Cairo Santos grew up imagining the day he would play for the Brazilian national soccer team and wear the famed No.10 jersey.
Instead, he’s in the Chiefs’ offseason camp, wearing No. 5 and providing more than token competition for veteran place kicker Ryan Succop.
“Every kid that grows up playing soccer in Brazil dreams of wearing that yellow jersey and playing in the World Cup,” said Santos, a rookie free agent from Tulane, where he won the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best kicker in 2012. “It was my dream since I was 5 years old until I was 15, 16, and came to the United States. My dreams stayed with being a professional athlete, but now it’s football.”
Santos discovered American football as a foreign exchange student in St. Augustine, Fla. That led him to Tulane and eventually to the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent.
But starting Thursday, when host Brazil opens World Cup play against Croatia, his thoughts will return to the pitch in his hometown of Sao Paulo.
“I’ve been counting the days until the first game,” Santos said. “Brazil better (win). The atmosphere is going to be unbelievable. They’re going to have the entire country rooting for them. The expectations are really high. We need a win at home.”
The last time Brazil held the World Cup was in 1950, and it lost 2-1 to Uruguay in the final.
“That upset the whole country,” Santos said. “There are still some people who still cry about that game. When Brazil plays, people don’t work. Nothing is open; you watch with your friends and family. They’ve been talking about this for years. Ever since it was announced there would be a World Cup there, it’s been crazy.”
There has been plenty of criticism and protests in Brazil about the billions of dollars the country has invested in stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics while neglecting the needs of the poor and those in need of social services.
“People are protesting because the government never put this much effort into education, hospitals, homeless people…” Santos said, “but for the World Cup, they did everything they could to allocate those costs and come up with the stadiums and airports. I could see there was unfair treatment from the government toward the people. It seems like they do have the money, but it needs someone to better lead our country.
“The Olympics and World Cup are two events that Brazil should take advantage of to boost the economy.”
Santos, 5 feet 8 and 160 pounds, played striker as a youth, performing at the highest level in his age group for the club Fluminense, and for Brazil’s Under-15 team. He lettered three years in soccer at St. Joseph’s Academy in St. Augustine, scoring 57 career goals with 49 assists as a center midfielder, but his prowess as a kicker for the football team earned Santos a scholarship to Tulane.
Santos made 61 of 78 field-goal attempts at Tulane, highlighted by the 2012 season, when he went a nation’s leading 21 for 21, including 12 from 40-yards plus, and two from 50-yards plus. Santos led the nation in touchback percentage, too, with 31 of his 55 kickoffs downed for touchbacks and only two failing to reach the end zone.
“We had a long snapper who transferred from Georgia, and he could control the laces for me, and every kick felt automatic,” Santos said. “He graduated, I lost my holder, and my senior year, we kind of struggled … I had three different snappers and holders … but it’s part of the game.”
Santos made 16 of 23 field goals as a senior, but was greatly affected by the death of his father, Cairo, who was killed while performing an airplane stunt in Brazil last September.
“Aerobatics is what he loved to do,” Santos said. “He did air shows. People said there was a sudden sound in the engine, and the airplane started to go down …”
Santos made a 56-yarder the week after his father’s death and hit game-winning field goals against North Texas and East Carolina (as part of a five field-goal game), but it was hard to shake the family tragedy.
“If I missed a kick, it was harder for me to come back, to clear my mind and worry about the next kick,” Santos said. “I go out on the field and I’m thinking about my family … my mom and sister are there without a husband and dad. So there were a lot of worries. My teammates were good about it, and the coaching staff was good.”
Though he went undrafted, the Chiefs signed Santos a week later, and he’s displayed a strong and consistent leg during organized team activities. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub emphasized last week that Santos isn’t just “a camp kicker.”
“This is a great staff,” Santos said. “I’ve learned a lot of good things. Ryan is so good kicking. We both are barely missing any kicks. He’s such an automatic field goal kicker. Not only is it amazing for me to see that, but I try to pick his brain.
“I’m here to make a good impression on this coaching staff. Hopefully play in some preseason games and kick well so some coach can see some film of me.”
Santos has yet to attend a Sporting Kansas City game, though he was paired in a golf tournament with Dom Dwyer and has been a fan of Benny Feilhaber, a native of Brazil.
As for as his World Cup prediction …
“Brazil against Argentina, hopefully. And Brazil wins.”