Late last year, Tulane place-kicker Cairo Santos approached sports information director Roger Dunaway during practice and asked him if he needed to start sending video of his field goals to NFL teams to help his future draft status.
Santos, a Brazilian native who played high school football in Florida as an exchange student, had no idea how the process worked. He thought the NFL might be similar to the way high school kickers attracted scholarship offers, with the player doing the recruiting rather than the other way around.
He did not know because he had no reason to think about the NFL before.
Solid in his freshman season and below average as a sophomore because of a groin injury, he surprised his coaches, his teammates and even himself with his junior season of perfection. He attempted 21 field goals and made every one of them, including a school-record 57-yarder, a 54-yarder and 10 more from 40 yards or longer.
By December, he beat out fellow finalists Caleb Sturgis and Dustin Hopkins of BCS powerhouses Florida and Florida State for the Lou Groza Award, which goes to the nation’s best kicker.
“I really didn’t think it was going to turn out that way,” he said. “Of course, every time I go on the field, I expect to make the kick. But I certainly didn’t expect to be a Lou Groza contender. I hoped for all-conference or something, but everything took care of itself.”
Santos became the second kicker in Division I/FBS history to attempt at least 20 field goals without missing. His 21-of-21 total bettered the previous record-holder, 1996 Groza Award winner Mark Primanti of North Carolina State, by one.
The only record Santos had taken aim at before was Tulane’s. He looked at the statistics entering his junior year and set a goal to make his first 10 tries, which would vault him to the top of the school’s field-goal percentage list.
“After I did that, I realized, wow, let me see how many I can make in a row,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe it. I realized there was something special going on when I made the 57-yarder (kick No. 13, against Rice). When I made that, I felt like I couldn’t miss.”
Although the Green Wave struggled through a 2-10 season, Santos enjoyed every minute of it. Kickers don’t operate under the same rules as positions players, and no one on the team begrudged him of his joy, even when he became a little obsessed with the Groza Award.
At halftime of Tulane’s season finale at Houston, Santos checked his cell phone for updates on Sturgis and Hopkins, who were kicking against each other as Florida played Florida State.
“Caleb already had three field goals, and then Dustin had a 50-yarder,” Santos said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I need to make a kick.’ I was just praying for a kick. When I got it (a 32-yarder that closed Tulane’s deficit to 20-10 in the third quarter in a game it lost 40-17), all I could visualize was me making it, and it went right down the middle.”
That conversion likely locked up the trophy for him. It’s impossible to beat perfection, and his trip to Florida for the awards circuit turned into a five-day affair.
He went to West Palm Beach, the home base of the Groza Award, for a banquet, then headed to Orlando for the Home Depot College Football Awards show on ESPN.
“He’s a better person than he is a kicker,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “We went to the ESPN Awards after he won the Groza Award, and he was just an ambassador.
“They had Johnny Football or Heisman or whatever they call him (Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel), and all of a sudden, Cairo was the one guy that everybody just fell in love with. Cairo was everybody’s favorite.”
In Orlando, Santos met a who’s who list of legendary college football coaches, but he remembers his time with Manziel the most. They played each other in the first round of an Xbox NCAA Football 13 tournament, with Santos choosing Oregon and Manziel using Ohio State.
It was an epic mismatch.
“He was beating me by 35 points in the first half, and in the second half, he told me just because you’re a kicker, I’m only going to kick field goals,” Santos said.
“I had been telling him I only watched football for the field goals and kickoffs, that I don’t really care about the game. He thought that was funny, so he said he was only going to kick field goals. He still beat me really bad. I’m not very good at that game.”
The trick for Santos is coming down off the high of that awards trip, which he labels “the coolest experience in college football that I’ve ever had,” and focusing on his senior year.
How he handles the pressure of trying to duplicate his perfect season will go a long way in determining his success.
He also has to adjust to a new long snapper, freshman Michael Lizanich, and a new holder, sophomore punter Peter Picerelli.
Lizanich, in particular, has struggled in the preseason after arriving last semester for spring drills.
If the snap and hold are fine, the rest is up to Santos.
“I hope he doesn’t feel a lot of pressure, because pressure is self-imposed,” special teams coach Barry Lamb said. “He’s pretty even-keeled. He’s got high expectations for himself, and who would want it any different?
“If and when he does miss, we’ll deal with it in a positive way and move on.”
There’s more to Santos (5-feet-8, 160 pounds) than the happy-to-be-there aura he projects. He admits he can be very hard on himself.
When he went only 11-for-18 on field goals in 2011, he blamed trying to kick to the ball too hard on long attempts as much as the debilitating groin injury that prevented him from practicing or attempting kickoffs after the third game.
He knows football better than the image he projects, too. He played wide receiver as a senior at tiny St. Joseph’s Academy in Florida, scoring on a 15-yard touchdown reception and throwing cut blocks on linebackers.
The NFL he knew so little about last year can wait. Santos gets another season kicking for the Green Wave, and his goal is to exceed his career field-goal percentage of .818.
“I love being a part of this team and playing this game,” he said. “Anything higher than my average, and I’ll be 100-percent satisfied. Anything below that, and I’ll be disappointed.”