No fear here as Cairo Santos preps for NFL Combine

Advocate file photo by Susan Poag -- Tulane kicker Cairo Santos won the Lou Groza Award last season and is on the watch list to repeat this year..
Advocate file photo by Susan Poag -- Tulane kicker Cairo Santos won the Lou Groza Award last season and is on the watch list to repeat this year..

INDIANAPOLIS — Sitting in a lounge at Lucas Oil Stadium during the second day of the NFL combine, Tulane kicker Cairo Santos acknowledged his odds aren’t favorable.

He realizes on average only two kickers have been chosen annually ever since the league draft switched to its seven-round format in 1994.

But as someone who believes difficult experiences exist to get people ready to overcome the next challenge they encounter, Santos on Thursday said he’s certain his arduous senior year has prepared him to emerge as one of the select few kickers that manages to convince the NFL he’s worth a draft pick.

The most heart-wrenching situation Santos dealt with has been thoroughly written about by now. Santos’ father — the man who less than a year ago urged him not to fear greatness — was killed in a stunt-plane crash in their native Brazil in September.

Santos’ story so far has not been one where the protagonist immediately overcame a tragedy to win the big game for his team. Sure, some time after his dad died, he booted the first two game-winning kicks of his career in back-to-back weeks and helped Tulane reach its first bowl since 2002.

But then, at the New Orleans Bowl in December, Santos lined up for a 48-yard field goal seconds from the final gun with Tulane down 24-21. He knocked the ball wide left, and the Green Wave lost.

“I never experienced something like that — a missed kick in a pressure situation like that,” said Santos, who earned recognition as the best player in college football at his position in 2012 after nailing all 21 field goals he tried but was then 16 of 23 in 2013.

All of his misses as a senior followed the death of his father.

When their father died, Santos and his sister, Talita, took over their dad’s construction company. His mother runs a restaurant, and he knows he could either assist her in running the place or help her open one in the United States, he said.

But Santos vividly remembers attending a Brazil-England soccer friendly in Rio de Janeiro last summer with his dad, whose first name was also Cairo.

“Don’t,” the elder Santos told his son, “be afraid to be great.”

So Santos won’t. He’ll fight to make the NFL — drafted or not — or go out trying.

With the support of his teammates at Tulane and friends in New Orleans, he took a substantial first step toward that at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, an all-star game, on Jan. 18. He nailed a 39-yard field goal and four PATs. Four of his six kickoffs went for touchbacks. His team won 31-17.

Santos arrived at the combine ranked third out of 15 kickers rated by the website NFL Draft Scout, leading the nation in touchback percentage.

Yet there’s no denying the road before him is an uphill one, according to some of the league’s top personalities.

Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay’s head coach, said, “It’s hard (for kickers to be drafted), if you just kind of look at history a little bit.

“That’s not putting any less importance on the kicker position. We’re playing both our punters and our kickers quite a bit, because of the importance we put on that position. But ... you can normally get someone a little later on, into free agency and things like that.”

Nonetheless, kicker is perhaps the position that affords players the greatest opportunity to improve their pre-draft stock, especially at the combine, said Bill Polian, an NFL analyst for ESPN who for a longtime was the Indianapolis Colts general manager and team president.

“The combine drills ... (test) leg strength, ... the ability to kick off in an NFL building under ideal conditions,” Polian said. “Now, a kicker’s body of work as a college player is going to be important, but what he does here is important. The guys that show well here generally make it in the league.”

Being aware that he has work with his family waiting for him calms Santos, who played prep football in St. Augustine, Fla., as a foreign exchange student. But seeing his friend and workout companion Caleb Sturgis — who is from St. Augustine — become one of two kickers in 2013 to be drafted when the Miami Dolphins picked him motivates Santos to hold off on those back-up plans.

Santos insists he’d prefer to be too busy this summer to go home to Brazil, which is hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the tournament that will determine which nation is the best at soccer, the sport he first played.

“I’d love to be in a (NFL training) camp and following the World Cup here,” said Santos, who had talked to the New Orleans Saints, the Arizona Cardinals and the Atlanta Falcons in advance of the combine and was set to meet the special teams coordinators of all 32 clubs in the league Thursday night.

“It’d be a good excuse to not go.”