Cairo Santos surprised Tulane coach Curtis Johnson by showing up to watch practice Tuesday during the Kansas City Chiefs’ off week. If he can help the struggling kickers figure out what has been going wrong, it might turn into the most beneficial visit of the year.
Santos, who won the Lou Groza Award as college football’s best kicker in 2012, did more than just observe the proceedings in his first time at Yulman Stadium. He coached the kickers while they worked on their own practice field outside of the tunnel.
It was not an impromptu decision. He came with the specific intent to help out freshman Andrew DiRocco, who has connected on only one of five field goals and missed an extra point in Tulane’s past two games, along with walk-on sophomore Steven Broccoli, who is trying to replace him.
“What I wanted to come here and share with them is that the same struggles that they are having here, I went through the first two weeks,” Santos said. “If you miss one kick, people start calling for your head and want some changes. But you have to just keep all that clutter out, and you got to focus on what you do and take each kick one at a time and trust what you do at practice. And that’s kind of how I battle through it.”
Before he connected on every field goal as a junior at Tulane, Santos went 11-for-18 in 2011. After supplanting Ryan Succop as Kansas City’s kicker this preseason, he missed a field goal in each of the Chiefs’ first two games.
He rarely has been perfect, so his advice came from his own experience.
“You have to just focus on yourself,” he said. “I know that the media make a big deal of the mistakes, and teammates may not be so happy; we all go through it. But as kickers, we just have to be mentally tough and just trust and put in practice and carry that into the game.”
Santos gave more than just a pep talk. He explained the importance of establishing a routine, starting with picking a spot, looking at the upright and choosing a target before every kick in practice, then translating that approach to games.
With the Chiefs getting the week off until they practice next Monday, Santos plans to work with the kickers through Wednesday. He will leave for Chicago with his girlfriend, who still is a Tulane student, on Thursday when Tulane’s fall break starts.
“We could use a lot of Cairo,” Johnson said. “Look, whatever Cairo does, I would do if I were them.”
Santos needed to take his own advice in his first two regular-season games with the Chiefs. After making all three of his field goals in the preseason and beating out Succop, he missed a 48-yarder against Tennessee in Week 1 and a 37-yarder against Denver in Week 2.
The pressure ratcheted up because Succop, who landed at Tennessee, made all of his kicks in the first few weeks.
“I found myself falling out of my routine and rushing things too much,” Santos said. “We watched a lot of film, and I was looking up at the kick too fast, things I wasn’t doing in training camp and preseason. I tried to calm down a little more, and the last three weeks, I’ve hit the ball better.”
He still finds himself in awe of his surroundings at times. As the first Brazilian kicker in NFL regular-season history, he admits life in the pros has required some adjustment.
“You’re sitting at lunch and there’s (Chiefs running back) Jamaal Charles,” he said. “I’ve had him on my fantasy team for years. It’s still new, but you have to act professional. You have to go out there with confidence and like you belong and like you’ve been there for years and show you know you deserve this job.”
If he needed a confidence boost, nothing should help more than walking into Yulman Stadium for the first time. When he looked up in the corner of one end zone, he saw his name written on the wall along with fellow Tulane Groza Award winner Seth Marler.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “You always want to make it up there at the end of your career. Even though I haven’t been a part of this stadium, seeing my name up there gave me a lot of excitement.”
For Santos, the most difficult part of the NFL has been the loneliness off the field. Most of his teammates are older and married. His mother and sister still live in Brazil, although they helped him move into his apartment in Kansas City.
And of course, there is the lingering sadness of his dad’s absence. His father, a pilot, died in a stunt plane accident in September 2013.
“When I made the team (Kansas City), I wanted to tell him so much,” Santos said. “My family talked about the emptiness. This is something we always dream of, but I’m living the way I was raised. The way I carry myself reminds me of the way he was.”
That includes returning to Tulane to help out DiRocco in his spare time. It pales in comparison to the loss of a father, but nothing saps team morale more than a kicker who can’t kick straight.
“It’s got to be great for Andrew,” quarterback Nick Montana said. “He’s got to soak it up like a sponge. Hopefully Cairo will work some magic.”