Inside the McLane Student Life Center at Baylor University, Silas Nacita hoists a 315-pound barbell on to his chiseled shoulders, stares at the mirrored wall and exhales. His knees bend, his mouth tightens and his size 11 feet anchor his core as he lowers the weight. He holds the bar for a beat, then bursts straight up.
It's an easy lift. Nacita, who stands 5' 10" and weighs 200 pounds, squatted 415 pounds last year. But once Baylor declared him ineligible to play football last February for receiving improper benefits, Nacita lost weight room privileges. That's why he now trains here, two hours a day, five days a week, hoping to hit the football equivalent of the Powerball jackpot. Having made no career starts as a college running back, Nacita hopes to impress Canadian Football League scouts on Friday at the Dream Bowl combine in Virginia Beach, Va.
This isn't the first time he has faced long odds. Nacita walked on the Bears football team in 2014, homeless and hungry, a couch-surfer who took online community college classes during the previous year. Fierce determination and relentless optimism propelled him on to the field. Though he was listed as a fourth-team running back on the depth chart, Nacita became a special teams sensation and fan favorite who averaged 6.2 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns.
The odds he now faces are considerably greater. There are no linebackers to spot him at the lone Olympic rack in the Student Life Center. There are no football players to challenge him. Nacita lifts alone, an aspiring professional athlete among those working out recreationally, some grinding through New Year's resolutions on treadmills and elliptical machines.
Wearing headphones, Nacita lets his mind slip into the groove of Lecrae and Trip Lee, two of his favorite hip-hop artists. He closes his eyes to block out distractions. More than once, he has had to rescue students without spotters, trapped beneath barbells stuck on their chest. "It's an adventure in here," Nacita says.
That is no way to prepare for a combine. But neither is this: Nacita gets to the football field once a week to catch passes from a rotation of unskilled arms. A former linebacker. A random friend. "I take whatever I can get," he says. "But it's never a quarterback." When he was on the football team, Nacita caught at least 100 balls from a JUGS machine per workout. From the friends he recruits, he's lucky to catch 50 passes a week.
In the gym, Nacita trains by memory, repeating workouts—every lift, every set—he learned on the team. He repeats the same warmups on a four-lane, 1/9th-mile indoor track, one floor up from the weight room.
It takes special focus to train alongside guys from another generation. As Nacita warmed up at the track on Sunday, a balding man jogged by in a brown T-shirt that read, "Great Dad But Promoted to Grandpa."
The Dream Bowl combine represents a slim hope to play beyond the college level. Designed primarily for Football Championship Subdivision players, the CFL-run combine tests prospects with a series of sprints, jumps and lifts. The only FBS player invited, Nacita started his career at an FCS school.
After earning a 4.1 GPA at Bakersfield (Calif.) High, Nacita received an academic scholarship to Cornell in 2012. Unhappy with the bitter cold in upstate New York and wanting to play for a larger program, he left following a decent freshman season in which he rushed for 99 yards and scored six touchdowns.
At the suggestion of friends, Nacita attempted to enroll at Baylor. Unable to afford the tuition, he secured an academic scholarship at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. He waited tables for 40 hours a week, drifted from apartment to apartment, earned stellar grades and eventually received an academic scholarship to the university.
Nacita's journey from Bakersfield to Baylor is the stuff of legend. He lost his father to bacterial meningitis at 16, lived on food stamps with three siblings, clashed with his mother, left home as a high school senior and began bouncing from one friend's couch to another. As a homeless teenager, Nacita starred as a two-way football player, earned Bakersfield Californian Co-Wrestler of the Year honors at 170 pounds and secured an Ivy League scholarship.
Over Christmas break in 2013, Nacita walked and hitchhiked from Waco to Bakersfield to visit his mother, a 1,500-mile trip that included one night sleeping in an icy ditch and another in a hotel lobby. Along the way, he sought refuge at a homeless shelter. "Sorry," he was told, "we're full."
Once he enrolled at Baylor, his legend grew—fans wore sombreros and screamed his nickname, "Salsa Nacho"—until the school learned that Nacita had received extra benefits (money for food and housing) in violation of NCAA rules. Dismissed from the Bears, the football coach at Southwestern Assemblies of God, an NAIA school in Waxahachie, Texas, offered Nacita a scholarship. Then it was withdrawn. Citing NAIA rules, Southwestern coach Frank Tristan explained in an email that Nacita did not have an NCAA waiver. The NAIA does not allow dismissed or suspended athletes from NCAA schools to transfer without a waiver.
"I really apologize for this situation and I'm sorry we led you astray," Tristan wrote on June 18. "... the appeals process didn't go our way."
