthy, which is important for the quarterback.”
Berrios not only had a 4.3 grade-point average at Leesville Road High in Raleigh, North Carolina, he has gotten all As at UM since enrolling early in January.
Kaaya, who has known Berrios since their junior year of high school, called the chemistry between them “really good.”
“Brad would call me on the phone like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to take this guy Berrios. This guy’s awesome,’ ” UM offensive coordinator James Coley said.
Said Berrios of Kaaya’s delivery: “It’s beautiful.”
Berrios’ success is no surprise to those around the country that knew him as a four-star Under Armour All-American who played everything from receiver to running back to free safety to quarterback last season — and excelled at it all. But perhaps his most impressive feat has been to rebound from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that he sustained Jan. 2 in the Under Armour All-America Game in St. Petersburg.
He didn’t even know he had torn the ligament while catching a swing pass, cutting and getting tackled awkwardly. He returned to the game in the fourth quarter, scored a touchdown and threw up the “U,’’ not realizing his injury until the UM medical staff examined him more than a week later.
He underwent reconstructive surgery Jan. 15 and said he didn’t do too much in the summer before fall camp began. “That’s when we kind of hit the ground running.’’
Golden called it “ridiculous’’ that Berrios healed as fast as he did and has been running full speed without a brace.
Did he expect to be getting this much playing time so early?
“I didn’t,” he said Saturday. “I knew it was going to be a competition and if I deserved it I’d get it. I guess coaches think I deserve it right now.”
According to Berrios, “there are a lot of characters” in his family — and a lot of family members. His father’s father, born in Puerto Rico and now 70, grew up in the Homestead area one of 15 children, many of whom attended South Dade High.
Berrios’ parents have been divorced since 2002. His father, the vice president of sales for a Dallas-based furniture manufacturer, remarried in 2009. Rico Berrios lives outside Atlanta and has sons 4 and 2 and is expecting another baby in November.
Berrios’ mother, Lee Smothers, lives in Raleigh, works for a pharmaceutical research company and is married to Chad Smothers, who coached Braxton all four years in high school. She cheered and played softball at Campbell University, where she met Rico, a scholarship soccer player.
Berrios has an older brother, Austin, who is 21 and was a preferred walk-on receiver at East Carolina before he tore both ACLs and transferred to Louisburg (North Carolina) College, a junior college. The two brothers are extremely close.
Berrios chose UM over finalists Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina and Oregon. His father told him the only two schools for which he wouldn’t be able to stomach watching him play were Florida State and Ohio State.
“I told Braxton, ‘You go where you fit in best. I’ll always be a Hurricane fan no matter what, and wherever you go to school will be my second-favorite team.’
“I’m glad he made the right choice.”
Miami Herald correspondent David Furones contributed to this report.