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'Baby Feet' Bonitto had good feeling about Broncos from earlier visit

Denver's newest pass rusher from a high school powerhouse in Florida and college power Oklahoma was raised well at home.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Vincent Bonitto could tell his son was excited about the NFL team he had just met.

It was the final week NFL teams could bring in one of their 30 draft prospects for a visit. Nik Bonitto, the oldest of two sons raised by Vincent and Sandra Bonitto and an edge rusher from the University of Oklahoma, had just finished his top 30 visit with the Broncos on Monday, April 18.

“He called me from the airport after his visit here, saying how much he loved it,’’ Vincent said. “And he didn’t do that after his other visits. This was the only one where he called me after it was done. He loved the way his visit went here. Everything about it.”

Bonitto won his Dove Valley audition. The Broncos didn’t get a chance to draft a player until the No. 64 pick overall and when it finally arrived, Bonitto was their choice. Even though the Broncos had five other quality edge rushers, Bonitto’s talent was so impressive, general manager George Paton took one more.

RELATED: Broncos first pick, No. 64 overall, is Oklahoma edge rusher Nik Bonitto

“You can’t have enough,’’ Paton said. “You look at our division, all the quarterbacks, you can’t have enough pass rushers.’’

Before Paton sat down with 9NEWS for a chat Saturday, it was Nik Bonitto who occupied the interviewee chair, as his parents sauntered along the sidelines at the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse.

“It was crazy how it all happened,’’ Bonitto said. “It was one of my last 30s. I had a really good feeling about it. Meeting the coaches, meeting all the guys upstairs. It was a great vibe. Great place, great city. I couldn’t really ask for anything better. Just had a great feeling once you guys came up. I knew I was going to have a good chance of getting that call.”

Loving parents made for Bonitto's happy childhood

Nik and his brother Gerrard were raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Dad has been working for a wine distributorship the past 17 years and mom worked in a nursing home.

Vincent Bonitto is of Cuban and Jamaican descent and Sandra is Haitian. They were married 23 years before their recent divorce.

“We’re still best of friends,’’ Sandra said. “Best of friends.”

They sat at a table together while Nik made the media rounds inside the Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse early Saturday afternoon.

“His nickname was 'Baby Feet,’'' Sandra said with a smile. “It was the way he ran, the way he moved. 'Baby Feet.' The people back home, that's what they call him, 'Baby Feet.'

"He started playing football when he was 5 years old," Sandra said. "It was a struggle to get him to go (to practice) sometimes because at that age he wanted to play his video games. But it was always between football and basketball for him growing up. He was good at both but it became evident fairly early on that football was his calling.”

A man’s character is developed from his parents and first impression says the Broncos got a good one with their first pick of the draft.

“They’re parents that are going to support you, be there with you every step of the way,’’ Nik said. “They love me a lot, they want the best for me. I have a little brother, he’s the same way. Gerrard. We’ve always pushed each other growing up playing sports. So a great family vibe.”

Dad said Nik played varsity football as an eighth grader and freshman at Nova Southeastern University School, a private college preparatory school, but when head football coach Roger Harriott took the same job at his alma mater St. Thomas Aquinas, Bonitto followed him to the high school powerhouse that boasts such alumni as Chris Evert, the Bosa brothers, Michael Irvin, Geno Atkins and Brian Piccolo among many other former pro athletes.

RELATED: Paton's patience pays as Broncos get two preferred players in Bonitto and Dulcich

Bonitto played on two state champions as a sophomore and junior at St. Thomas Aquinas and the school has won three more state championships since he left. Harriott and Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett briefly crossed paths. In late January 2010, Harriott announced he was leaving his head coach position at University School to become running backs coach at Syracuse, where Hackett had just been hired as offensive coordinator. Two weeks later, though, Harriott had a change of heart and returned to University School.

It took 12 years, but Harriett and Hackett were reconnected again with Bonitto as their bond.

A 4-star recruit out of high school who had all the major college programs after him, including Alabama and Ohio State, Bonitto chose the Oklahoma Sooners. It couldn’t have been easy playing defense for the run-and-gun Lincoln Riley-coached Sooners. With Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts as their quarterback during Bonitto’s redshirt freshman season, Oklahoma averaged 42.1 points a game while their defense allowed 27.3. Oklahoma’s defense was better in 2020, allowing 21.7 points while Spencer Rattler quarterbacked an offense to 43.0 points a game. Bonitto was a full-time starter that year and had 9.0 sacks in 10 games to earn second-team All American honors.

During his junior and final season at Oklahoma in 2021, Bonitto had 7.0 sacks in 11 games as the Sooners, who switched from Rattler to Caleb Williams at quarterback midseason, averaged 39 points while surrendering 26. Under Riley, the Sooners were built around a hurry up-and-score offense and relied on pass rushers like Bonitto to hurry up and catch their breath, pin their ears back and harass the opposing quarterbacks into playing-from-behind mistakes.

“We always had great conditioning staff so they always prepared us for those track meets but when you have guys like Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, even going back to last year, Spencer Rattler, Caleb Williams, you know those guys are going to put up points so as a defense you know you’ve got to be out there at any second,’’ Bonitto said. “You should want that as a defensive player, you should want more reps, you should more opportunities to go against the offense. Knowing that and having that in the back of our minds, we were always ready to go.’’

Credit: AP
Oklahoma defensive lineman Nik Bonitto runs a drill during the NFL football scouting combine, Saturday, March 5, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Comparisons to Von while Wilson places  call

Before he was drafted by the Broncos, the 6-foot-3, 248-pound Bonitto was occasionally compared to Vic Beasley, who was similarly built and led the NFL with 15.5 sacks in 2016 before falling off. But now that he’s a Bronco, Bonitto’s speed, bend and flexibility instantly became linked to Von Miller, who had 117 sacks during his 10 ½ seasons in Denver, counting the postseason, and still hasn’t fallen off.

“He’s been a guy I’ve been watching since I was very little,’’ Bonitto said of Miller. “Just watching the way he approaches the game. Things he can do on the field not many can do and I take pride in learning from a guy like him. Wanting to be a great like him. Just seeing how he is and all the things he’s accomplished are things I want in this game.”

Paton said at both his post-draft press conferences Friday and Saturday that Bonitto needs to get stronger – as all incoming rookies do. As Bonitto sat in the chair for his 9News interview Saturday, he already looked a little bigger than he did on tape. So he got the message.

“Most definitively. I’m getting stronger,’’ Bonitto said. “Not gaining too much weight, but gaining a little bit. I feel like it’s definitely going to help me. I still have to grow and get stronger in a lot of different areas. That’s something I definitely take pride in this offseason.”

There was the good vibe from his top 30 visit to Broncos headquarters that led to getting picked by the Broncos 11 days later. And there was the thrill of a Facetime call from new Broncos star quarterback Russell Wilson in the minutes following his No. 64 overall selection.

“It was crazy. Knowing the guys has done so much in this league,’’ Bonitto said. “And all the things he’s accomplished and for him to give me a call on my big night it tells me where he’s at. He’s a very humble dude. Showed me how important I am to this team and now I want to run through a wall for that guy. That was a great time for me to be able to meet him.”

Bonitto is projected to receive a $1.4 million signing bonus as part as his four-year, $5.8 million first professional contract with the Broncos. He and the rest of the teams newcomers will report back to Broncos’ headquarters on May 12 for the start of rookie minicamp. 

RELATED: A look at Broncos' 13 undrafted rookies

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