Fathers and sons: For players like Highsmith and Berry, being at Miami upholds dad's legacy

Kenny Berry won a national championship in his final season at Miami. Alonzo Highsmith's title ring came in a season when hardly anybody expected the Hurricanes to be great.

Their sons would like to see history repeat.

For Damien Berry and A.J. Highsmith, being part of the Miami football family is extra significant — since their fathers helped build the tradition the current Hurricanes want to uphold. Damien Berry is a senior running back, A.J. Highsmith a sophomore backup quarterback, and each could end up playing big roles this season for 13th-ranked Hurricanes, who open Thursday against Florida A&M.

"This is home," Damien Berry said.

Indeed, Miami football has been part of the makeup of the Berry and Highsmith families for decades.

Alonzo Highsmith was part of the 1983 national title season, the first of five championships for the Hurricanes. He converted from defensive end in high school to running back in college, was Miami's leading rusher in the 1983 Orange Bowl win over heavily favored Nebraska, and went on to be a first-round NFL pick.

The elder Highsmith was featured prominently in a documentary about the Hurricanes that premiered late last year, and some of his son's teammates never made the connection until then about the deep family ties to the program.

"I still don't think they know exactly who he was," said A.J. Highsmith, who completed 4 of 6 passes as a freshman in limited duty last season. "He's a lot different now than he was back then."

When it comes to the Berry family story, father and son, too, are very different. Or exactly the same, depending on perspective.

Kenny Berry was a standout running back when he came to Miami, then switched to defensive back while with the Hurricanes. Damien Berry came to college targeted for safety, then was converted to running back — his natural position — during his sophomore season.

And now, Berry might end up as Miami's go-to back this fall.

"We had a conversation about the transition from defensive back to running back," Kenny Berry said. "And I asked him, 'Where have all your blessings come from? Where have you been the most successful?' He's capable of tremendous things on both sides of the ball, but some of the things he's done running it, from high school to Pop Warner, he's always been a running back by nature."

Adding to the family ties that bind is this: Hurricanes coach Randy Shannon played with both of the fathers at Miami.

"We always say that when you play at the University of Miami, you're a part of the University of Miami family forever," Shannon said. "I think A.J. and Damien wanted to be part of that for themselves."

A third-generation Hurricane could be looming.

Defensive end Anthony Chickillo of Tampa (Fla.) Alonso High is expected to announce his college choice in the coming days, and Miami is believed to be atop his list. His grandfather Nick Chickillo was a first-team AP All-American for the Hurricanes in the early 1950s, and father Tony Chickillo played for Miami from 1979-82.

"It adds a lot, to know you played where your father played," Damien Berry said. "I won't call it pressure, because I'm never pressured, but it adds a lot of excitement to know I have a chance to be as great as he was. Or better. My aim isn't to do what my dad did. My aim is to try to do more."

In the Berry home, father-and-son have been known to merit the debate that can't truly be decided: Who is better?

If the Hurricanes find a way to get a national title this season — and the son gets the ring that his father won a generation ago — that argument might really pick up steam.

"You really can't compare," Damien Berry said. "I'm bigger. He was faster. I went from defense to offense. He went from offense to think. Come on — you don't really have to think to tackle somebody. On offense, you've got to know where you're going. So I think I'm the better athlete."

He'll get his chance to show it this season, with his dad watching proudly from the stands.

"Seeing him do what I had a chance to do," Kenny Berry said, "it's been a blessing for me and our family."