LAKE FOREST – Cairo Santos’ football career was on the brink.
“How many more opportunities am I going to keep getting? I have to make this one,” he told himself.
It was Week 3 in Atlanta last season. A promising opening drive by the Bears stalled at the Falcons’ 28-yard-line and Santos was called on to make a 46-yard field goal. He missed it left.
It was right there, on that sideline, in the middle of the game, that Santos turned his career around.
“There was a little flashback that popped in my head of the previous teams I was on trying to come back from that (groin) injury and I always felt that pressure. I put that pressure on myself that this has to be the opportunity that I bounce back,” Santos said Friday at Halas Hall. “I thought about this with the Bucs, with the Titans, so there we go again, I missed a kick in Atlanta.”
After a promising three-year stint in Kansas City to start his career, Santos suffered a groin injury in 2017 that derailed his career. Each of his comeback attempts ended poorly, either due to injury or performance. In 2019, he infamously missed four field goals against the Bills and was released by the Titans the next day.
Santos’ latest comeback effort – his second with the Bears -- looked like it might end in similar fashion. He had missed a field goal against the Giants the week before and was already 0-for-1 against the Falcons. He was only brought to Chicago in training camp because Eddy Pineiro had suffered an injury and, at that point, turning back to Pineiro seemed logical. But then something changed.
“I just kind of accepted it as, if it's meant to be, I'm gonna keep grinding so if I get another chance here in this game, I'm gonna attack that kick to make it,” Santos said. “If I'm done, I've gotta move on, because I keep trying (to be) and not being the guy I was in Kansas City. I felt like I started playing a little looser and put everything in God's hands and went one kick at a time and here we are.”
Yes, here we are. Santos hasn’t missed a field goal since. His only miss the rest of the 2020 season was a blocked extra point on a major protection breakdown that wasn’t his fault. His streak of 27 straight made field goals is a Bears record. And he intends on adding to it.
In the offseason, the Bears even rewarded Santos with a 3-year, $9 million contract extension.
“It was a life-changing year with everything that happened,” Santos said Friday.
That life-changing year included the birth of his first child, a baby boy, on Nov. 3 of last year, right as the streak was catching on.
“I think it was a little bit of a blessing at that time for him to come during a hard time, during COVID, during that year when the league was shut down, not getting workouts. I was already in that mode of maybe I’m transitioning to being a dad and a second career,” Santos said. “Then I got a shot here and it was another opportunity to kind of make it home.”
The turnaround is remarkable. And it all started with Santos’ next kick against the Falcons, a 35-yard field goal on the Bears’ next possession. Most Bears fans remember that game for what happened at the quarterback position – the benching of Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles’ three fourth quarter touchdowns that erased a 16-point deficit. But as the unlikely comeback played out, Santos quietly made all of his extra points and started to get into a groove that would last the rest of the season.
“I hit (those) down the middle perfect. That’s where the streak started going. It was just like, I want an opportunity and if it’s to end right now, I accept it and I’ll be happy moving forward, moving from football,” Santos said. “Or if it’s to restart a career, that’s exactly what I want.”
Consider the career restarted. And for Santos, he’ll always look back on that Sunday in Atlanta as the turning point.
“It's just humbling to go through that again in the middle of a game and to just accept (that) it's outside of my hands,” Santos said. “Let me just go with it, one kick at a time.”