ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In a living room pressurized with the hopes and dreams shared between an NFL prospect, his family and close friends, Nik Bonitto sat on the leather couch next to his mother, Sandra Penn.
From that communal space in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Bonitto dealt with the nerve-wracking anticipation that exists between each pick as Penn served as a voice of calmness on his shoulder.
"Wherever God wants you to be, that's where you'll end up, whether it's the first round, second round, seventh round," Penn recalls telling him. "This is where you're meant to be."
When the call from the Broncos finally came, and the dream became reality, Bonitto could hardly contain his emotions. And when the pick was announced on television minutes later, the rest of the room followed, everyone caught up in a rapturous joy.
"Yeah, it was my draft party, but it was more just being around the people that have supported me throughout my years of playing football and all the people that helped me get there — celebrating me, but also celebrating them and reminding myself that this is a family thing," Bonitto says. "I should be proud that I'm in this position, and just be happy that I'm with all the people that was me all throughout these years."
Through this path, Penn has been vitally important for Nik, along with his father, Vincent Bonitto, and as Nik begins his professional career, she'll remain an integral part of his support system just as she was at the beginning.
Back then, Vincent was working long days with 12-hour shifts as a distributor, which sometimes took him out of state, and Penn, a nurse, worked from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. to allow her to create a daily routine with their two sons, Nik and Gerrard.
"Getting up early to go to school, being able to take me and my brothers to different practices at times, just pushing me whenever she comes to my games or whenever she comes to my practices, just doing all those things," Bonitto says. "It just kind of was surreal having her next to me, knowing all that she's put in for me."
Nik started playing football at 5 years old, and he was always bigger than other kids his age. Until he reached high school, he had to play with age groups a couple of years ahead of him. As a mother, football can test one's nerves, and this certainly did for Penn.
"The crazy thing about it is he always had to play two [years] up, because at that time he was always so much bigger than all the other kids," Penn says. "… He never was intimidated by that, I guess, because he started off at such a young age playing up, always two years up. So he was never intimidated. But it was always scary for me, as a mom, you have your 5-year-old playing with 7-year-olds. And as he got older, it was still playing up, playing up. For me, it was a little scary. But for him, he handled it."
He continued to do that until he got to high school. Even as an eighth grader, Bonitto played varsity football for Fort Lauderdale's University School.
For Penn, Bonitto's talent and drive was easy to see. She saw his competitive spirit come out in basketball as well as football, but nothing was as special to him as sacking quarterbacks. So eventually Bonitto transferred to national football powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas High School, which had 15 alumni playing in the NFL in 2021.
Now, Bonitto will join that exclusive group in professional football.
"It seems like just yesterday he was playing pee-wee ball, then high school, then in college," Penn says. "And now in the NFL. So it's just like, we don't see where the time went, but we're so excited because … especially his dad said, 'He's going to make it to the NFL.' He always thought he was going to make it to the NFL, and to actually see it happening, it's just amazing."
As he makes the jump, so too will his family. After Bonitto was drafted, Pat Surtain II's mother called Penn to congratulate her and the family and welcome them to the team. Though they'd never met, their sons had played on rival football teams in the Fort Lauderdale area and became friends during that time. Now that they're teammates, so are their mothers.
"Another one of Nikolas' teammates, Tre [Delarrin Turner-Yell], got drafted also," Penn says. "So his mom called me and she was like, 'Oh my god, we're going to be Bronco moms!'"
Being a Bronco mom has already been quite exciting. The day after Bonitto was drafted, she joined him and Vincent for the trip to Denver, where they were able to tour UCHealth Training Center, meet the coaches and front-office staff and more.
"It was really important," Bonitto says of having Penn there with him for the visit. "Just because I wanted her to see all the work that she put in, too, because it wasn't just me. Her getting me through all this phases, her making sacrifices, her driving me to school 30 minutes away, those were all things that she did and that she sacrificed for me to get to where I'm at now."
With Mother's Day then just about a week away, Penn says she repeatedly told Bonitto as they walked around the facility, "This is the best Mother's Day gift that I could ever have had."
"Knowing that his dreams came true, all of our hard work came true," Penn says, "that was the best for me. That was it. I don't care what I get anymore."