Not many athletes get to have a storybook ending. And while the Miami Hurricanes' fairy tale could fizzle Saturday in the ACC Championship Game, the season for senior wide receiver Braxton Berrios has already been, in the words of his mom, "a Cinderella story."
Fittingly, the most important chapter to date will be written in the Raleigh, N.C., native's home state when the No. 7 Hurricanes face No. 1 Clemson on Saturday night at Charlotte.
"It's full circle. A kid from Raleigh wanted to come to Miami to turn the program around. That was always the dream," Berrios said after practice Wednesday. "We're one step closer."
This will be Berrios' final college game in his home state, so family and friends are scrambling for tickets. Lee Berrios-Smothers, aka Proud Mom, said at least 25 have confirmed they are coming to the game and others are scrambling for tickets on the secondary market.
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"He always said, 'I want to play for the 'Canes, I want to play for the 'Canes.' And he's lived his dream," Berrios-Smothers said of her son, who leads UM receivers with 45 receptions for 583 yards and nine touchdowns. "We're lucky that the (ACC title) game is in North Carolina this year. Very excited."
She noted that Braxton grew up a fan of Duke basketball, but in football he was always crazy about the 'Canes.
His father's family ties to South Florida had a lot to do with that. Rico Berrios was an All-State soccer player for Miami Southridge who also kicked for the football team when UM was in its prime as a national powerhouse in the '80s.
Braxton Berrios remembers UM winning the 2001 national title, and his affinity for the Hurricanes was solidified by watching them romp over North Carolina State at Carter-Finley Stadium near his Raleigh home in 2004. Devin Hester's 105-yard return of the opening kickoff left an indelible impression.
But the Hurricanes of his dreams weren't the Hurricanes of his experience until coach Mark Richt arrived and began the turnaround last year.
"It's been a lot of ups and downs, a lot of tough seasons, not just personally but for the team," Berrios said. "Our first year we had a below-.500 record. ... You don't want to play on a team like that, and you never want the U to get down there.
"That's not what I came here for. I came here for these games (playing for a title). We came here to make this program exactly what it should be."
Berrios has been a driving force in this season's run to 10-1 and the program's first appearance in the ACC Championship Game.
He sparked the 41-8 rout of Notre Dame, scoring the first touchdown on a 7-yard reception. He punctuated it with a jab at the archaic Catholics vs. Convicts narrative by clasping his hands behind his back as if handcuffed and bowing his head.
"Braxton means everything. He's kind of like the 'guy' in this offense," quarterback Malik Rosier said. "He's the guy that on third down that if the ball is in his area he's usually going to make a play. So that's huge for me."
Rosier will be relying on Berrios more than ever Saturday with tight end Chris Herndon (season-ending knee surgery) out and star sophomore receiver Ahmmon Richards also lost to a knee injury in practice Wednesday. Richards will undergo season-ending surgery to repair the meniscus in his left knee.
The only senior receiver on the team, Berrios has been the catalyst of the corps all season, as Richards already missed several games while coping with a variety of injuries.
After Berrios caught two touchdown passes in the breakthrough win against Florida State, earning ACC Receiver of the Week honors, Richt said, "He's been awesome. ... Guys that are 5-feet-9-inches and 180 or whatever he weighs, usually they can't dominate a game the way he did against an elite opponent. But I thought it was pretty spectacular, actually."
Berrios was a highly regarded recruit out of Leesville Road High in Raleigh when he arrived at UM as an undersized receiver who drew comparisons to former NFL standout Wes Welker.
The path to the success he's had this season has been bumpy. His 2017 stat line equals or exceeds his combined receiving totals from the previous three seasons (45 catches, 496 yards, five touchdowns).
While he has helped resurrect the spirit of UM glory days, Berrios embodies the character of the resurgent program under Richt.
He is one of 13 finalists for the National Football Foundation's William V. Campbell Trophy, the so-called Academic Heisman, which is given to college football's premier scholar-athlete. He has a 3.96 grade-point average with a double-major in finance and entrepreneurship.
"He's gone and done exactly what I expected him to do grade-wise, and as a person he's grown," Berrios-Smothers said. "He's still good as gold, he's still humble and I'm very proud of him all the way around."
This week all of the focus is on the field and finding a way to knock off the No. 1 team despite a growing injury list. However it turns out, Berrios has written himself into a lasting place in Hurricanes history.
"It means a lot to this team, to this university, to this program, and even to our fans, that for the first time in our history we're playing an ACC Championship Game," Berrios said.