As a 15-year-old exchange student at St. Joseph Academy in St. Augustine, Florida, Cairo Santos didn’t know how to throw a football. Why would he? He grew up in Brasilia, Brazil, and came to the United States to chase his soccer dream.
After his friends saw the sophomore Santos wobble the ball toward a basketball hoop outside their home in 2008, they suggested he kick it instead.
The ball landed four houses away.
“I said, ‘Is that good?’ ” Santos said.
Santos’ friends told the St. Joseph football coaches, who brought him to practice the next day. He made a 50-yard field goal.
“They said, ‘You’re on the team — you’re playing Friday,’ ” he said.
Santos didn’t know the rules, so he bought Madden NFL 07 for Xbox to study. For the first couple of games, a coach stood near him on the sideline to explain what was happening and when he’d be needed. Two years later, he got a full scholarship to Tulane — and two years after that, he won the Lou Groza Award, given to college football’s best kicker.
When the Bears kicker talks about his long journey, it’s about more than navigating injuries and struggles the last few years. It makes him enjoy success more. On Wednesday, for the first time in his career, he was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week after making three field goals, including a careerlong 55-yarder, in the Bears’ 23-16 victory against the Panthers.
“With everything that’s happening this year in an area of my career that I’ve had a lot of success, it’s given me a lot of appreciation for those times that I had,” Santos said. “It feels like it was just so long ago because of all the changes that have happened in my career.”
Santos was a Chiefs stalwart from 2014 to 2016, making 86 of 102 kicks. But after suffering a groin injury and going on injured reserve in 2017, the Chiefs waived him.
He became an itinerant kicker, playing for, in order, the Bears, Buccaneers, Rams, Titans and Bears again this year. With Eddy Pineiro on injured reserve with his own groin injury, Santos has found a home, making 10 of 12 kicks.
Santos came upon his new groove by watching film of his Chiefs years and mimicking his steps and routine from those seasons. He has become a better ball-striker as a result, which he said matters in Chicago weather. The approach sacrifices some distance — Santos admitted the 55-yarder was wind-aided — but he has proved he’s dangerous from deep.
He doesn’t think as much about his form as he does the rhythm of his steps. His follow-through is straighter now — the way he thinks about it, “the ball gets in the way of my foot” when he kicks.
“We all have techniques that we change or that we try to focus on,” he said. “But when it’s time to perform, I think feelings are greater than technique.”