CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Come Saturday, Hugo Delapenha Jr. will run through Miami’s smoke tunnel one final time with his fellow seniors. Family and friends will revel in the sight of him playing for his dream school.
Until last Saturday’s 30-13 loss at Virginia, he was a relatively unknown Hurricanes player. Many things went wrong for Miami in Charlottesville: There were nine penalties and two turnovers. A 34-yard field goal got blocked.
But with 1:24 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Hurricanes perfectly executed a play down 23 points. It wasn’t Duke Johnson, Clive Walford or Phillip Dorsett making the highlight tape, rather two unheralded players on the special teams unit.
Redshirt junior Garrett Kidd broke through the middle past three Cavaliers to block punter Alec Vozenilek’s kick with his outstretched right hand. Delapenha, a redshirt senior, waited for the ball to fall into his waiting arms before returning it 13 yards for a touchdown.
Despite the score, Delapenha and Kidd leapt for a side bump in the end zone. On the subdued sideline, players congratulated them with hugs and pats.
"I still celebrated because it was a good play," Delapenha said. "Mainly not for myself but for my teammates because Garrett Kidd, Braxton Berrios and Chris Herndon are the reason it happened. For me not to be able to celebrate it would be a slap in the face to them. I celebrated for my teammates. I would’ve liked it to have been more impactful for the game, but it is what it is."
It was a play they had practiced all week — from the gameplanning of it to the studying of film. For it to work, no matter the score or situation, would show that the work paid off.
"Coach (Al Golden) isn’t the kind of guy to shy away from anything, even if we’re down a lot in the fourth quarter," Kidd said. "He dialed up a block, and we executed it. It feels good to make a play even though you’re down a lot of points. In the end it still feels good to execute a play like that that we’d practiced all week long. You just hope you get the opportunity to block a punt like that and make a play for your team."
Delapenha is a walk-on with two games remaining in his collegiate career. After graduating from Bishop Verot in Fort Myers, Florida, he played a season at Bethune-Cookman before getting accepted into Miami for his academics. He transferred to his "dream school" in 2011.
"I was raised in this area, so this was the highest peak of going to any school for me," Delapenha said. "I always wanted to play football and knew that would keep me happy. That’s something I wanted to do. Just came to play."
During his first two years wearing the orange and green, he participated as a member of the scout team. In 2013, he played six games on special teams, making his debut against Savannah State. By season’s end, he received Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year.
Like his nationally recognized teammates, Delapenha works out, studies film, attends practice and balances schoolwork. Unlike them, he doesn’t see as much playing time. It isn’t guaranteed, though he has appeared in seven games in 2014. He’s not on scholarship, and he has just three career tackles (all this season). His role concerns special teams and scout team work.
"He’s been a guy who has played special teams for us and a guy who can put out fires for us at either corner or safety," Golden said. "He has wisdom to offer young guys. He works hard and I was glad to see him do that, to be in the perfect position to make a play there and then execute it. We’re grateful to the commitment he’s made to our team and the difference he’s made on special teams for us for sure."
In a few weeks, Delapenha will graduate as a marketing major. What comes after that remains up in the air. The NFL Combine and Draft aren’t on the horizon. He will weigh his options and see where they take him.
What motivates him? After all, he doesn’t gain notoriety or recognition like his scholarship teammates.
"I don’t know," Delapenha said. "I’m just driven that way, built that way. I enjoy playing football. Being able to come to this school alone is a blessing. God blessed me with gifts to play this game, and I thank him every day for the opportunities. Just being able to wake up each day and do this. A lot of people wish they could do this."
Each chance he has to wear a helmet with the U on it and run through the smoke tunnel isn’t taken for granted. He always keeps this opportunity in the back of his mind to push him.
When the ball dropped into his hands the other night, he raced into the end zone. Delapenha’s dream became a reality. It wasn’t exactly how he envisioned scoring a touchdown, but it still counted as one.
"It was surreal, but just playing for this school and being able to contribute was enough for me," Delapenha said. "This was just the icing on the cake."