As a foreign exchange student from Brazil, kicker Cairo Santos needed a quick primer on the rules of American football.
So before trying out for his high school team in St. Augustine, Fla., he bought a Madden Football video game for his Xbox.
“Seeing all those kickers,” Santos reflected a day after he won the Chiefs’ place kicking job, “I said, ‘That’s awesome. I want to one day get there.’
“I remember guys like (Cincinnati’s) Mike Nugent and (Green Bay’s) Mason Crosby used to play on that game. I played against them in the preseason, so that was cool. … I wanted to be as good as those guys. It’s pretty much what you work for … you want to achieve that dream.”
Santos, a rookie free agent from Tulane, is living the dream, at least for now. In a strange turn of events, he will oppose former Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop, who signed with Tennessee this week, and will be on the opposite side of the field at Arrowhead Stadium in Sunday’s regular-season opener against the Titans.
Santos beat out Succop “by a hair,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid, and the club will go with a rookie kicker for the first time since they took Succop with the 256th and final pick of the 2009 draft.
Sometimes a rookie kicker works out. Succop made 119 of 147 field goals for a franchise-record 81 percent success rate, though his 41-yard miss at the end of last year’s regular-season finale at San Diego was hard for the Chiefs’ brass to forget.
And don’t forget another rookie who had never played American football until he arrived at Montana State on a skiing scholarship. Jan Stenerud joined the Chiefs as a rookie in 1967 and is the only pure kicker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Chiefs, too, have experienced failures with rookie kickers, too. Remember Justin Medlock, a fifth-round pick who was released after the 2007 season opener?
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has gone with rookie kickers in the past. In the fourth round of the 2011 draft when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles, Reid took Alex Henery, who was the club’s kicker for three years before he was released last week.
“Succop has been a phenomenal player here …” said Reid, whose team will save about $1.6 million by keeping the rookie, “but he (Santos) beat him by a hair. It could have gone either way.
“Santos didn’t flinch during the competition, so you have to give the kid credit for that. Now, he’s got to take care of business in the real games here, and we have confidence he’ll do that.”
Santos, a diminutive 5-foot-8, 160-pounder, never lacked for confidence in his battle for the position. Santos matched — and sometimes outdueled — Succop in head-to-head field goal showdowns in training camp. Both made all three of their field-goal tries in preseason, and when Succop matched his career best with a 54-yarder at Carolina, Santos responded with a 44-yarder that may have been good from 60.
“There was never a moment I felt, ‘OK, I have to win this job,” Santos said. “Until that phone call on Saturday, I didn’t really think that it was really my job. We just kind of always looked at the next game and next week. Next practice you just want to make all your kicks.
“I knew the coaches would make the right decision for whatever they think is best for the team. I’m just glad to be a part of it.”
Santos won the 2012 Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best college kicker when he made all 21 of his field-goal attempts, including 12 from 40-yards plus and two from 50-yards plus. Santos led the nation in touchback percentage, too, with 31 of his 55 kickoffs downed for touchbacks and only two failing to reach the end zone.
But he felt more sure of himself as a professional than at Tulane.
“Going to my first NFL first preseason game, I felt that I was less nervous than I was when I played in college,” said Santos, who on Sunday will be the first Brazilian-born player to ever appear in an NFL game. “I felt like it’s because I’ve done it so many times and I’m working with professional guys, a great holder, a great snapper and great coaching staff.
“And it just gives you that confidence that you belong here. It’s just all about your kicks, and every rep I just think about how Dustin (Colquitt) is going to put the ball down, and I have to kick the ball like I normally do. So there’s no added pressure that I think about.”
Colquitt, the Chiefs’ Pro Bowl punter, found himself caught in the middle of the Santos-Succop battle. Colquitt is close personal friends with Succop and had to separate personal feelings from team objectives during the preseason.
“You had a situation where you had two great kickers at camp,” Colquitt said. “Every team dreams of that situation. It was a great battle. (Santos) is impressive. The biggest thing I was worried about was trying to find a jersey and helmet that can fit him.”
Santos said Succop was as much a mentor as he was competitor for the job.
“Well, not only is he a great dude and I felt like I became close friends with him,” Santos said. “Having that great friendship here, it kind of made the process easier. I didn’t think about, ‘Are these guys going to like me or not?’
“He taught me routines for game day, how to read the wind here in Arrowhead and other places we play. He let me know the way I was kicking in minicamp, training camp and preseason, was the way veterans kick.’ To learn that and hear that from a guy like him meant a lot. It was never unhealthy competition or relationship.”