ORLANDO – He came to America for a simple reason: He wanted to learn English.
He stayed in America for a reason he can't quite believe and his mom has only begun to fully grasp.
Cairo Santos arrived in Florida at age 15, like so many other international transfer students, afraid but curious. He got set up with a host family in St. Augustine and started going to school.
over the crossbar?"He was a soccer-loving kid from Brazil, and the sport of football was as odd to him as curling is to most Americans. Santos went out onto the field with some of his new schoolmates, looked at the weirdly-shaped goal posts and wondered: "You're supposed to kick the ball
Santos decided to try it. He started from PAT distance: 20 yards. He nailed it.
"Who kicked that?!" someone yelled.
The 15-year-old raised his hand. The boys came over. They needed a kicker for the team. Who doesn't? There aren't many good kickers in high school ball, even in Florida.
"Back up!" the boys said.
Santos did. He went to 30 yards. Same result.
He did: 40 yards. Same result.
Santos moved back to 50 yards. The other boys were flipping out. Cairo was having fun but he still thought it was odd that kicking a ball over a crossbar was cool.
He made it. Santos was kicking NFL-length field goals and he hardly knew what the NFL was. He had to go out and buy a Madden video game to learn the rules of the game he was now playing. (He picked the Colts because he liked Adam Vinatieri.) Little did Cairo know he would be the 2012 winner of the Lou Groza Award for the nation's best college kicker.
In school, he was still a typical exchange student. Guys razzed him for his accent; girls thought it was cute. But on the field, Santos was a bit of a celebrity. He set a school record with a 51-yard field goal in one game, then broke his own record with a 55-yarder later in the same game. He punted too. Of his 72 kickoffs, 67 were touchbacks. Considering he would only be one of a million teenage soccer players back home, this was kind of fun.
Cairo also fell in love with his host family, David and Kathie Burnett, and that love was mutual. They suggested he stay for another year and maybe graduate from high school in Florida. Santos wanted to stay. "I was only going to come here for a year," he says. "But I really wanted to get better in English." He liked Florida and loved football. He could maybe get college paid for, too. But what about his parents, back in Brazil?
"My dad really supported me," Santos says. "He was really happy."
And his mom, Magalie?
"My mom cried a lot."
Cairo chose Tulane in part because of the climate. The humid, warm air in New Orleans reminded him of Brazil. But he had trouble getting in – the NCAA clearinghouse needed to take extra time to vet his foreign transcripts. Once he did get in, though, he was lights-out. Santos won Conference USA All-Freshman honors in 2010 and kept making 'em over the past two years. He says he had a little trouble staying fresh during the summer because he would go back to Brazil and there are no field goal posts there. The leg swing is different in soccer, too, so that caused him issues when he played his favorite sport. But he found a couple of narrow trees in a park near his childhood home and practiced there. As a junior this season, he made all 21 of his attempts, including a 57-yarder – the longest field goal in Tulane history.
"He has such a fluent swing," says University of Florida kicker Caleb Sturgis, who has known Santos since high school. "It's amazing how much power he gets into each kick."
And with those stats and that leg – he says he has hit a 70-yard field goal "with a huge wind supporting me" – he's got a shot at a pro career. Things could not have gone better for Cairo in America.
The only downside is his parents have only seen him play in one Tulane game over three seasons. They did make it to the Lou Groza dinner in Orlando Wednesday, and Cairo's mom could be seen leaning over and getting translations of English jokes and praise directed at her son.
She's smart, though. She knows what's going on. And she certainly knows the English phrase that describes both the results of all her son's field goal attempts this year and the story of how Cairo went from exchange student to the doorstep of the NFL.