Raiam "Brazil" Santos leaned on a Franklin Field bleacher. He's happy. But excuse him, just on this one point.
"The punter last year graduated. They were set on Kyle Olson, even though I was kicking better than him," he said. "They said, 'No, you're too raw.'"
Penn coach Al Bagnoli shakes his head.
"He's a kicker! What can you say?"
All this is sacrilege on the football field, where the coach's word is gospel and tight-lipped modesty is the goal.
But you get no points for any of that on the North side of Rio de Janeiro, or in a San Diego high school plagued by gang violence and race riots, or on a team where all the other guys were recruited and you weren't.
Not when you're trying to spin your life around on a broken arm and a death in the family.
* * *
"High-AHM," as his mother pronounces it, was born lucky. Many black Brazilians live in favelas, illicit shantytowns plagued by drugs and crime. Santos' grandparents were among them, but his father had a three-bedroom apartment in Rio. It was still dangerous, and it stayed that way until the family moved to the coast when Raiam was 10.
Santos' aunt died five years later, and his two cousins needed to move into an only child's cramped apartment.
"I was really spoiled by my parents. [The cousins] came into my house, and I couldn't share anything. I didn't like what I saw. I was trying to find ways to get out."
He'd been watching MTV and doing well in English class, so he applied for a scholarship to spend a year with a host family in the U.S. He was one of five middle-schoolers to get the nod, and the Brazilian government paid to plop him in an American high school, two grades ahead for his age.
"The O.C. - that was my image of America," he said. "When I found out a family from California picked me, I was even happier. But when I went there, I was in a ghetto in San Diego. It wasn't the United States I actually expected."
The surprises kept coming. A simple misunderstanding helped to change his identity for good.
"Oh, you're Brazilian?"
"You play football?"
"Yeah, I play football."
"Come out to practice today at three."
"I went there," he remembered, "and it was American football! I was like, 'What the hell am I gonna do, I don't know the sport.' I didn't even know what a touchdown was."
One player pointed him to a football, nose up, laces out. He nailed a 45-yard field goal. Nobody knew who he was, and so they took to calling him "Brazil." The name stuck, but he was becoming less and less Brazil by the day.
Santos loved San Diego, and Rio was only getting worse. His father had lost his job and modest salary, half of which had been used to send his son to private school.
"I said 'I'm not going back there. I don't want to go to public school in Brazil, I don't want to work.'"
He was kicking well enough to get whiffs of a Division I scholarship, and while his English wasn't perfect, there wasn't much competition at the top of his class, although there was strife elsewhere.
"He started asking me these questions, like, 'How do American parents treat their children?'," said Grant McArn, who took him to church every week. "[His host parents] were using him as some kind of indentured servant or something.
"He'd come home with a great grade on a quiz. They'd grab it from him and tear it up: 'You don't know what you're doing!' That's tough for a 15-year-old."
Santos was caught between two tough options, but McArn tossed him a lifeline: He could stay.
"I call [the McArns] Dad and Mom to this day," he said, letting his words linger. "Pretty much I'm here because they just gave me everything. Made sure I was OK. Made sure I made it to where I am."
Santos left San Diego as a valedictorian, but he wouldn't get his football scholarship. A month into his senior season, he was fooling around at running back for the scout team. With the crack of a bone in his 17-year-old arm, he became damaged goods.
Dozens of schools had shown interest, but only two historically black colleges stayed on the chase, "mostly because there aren't that many black kickers around." Santos didn't like either of them. Eight months before, he was being courted by Stanford and Oregon - now he was confined to the only conference that would give aid to international students: the Ivy League.
The admission rate to Penn's Huntsman program for international studies and business is six percent. The chance of an international student getting full-tuition financial aid is three percent. Raiam landed both. "When I saw that," he said, "I was like, 'Wow, I'm the man!'"
He got in. Now he's waiting to kick. Kickers are supposed to wait, but he's doing a lot of waiting. Ambitious, relentlesswaiting.
He plays for the regular and sprint football teams, having dropped 15 pounds on a diet of one protein bar a day to make the latter's 172-pound weight limit. Some practice afternoons run from 3 to 9; he plays with the lightweights on Friday, the big boys on Saturday, the JV on Monday.
No Huntsman student has ever played on one varsity team, never mind two, and this one doesn't mind telling you about it.
It is the Raiam Santos way, the path that took him from a cramped Brazilian flat to an Ivy scholarship in three years. Dream big, do big. Why not talk big?
* * *
He was talking about his career goal - a job at NFL International - when he suddenly cut himself off. He needed to get this off his chest. Not for the first time.
"I was really disappointed, actually, when coach Bagnoli decided on Kyle instead of me. It was one of the worst things that's happened to me in the last couple of years.
"They brought me back here for preseason camp . and I did really well. But since Kyle was also a quarterback, and they run a lot of fakes."
He paused to offer some hybrid of a grimace and a smile.
"I respect their decision."Comments powered by Disqus
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