KANSAS CITY, Mo. — David Burnett had just landed in Atlanta on a business trip when his phone buzzed with a voice mail. On the recording, breaking with emotion, was the voice of Cairo Santos.
"He said he needed to talk to me," Burnett recalled, "and it was very unusual. Normally kids don’t leave a message. They hang up and text. So I called him, and he said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this,’ and I’m thinking something bad has happened. And then he told me."
While flying a stunt plane back home in Brazil, Santos’s father had been killed in a crash.
Now, nearly one year later, Santos is poised to fulfill a dream that he had shared with his father. The undrafted rookie out of Tulane will be the starting kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs when they open the season Sunday against Tennessee.
"I’m sure not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about his dad, and the sacrifices his parents made so that he could come to the United States," said Burnett, whose family took Santos in as an exchange student and gradually became like a second family. "I’m sure of it."
Santos’s story is not merely one of success in the face of tragedy, though. That would be far too simple. It is one of overcoming odds, breaking barriers, and doing it all with an effervescent personality that instantly endears the pint-sized kicker to just about anyone he meets.
"He’s such a people person," Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. "He just loves people."
So had his father, a successful airline pilot who became equally successful in business. He had wanted his son to study abroad, to improve his English and experience another culture, even if it meant sending him to a high school thousands of miles away from their home.
When the exchange program that Santos had signed up for came up short on host families, David and Kathy Burnett took him in at the last minute. They thought it would be good for their own son, Tyler, who was about the same age, and the two of them became like brothers.
Santos wanted to play soccer, the sport he had played in Brazil. But Tyler turned him onto the American version of football, and he was intrigued by the challenge of kicking field goals.
"I went out and bought a Madden game for Xbox and that’s how I learned the rules," Santos said with a smile. "Seeing all those kickers, I thought that was awesome."
The Burnetts saw the raw talent from the start, driving from their home in St. Augustine, Florida, to Daytona so that Santos could get specialized instruction. Later, they helped send him all over the country so that he could hone is craft at kicking camps for elite prospects.
Still, Santos only caught the attention of a few lower-level colleges. It was Tulane that came swooping in at the last minute, offering him a scholarship to kick in the Superdome.
He earned the starting job as a freshman and never gave it up.
"You know, he was probably the best leader we had on the team, and that’s hard coming from a kicker," Johnson said. "He’s just so even keeled. Always says the right things."
Santos didn’t just succeed, he excelled. He made all 21 field goals his junior season, winning the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker. He made the first four the following year, too, as he ran his streak of consecutive made field goals to 25.
It was about that time that Santos received a fateful phone call. And made one to Burnett.
"Every game, everything I do, I do it for my dad, for my family," Santos told The Associated Press. "I know how big of a fan he was of me and what I was doing here, and we had plans. One day, we were going to move here and he was going to keep following me from close, not on the TV. So it hurts that I can’t share my proudest and happiest moment with him."
Santos was a longshot to beat out incumbent Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop, but he showed off a strong leg and impressive accuracy. And when he learned Saturday he had made the team, Santos made a much happier phone call to Burnett, one that prompted tears of joy rather than tears of sorrow.
"I mean, they’re another family. I see them as a dad, a mother, and they treat me that way," Santos said. "I’m blessed to have multiple families around the world to support me."
While other Brazilian-born players have had tryouts and played on practice squads over the years, Santos is believed to be the first to make an active NFL roster.
"Everyone is freaking out in Brazil," he said, "especially my family."
Santos’s mother, Magalie, and sister, Talita, are planning to attend the Chiefs’ game in Miami on Sept. 21. But the Burnetts will be in Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, sharing the moment as Santos makes his professional debut against the Titans.
"It’s just been crazy," David Burnett said. "I attribute his success to being brave enough to come over here. He’s always handled pressure really, really well. He landed in the U.S., he handled that. He overcame an incredible tragedy. It says a lot about him."