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Monday, September 27, 2021

Best foot forward: UF kicker Eddy Pineiro using football to give his family a comfortable life

<p>Eddy Pineiro kicks off during UF's 30-3 win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2, 2017, at Raymond James Stadium.</p>

Eddy Pineiro kicks off during UF's 30-3 win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2, 2017, at Raymond James Stadium.

Eddy Pineiro and his parents throw money out the window.

Flinging spare change at the mobs of needy children banging on their Ford pickup is the only way to get the kids out of the street in his mother’s hometown of Manana, Nicaragua. But it’s not as bad as when she grew up there in a country mired by crime, corruption, war and revolt. Disease, disaster and violence — lots of violence — plagued a nation in the midst of an uprising. But she made it out as a 12-year-old on a plane to New York.

Eddy’s father didn’t have it any easier. His family paid smugglers $60,000 to escape Cuba under the reign of dictator Fidel Castro. They waited 21 days on a boat packed with about 50 people for a chance to walk on U.S. soil.

After 20 years of struggle and sacrifice, their son has been given an opportunity to make it all worthwhile, an opportunity to let his family live comfortably for the first time since leaving chaos. Eddy will kick off in Arlington, Texas, Saturday in what’s billed as a high-stakes game against Michigan, but when your family has gone through what the Pineiros have, kicking in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium isn’t something to fear. It’s an opportunity to embrace.

Eddy’s goals are worth more than three points. They’re worth a shot at stability.

“My parents still to this day aren’t financially well,” Eddy said. “But hopefully, that’s where I come in and change that. That’s my goal.”

• • •

 

Eddy’s mother, Grace, was 5 when Nicaragua declared martial law — releasing total control of the government to the military. Villages burned. Politicians were ransomed. Uneasiness perforated through the Central American country amid a civil war between an oppressive government and radicalized rebels.

As a child, you can’t grasp the danger around you. She’d still be outside playing with her friends while civilians were being shot. Her mom found a way out and took it. They would be facing a life of uncertainty in America, but it wasn’t a hard decision. Armed-conflict experts estimate more than 20 percent of Nicaraguans were homeless in 1979.

After leaving the country in the early 1980s, Grace has grown up in the U.S. with the privilege of not having to look over her shoulder.

But part of her is still back in Nicaragua.

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“I have cousins and aunts and uncles stuck over there,” Eddy said. “It’s horrible over there.”

Once a month, Eddy and his parents send money, clothes and sometimes food to relatives.

“We try to take it over there to help them out,” he said. “But it’s not enough to help out the whole country.”

Eddy’s family cautiously visits the country when they can. On a trip as a kid, his parents hired a bodyguard — it wasn’t too expensive, not much was at the time. Eddy made a friend who invited him to visit his house. Eddy wasn’t allowed to go. His father didn’t know the boy and wasn’t about to risk losing his son for a playdate.

“There’s a lot of kidnapping of Americans over there,” Eddy said. “They’re known for that stuff.”

His father, Eddy Sr., knows people who have been cornered by criminals while driving.

“They stop them. A car would get in front of them. They’d get robbed. I’ve heard a lot of other stories,” Eddy Sr. said. “Thank God it’s never happened to us.”

• • •

Until he came to America, Eddy Sr. had never seen an apple.

“I had never drank a Coke in my life. I had never eaten a hamburger in my life,” he said. “In Cuba when I was there, it didn’t exist. And even if it existed, we couldn’t afford it.”

Even a sunny Christmas in Havana wasn’t enough to lighten the mood.

Children would take a number and get in line. They’d pray that there were still some presents left by the time they got to the front, and pray their parents could afford what was left: a wooden gun, a wooden tank, a wooden helmet. Those were some of the options in a Cuba gripped by military dictatorship under Castro. Even if there was a bicycle available, only a few would be able to afford it, and those presents usually went to the children of captains and sergeants who ran the island.

There wasn’t much time to be children. The government forced teens into the military. If you went to school, you were told what to learn.

“If for some reason they needed farmers that year, that’s what you were gonna study. If they needed doctors, then you were lucky; you’d become a doctor,” Eddy Sr. said.

Then things got worse.

Tensions rose as the Cuban economy dropped. It was time to go.

Eddy Sr.’s father found someone to take his family off the island.

“(There was) a boat that would leave from Key West. If it was $60,000, (you) would pay $15,000 ahead and then when you get the family here, you pay the rest,” Eddy Sr. said.

As an 8-year-old, Eddy Sr. and his family spent weeks in the Mariel Harbor before landing and starting a new life in southwest Miami. His father worked construction while his mother sewed shirts and pants in a factory.

