As a young kid growing up in Brazil, Bears kicker Cairo Santos dreamed of playing professional soccer and representing his home country in the World Cup. While he was only three years old when Brazil won its fourth World Cup in 1994, he remembers bits and pieces of the next tournament as his team fell in the 1998 final to France.
But Santos reached the peak of his soccer interest as an 11-year-old in 2002 when Brazil captured a historic fifth World Cup title. He remembers watching the match in his childhood home with his parents and sister, then once the team won, everyone gathered in the streets, screaming in celebration as people lit off fireworks in their backyards.
"In Brazil, soccer is a religion, and the World Cup is like the biggest moment that you can cheer on your country," Santos said. "Everyone stops working a couple hours before Brazil plays, so they can go home and start the barbecue and then we get together with the family or friends. It's just always a big get-together to watch Brazil play. So just an iconic moment in Brazilian culture to watch soccer and at the biggest stage like the World Cup."
In the weeks following the 2002 victory, Santos began calculating how old he would be once the next few World Cups started. He looked up to those athletes and admired the way they represented Brazil. He spent months at the soccer field in his backyard replicating Ronaldo Nazário's goals from the final game.
Now as a 31-year-old NFL kicker, Santos will be watching Brazil play from Vernon Hills, Ill. When Brazil's first World Cup match against Serbia begins at 1 p.m. CT Thursday, he'll be practicing at Halas Hall. But he hopes to catch the second half at home with his mom, wife and two kids.
"When practice is over, it's gonna be about halftime of the game so I'm gonna rush home," Santos said. "My family will already be cooking the Brazilian dishes. I'll get with family and I'm probably going to call friends and family from Brazil too, FaceTime them and talk about the game, celebrating together. So yeah, just super excited it's in football season that we can kind of watch NFL and the World Cup."
While watching soccer in the United States doesn't compare to back home, where the sport and tournament is "worshipped," Santos is starting to see a greater interest in the sport.
He's even starting to see a different side of his teammates as many have asked him questions about different teams, how the tournament works and even who he thinks the favorites are. With the other specialists, punter Trenton Gill and long-snapper Patrick Scales, there's been plenty of conversations about the World Cup.
"Trent, he's got a Canadian-England background, so he's super into it," Santos said. "Scales is funny because he knows nothing about soccer. So it's just explaining how the tournament works, what are the groups and how many games they play and stuff like that. So it's always fun explaining to him, because we're talking about it and then he's just like, 'Man, that's super cool, like the format is amazing, just how much each game means, that's why to celebrate so intensely.'"
Santos said a lot of the offensive linemen, especially rookie center Doug Kramer, have expressed their growing soccer fandom. Over the last few days as matches begun, Santos has noticed a lot of his teammates watching games during breakfast or in between meetings at the Bears' facility.
Santos is confident in Brazil's chances of bringing home a sixth World Cup crown, but it's not just his hometown bias. Heading into the tournament, Brazil is the No. 1-ranked team in the world, according to FIFA. Santos hopes Brazil's talented players like veteran forward Neymar can finally notch a World Cup title.
"I think it's a very strong shot to win," Santos said. "But we've always had good teams and that pressure amounts every World Cup, because there's a generation of great players and you want to capitalize and win and crown those players with the World Cup, but it's just such a hard thing to do. You just have to be on for seven games. I'm just so excited to see it."
As the first Brazilian NFL player, Santos feels a responsibility to spread information and create more interest in football to kids back home and help them reach a goal of playing professionally.
While Santos moved to St. Augustine, Fla., as a sophomore in high school to pursue a professional soccer career, he was immediately introduced to football at St. Joseph Academy as the school's team asked him to be the kicker. While Santos still played soccer competitively, he fell in love with football.
"I was a Brazilian kid that just took that dream to go to America to become a professional soccer player," Santos said, "So I had no other tools with American football to succeed, really other than just knowing how to kick a ball. So there are kids that dream about that and from the messages I receive, I hope I can inspire and have that same inspiration that those legendary soccer players did when I was a 10-year-old kid in Brazil, just learning about soccer."