SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Cairo Santos followed his typical routine on his first field-goal attempt. He lined up, took a breath to calm his nerves and kicked it through the middle of the uprights like he had 25 consecutive times before.
Holder Peter Picerelli tapped him on the helmet after the 21-yard kick was good. Santos jumped on a teammate and pointed up to the sky with his right index finger. It’s a gesture he’s always made after successful kicks, a believer in God like his parents.
But against Syracuse on Saturday, he was especially thinking of his father. He learned of his tragic death just six days earlier. Cairo Santos Sr. died in a stunt plane crash on Sunday.
“It’s been tough, but luckily my parents raised me really strong,” Santos said. “I love playing this game and I know exactly what my dad would have liked me to do — to just keep playing for him and for my family and for my teammates.”
Santos was watching football when he got the call from his mother about his father’s plane crash.
The Tulane coaching staff was understanding and supportive of Santos when he flew home to be with his mom and sister in Brazil from Tuesday to Thursday.
Though Curtis Johnson made arrangements for Santos to fly from Brazil to New York for Saturday’s game, he told Santos there was no pressure to play. The two talked every day during the week.
“It wasn’t a coaching thing and it wasn’t about football at that point,” Johnson said. “If Cairo wasn’t here, we would’ve been fine also, because I think his family is the most important thing.”
Santos said he never intended to miss Saturday’s game. He’s lived away from his family in Brazil for six years, and he said the Tulane team has been a family away from his family.
The time he’s spent away from home in recent years made the loss of his father especially difficult. Santos recounted the good memories with his father. A stunt pilot, Cairo Santos Sr. went with his son to get the plane he’s always talked about wanting. Santos was the first person to fly with him in it.
“It was the achievement of his life,” Santos said. “He’s always wanted to get that plane. When he got it, I was there with him. I was there with him for his proudest moment.”
In a 52-17 loss for the Green Wave, Johnson said Santos’ presence was uplifting for Tulane. The 2012 Lou Groza Award winner and arguably the best kicker in college football successfully booted 50-yard attempts in warmups.
“I think he wanted to be around us,” Johnson said. “We’re a family with Cairo, and we all love him.”
He extended his streak of consecutive kicks to 26 with his 21-yard field goal in the first quarter, but his field-goal attempt was blocked in the second quarter, ending the streak. It was a bitter way to end the second-longest streak of field goals in FBS history, a disappointment that was magnified for Santos because of his personal loss.
But there will be more kicks and more pointing to the sky, a ritual Santos learned from his father and now one he will dedicate in part to him.
“I’ve just got to stay strong,” Santos said. “I’ve always thought about the next kick. The season still goes on, and I need to keep making it.”
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