Cairo Santos was a month old when the picture was taken of his doting father and commercial airline pilot, Cairo, holding him in the cockpit of a plane bound from Brazil to Miami on the son’s first flight.
That was the start of their adventures as co-pilots.
A few years later, when his father bought a dual-control Cessna 152 to start being a stunt pilot, the teenage boy was alongside him for the flight home … but he was no mere passenger.
He was tasked with flipping through a massive book of radio contact codes to figure out where to land for fuel.
In the months to come, young Cairo would be entrusted with far more as they sat inches apart, tethered together by headsets. Music by the Bee Gees or Pink Floyd or Toby Keith was often their background soundtrack.
“Here, son,” the father would say, teaching him the intricacies of flight. And soon the boy himself was the one taking off.
With his father able to intervene at any time, he’d push the throttle all the way and zoom to 60 knots per hour.
Up they soared, together, his father taking it from there.
“You feel like a bird,” said the son, now in his third season as the Chiefs’ kicker. “Just all of a sudden, you’re at ground level and then you start seeing the horizon. That’s the coolest thing, seeing where the sky touches the ground.
“Because you end up appreciating the horizon, too.”
Santos’ horizon and world itself were changed forever on Sept. 15, 2013, when his father died in a plane crash as he was performing a stunt at an air show.
He died “doing what he loved,” Santos remembered his mother, Magali, saying as she broke the news by telephone.
But that wasn’t something Santos could immediately reconcile in his state of overwhelming shock and grief. He couldn’t hold anything in.
“You know someday it’s going to happen, we’re going to leave this earth,” he said. “But you never think of that moment.”
It was Santos’ senior year at Tulane, where the year before he had won the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best kicker — thus compelling his father at the banquet to jump from his seat screaming as if he were calling a World Cup goal.
What went wrong with the airplane remains somewhat vague even now to Santos. As he understands it, his father was performing a maneuver when the engine went silent, as if it “shut off or something,” and went down.
He left the next day for Brazil to grieve with his mother and sister, Talita, and friends and extended family he hadn’t seen for years.
But he took footballs home with him, too.
That was in part because he was determined to return to play that week at Syracuse … but more so because of how it helped him feel connected to his father.
His dad would have wanted him to be strong and keep moving toward his future, to keep “investing” — the word his father invoked often when he spoke of the importance of school or treating people well or honoring commitments, such as his son going to Florida as a high school exchange student. That’s where Santos discovered football.
“‘I’m going to get through this to continue to fight for my dreams and continue to fight for his dreams,’ ” Santos remembers telling himself. “I do it for him, and I do it for my family. I carry them in my heart every day.”
Against Syracuse, Santos made his first field goal to extend his successful streak to 26 in a row — four short of the NCAA record.
In a season in which Santos said it became “hard to stay balanced,” his next kick was blocked.
It was often difficult for him to take the field without thinking of his father or his family, and it was hard to clear his mind after a missed kick as he made just 16 of 23 his senior year — including a botched 48-yarder as time ran out against Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl
Yet, even that season, he started sorting his way through. He hit a 56-yarder two weeks after his father died, and felt like it was “God, in a way, warming my heart.” He also made two game-winning kicks, including one in triple-overtime against East Carolina.
“That re-sparked me,” he said.
That comeback was part of a profile that earned Santos an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine. He was soon signed by the Chiefs and beat out Ryan Succop for the place-kicking job in 2014.
Santos has made 81 of 96 field-goal attempts with the Chiefs, including 26 of 29 this season. None was more meaningful than the one he banked in off the left upright to beat Denver 30-27 in overtime in the prelude to Sunday night’s rematch at Arrowhead Stadium.
In an already iconic photo of the aftermath captured by Star photographer David Eulitt, holder Dustin Colquitt’s head is bowed in dismay as Santos points skyward … to his father, who has come to offer comfort and reassurance on the field instead of the anguish Santos once felt.
When his father was in Brazil, Santos felt all of the 4,500 miles that separated them.
“But now I feel like he’s watching me the whole time,” he said. “I feel like (it’s) with everything that I do. … So I’m honoring him just by being the way he taught me how to be, so if anything I feel closer to him now than I did …
“I point to the sky and I feel like he’s there, and one day I’m going to connect with him again … It warms your heart, it warms your mind that he’s in a great place and I’m doing the right things that I’m sure he would be proud of.”
Part of that is trying to understand his purpose here and what the meaning of this tragedy in his life is.
That explains something about both the devastation and perspective he felt after the plane crash last month of the Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense, which killed 71 people.
As his eyes moistened at the thought, Santos quickly considered “the beautiful gesture” of Colombia’s Atletico Nacional team: Chapecoense’s scheduled opponent in the Copa Sudamericana awarded the trophy to Chapecoense as an homage to the victims.
“I got emotional from those two things: losing a lot of good people but also the world coming together just to make everything better,” said Santos, who in the Chiefs’ next game at Atlanta warmed up in a T-shirt commemorating the victims.
His experience also explains how he has been able to somewhat relate to long-snapper James Winchester, a close friend through their work together whose father last month was shot and killed at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City.
The losses were entirely different in many ways, but Santos could offer more of a different sort of empathy than most to Winchester, who has not yet spoken publicly about his own father’s death.
In a meeting among Chiefs pastor Phillip Kelley, Colquitt and Winchester, Kelley furnished a message about what Santos called “the purpose of pain.”
“I think the message that we all got was so that we could serve,” Santos said. “God blessed us to be close to each other so I could comfort James going through that.”
The simple message Santos most wanted to impart to Winchester was “you just want to make your dad proud.”
Santos no doubt earned that from his father long before this NFL career that he never got to witness — at least not in the earthly sense — and the certain thrill-seeking of his own.
“Having that rush,” Santos said, smiling at the parallel to his father’s mind-set. “It doesn’t matter if it’s (from) 20 or 50 (yards). I get this feeling like I want to scream. Dustin makes fun of me screaming and making these faces, but it’s what drives you to keep doing it every day.”
Certainly, his father admired his son’s notion to improbably take up football when he was an exchange student in St. Augustine, Fla., where he took up kicking after trying it informally with Tyler Burnett, son of host parents Kathy and David Burnett.
Next thing you know, Santos is at the high school field pelting the weight room way behind the uprights, and making a 50-yarder that first day, and earning an invite to join the team in a game he so little understood that he learned it through playing Madden on Xbox.
He still laughs at how high on his head he wore his helmet so he could see out, and how his tackling “technique” on the rare occasions it was called for was simply to jump on a runner’s back and try to bring him down.
His parents were curious about how his ambitions suddenly were related to football instead of soccer, but they also enthusiastically supported him when he wanted to stay in Florida another two years to “invest” in a potential scholarship in football.
A year or so after Santos began his scholarship, his father used his wealth from a career in real estate and construction to make another investment of his own: buying a plane akin to what you’d see in the Red Bull Air Races and that Santos characterized as “the Ferrari of airplanes.”
In the Cessna, the son had experienced some of the stunts that felt like “a more powerful roller-coaster” with his father: loops and rolls and the “Cuban 8” and harrowing “Lomcevak,” a version of which he finds on his cell phone as he recalls becoming nauseated on one of those rides.
People would come from all over to watch his father perform, he remembers, and it was glorious to observe him, even from the ground.
“It was like him making the game-winning field goal,” Santos said.
Something Santos figures his father still is alongside for when he kicks now — and when he thinks about how, on the best days, you can see the horizon.
“It’s like,” he said, “he flew to Heaven.”