When the Chicago Bears took the field for Tuesday’s Family Fest practice at Soldier Field, they were greeted by some of the familiarities of home.
A steady breeze blew in off Lake Michigan. The skyline looked majestic on the north side of the stadium. Hordes of cheering Bears fans filled the morning with welcome excitement.
And the grass? Well, the grass was like the grass at Soldier Field usually is. Trampled. Irregular. Chewed.
Veteran kicker Cairo Santos was dismayed, if not a little surprised or nervous.
“Especially because it’s the week of our first (preseason) game,” Santos said Wednesday. “I’ve seen better. It’s just what we have to deal with.”
Defensive end Robert Quinn was tipped off shortly after Santos’ less-than-glowing review on the turf at Soldier Field.
“If you’re just realizing that,” Quinn said with a big smile, “I mean… I think it’s a little late. That’s just part of Soldier Field.”
Santos did not complain or experience any kind of personal revelation. This will be the third straight season of him calling Soldier Field his home stadium. Since he rejoined the Bears in 2020, he has attempted 27 field goals and 31 extra points there, a file of experience to draw on.
And part of the reason the 30-year-old kicker felt so comfortable discussing field conditions is that he believes he got over the mental hurdle of dealing with Soldier Field’s grass/dirt/sand/crater conditions long ago.
Santos was in ideal headspace, he said Tuesday: “It felt like riding a bike.”
That is not to say that adjustments are not needed. For example, before practice ramped up Tuesday, Santos walked the field with rookie punter/starter Trenton Gill and took notes on sections of the field that seemed particularly troublesome. He made sure to point them out.
“Look, if we have a field goal right here, we have to move (the cellar) maybe from the hash,” he told Gill. “Or maybe in the field and within hashish more. Just to get away from this hole.
Sure, Santos realizes it’s ridiculous as an NFL kicker to have to test the turf conditions of his home stadium as much as he tests the wind, especially at this stage of the summer. But he has become a normal part of the routine.
“You have to do that,” he said.
Santos has come to accept that his range at Soldier Field is reduced, simply because of the inconsistent field conditions and how they alter his approach to longer kicks.
“There is a little doubt that you can really attack (with) your foot planted,” Santos said. “So try to be a little more careful.”
Santos spent most of his offseason training in Florida. He was jokingly asked Wednesday if he ever looks for a practice environment that’s a little rougher around the edges to more accurately simulate Soldier Field conditions.
Maybe a park district field chewed up? Or a bumpy road?
“I was going to a grass field at a high school (in Jacksonville), which was perfect,” he said. “It was almost like, ‘OK. I’m putting on also comfortable.'”
So he found a soccer field in his neighborhood with long Bermuda grass and a field that wasn’t quite level.
“I was like, ‘Okay. I like this better,’” Santos said. “The ball flies differently. It’s not super even all the time. (But) The soldier is also not even super.
“It’s good to be uncomfortable and feel comfortable when you’re uncomfortable. That’s, I guess, what I’m trying to say.”
Santos did all of his kicks at Soldier Field on Tuesday, a positive practice session that should solidify his comfort and confidence heading into Saturday’s preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.
In the past two years, Santos has made 89% of his field goal attempts at home and 94% of his extra point attempts.
You may not love the scenery of Soldier Field. But at least he has a much better understanding of the nuances, ball placement and footwork adjustments that are required.
“I’m trusting more and not (finding) a problem on every kick or every game,” Santos said. “But it’s still a bad situation, a bad kicking surface compared to other places. You’re not super happy or excited to kick in there every time. But you just get over it and deal with it.”