While he was still young, Eddy Sr. started playing soccer in his free time. By the time he was college-aged, he had scholarships from top programs like South Carolina and UNC. But his parents didn’t leave Cuba to see their son disappear. So he stayed in Miami, where he met his wife, Grace, at church. The two quickly began dating and married about a year later. They still didn’t have money. Eddy Sr. would work a piledriver in the morning and play in adult soccer leagues at night where he’d be paid $150 for one game, $200 in another. He even spent two years with a professional team, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

“I was pretty decent,” he said.

They had their first child a few years later, and Eddy a few years after that.

• • •

 

Eddy’s father had him hooked on soccer by the time he was 8. By the time he hit high school, he was the one of the top scorers in the state. Eddy’s friend Oscar Diaz can remember how much time Eddy spent on the field.

“The way Eddy was raised, was every day practice, there’s no such thing as a little day off,” Oscar said. “He would sacrifice going out, spending time with friends, girlfriends just to go practice soccer ... That’s how he was built.”

Eddy began to dabble with football his senior year of high school. Without knowing much about the sport, he gave it a shot because his team needed a kicker.

“The first time he kicked off, he put it through the uprights,” Eddy Sr. remembers.

Eddy ran off the field and asked his coach, “How come they didn’t give us the three points?”

Eddy went on to get a soccer scholarship at Florida Atlantic, just a 35-minute drive from home.

“It was a perfect fit for us,” Eddy Sr. said.

Then the opportunity vanished. Eddy was ruled academically ineligible to play by the NCAA, and was forced to go the junior college route if he wanted to be eligible to play at FAU.

Eddy went to ASA College in Miami. And by chance, it was the first junior college in Florida to field a football team.

Someone told Eddy he had a shot to be the kicker, so Eddy reached out to the coach.

Eddy told him he could hit a 40-yard field goal. He was skeptical.

Eddy, still unfamiliar with football, teed the ball on the 40-yard line (what would be a 50-yard field goal) and turned around to face the opposite goal post — the one 70 yards away.

He nailed it.

ASA’s football coach called Eddy Sr. and told him: If this was my son, I’d never let him touch a soccer ball again.

• • •

 

Eddy realized he had something special. He started posting YouTube videos of 70-yard-plus field goals, and Division I schools came rolling in for a chance to sign him.

During a recruiting trip to Alabama, he was called into an indoor facility with three other top kickers.

They gave each player five kicks. And then a man working for the Crimson Tide told them try from farther.

“He backed me up to like 65, the other kickers didn’t reach, and I made mine,” Eddy said. The man offered Eddy a scholarship on the spot. Eddy had no idea it was Nick Saban.

“I was telling my dad, ‘Who’s this old guy that’s kneeling down watching me kick?’”

Eddy Sr., a lifelong Miami Dolphins fan, told him he was kicking in front of one of the world’s top football coaches, and Eddy agreed that it sounded like a big deal.

Eddy was committed to Alabama for nine months. Saban even invited him to his house.

“He had a big lake and a big forest in his backyard,” Eddy said. “He had all these ATVs and he was like, ‘Oh pick whichever one you want. Go drive it, just be careful.’ So I got on with three other five-star recruits. I was like ‘I’m gonna start drifting.’”

“We almost flipped and crashed, it was fun.”

Around 10 p.m. on Dec. 5, 2015, the Gators lost the SEC Championship Game to Alabama.

At 9 a.m. the next day, UF coach Jim McElwain was eating Cuban food at Eddy’s house in Miami.

Eddy Sr. remembers McElwain telling the family that he needs a kicker. He told Eddy he was the best in the country and that he could go to Alabama if he really wants, but Florida will do whatever it takes to sign him.

Eddy’s family liked that Gainesville was a closer drive. They also liked that McElwain did everything he could to make himself available.

Eddy called McElwain to let him know he’d changed his mind: He wanted to be a Gator.

“To this day, I still haven’t seen him that happy — maybe when we beat LSU,” Eddy said.

“He was hyped, I’ve never heard him scream like that. I could tell a lot of pressure was off his shoulders when he found out I was gonna come play here.”

• • •

 

Saturday, Eddy will kick off his second season as a Gator. And Eddy is dreaming for a close game. A game where McElwain sends him out to the 50-yard line in the final seconds with a chance to show NFL scouts just how valuable he is.

“I get goosebumps thinking about that,” Eddy said. “I know that (my dad) would be crying on the sideline.”

“I dream about it. Like, you guys don’t see that but I go home and I dream about dreams of hitting the game-winning field goal,” Eddy said.

He wouldn’t be here if his parents hadn’t done everything to give him an opportunity. Now, as a college football star, he can give his mother and father a chance most people never get.

A chance to prove that the American dream is more than just fantasy.

You can follow Matt Brannon on Twitter @MattB_727, and contact him at mbrannon@alligator.org.

Eddy Pineiro kicks off during UF's 30-3 win over Iowa in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2, 2017, at Raymond James Stadium.

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