Five months later, Nacita's homeless saga caught the attention of Dream Bowl founder Neil Malvone. In November, Malvone invited Nacita to play in the bowl, a small college all-star game held on the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. What could be more fitting, Malvone thought, than showcasing an overachieving dreamer in a game honoring a man with a big dream?
Nacita accepted and tweeted the announcement:
Days later, Malvone withdrew the invitation. Only NFL draft eligible players can participate in the Dream Bowl, he explained. The NFL considered Nacita ineligible because he could still play college ball this fall. League rules permit him to apply for special eligibility to enter the 2016 draft. But Nacita's best chance to play after college is in the CFL, the Arena League or a league overseas.
The one sliver of good news: The combine invitation remained. He was named an honorary captain and at the last minute he was allowed to play in the game. Nacita made the most of his opportunity, scoring the game-winning touchdown on a short run and earning special teams MVP honors.
Last summer, Nacita was dealt another blow. Incoming Baylor freshman Peyton Dishon invited Nacita to play on an intramural football team. Nacita accepted. Dishon and his friends celebrated. They soon discovered that rules preclude former varsity athletes from intramural competition for one calendar year. Dishon apologized in an email. "I talked to [intramural director] and asked if there could be an exception," Dishon wrote, "and he said 'no.'"
Since February, Nacita has been declared ineligible at an NCAA school, at an NAIA school, for a college all-star game and for an intramural football team.
Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports
On Dec. 18, 2013, Joe Campbell threw a party for his grandson, Grant, a linebacker who was signing his letter of intent to play football for Baylor. Friends and family gathered at the Bakersfield Country Club to celebrate. One person caught Joe's eye, an aspiring Baylor Bear who knew Grant through football and mutual friends. In the bar area, Nacita played the piano as people sang along.
After midnight, Joe's son, Jeff Campbell, left the party and crashed his car into a tree. At the emergency room, Nacita arrived to check on a man he didn't know and to offer the family support. Joe, a 72-year-old grape farmer, was astonished. He and Nacita connected instantly. They talked about a range of subjects, everything but football. By the end of the evening, a bond was formed. Nacita started calling the grape farmer, "Papa Joe."
"He doesn't drink, he doesn't cuss, he's very religious," Papa Joe says. "At first you think, 'Is he too good to be true?' But he's genuine. My wife, Jana, and I fell in love with him."
When Papa Joe called Grant in the summer of 2014, he'd ask about Nacita. How's he doing? Where does he live? Papa Joe learned that his adopted grandson was scrounging for food, sleeping on floors. Alarmed, Papa Joe intervened, providing money for an apartment and food.
After the fall semester, Nacita owed Baylor several hundred dollars for tuition and fees. Papa Joe paid the dept. School compliance officials began an inquiry. "They called me in and asked, 'Who is this person? Has he given you money before,'" Nacita recalls. "I said, 'Yeah.'"
Papa Joe did not understand the consequences of generosity. The "extra benefits" of food and housing cost Nacita his football career at Baylor.
"I never tried to hide anything," Papa Joe says. "I told the compliance officer, 'This has nothing to do with football.' I told Silas, 'There is life after football. Finish your degree and I will continue to help you.'"
Free from draconian NCAA restrictions, Papa Joe wrote Nacita a large check for Christmas, enough to cover tuition in the spring and a plane ticket to Virginia Beach for the Dream Bowl combine.
William Purnell/Icon SMI
In 2014, Nacita might have been the best fourth-string back in the nation. Baylor coach Art Briles called him a "borderline stud," a talented runner who could start for a lot of Division I schools. "Coach Briles told me I had the best hands of any running back on the team," says Nacita, who can cover 40 yards in 4.5 seconds.
Those soft hands did not catch a single pass that season, but he rushed for 191 yards on 31 carries. He ran the ball 36 times at Cornell, which means Nacita brings less than 70 career carries to the combine. He also brings grit, thick skin, a big heart and remarkable athleticism. Some friends encourage him to forge ahead. Others tell him to back off. "They say, 'All the doors keep closing on you. Don't you get the hint?'"
Nacita looks beyond the skeptics but wrestles with self-doubt. "I wonder, 'Am I going to be strong enough? Am I going to be fast enough?'" he says. "But then I stop. I'm going to control what I can control. God has either given me this opportunity or He hasn't. I'm going to be grateful for whatever happens."
Through the sweat and second-guessing, he remembers agony in the student section at McLane Stadium, watching his former teammates, imagining himself on the field. He hears the voice of an assistant coach, telling him to fight for a starting spot. He can feel the energy of the cheering crowd, the strange separation from pads and cleats.
"I blended in with all the screaming students," Nacita says. "But that drove the knife deeper."
He could have run from the pain. He could have enrolled at Southwestern Assemblies of God, sat out the 2015 season and played next fall. With Division I ability, he might have become an NAIA star.
Why Nacita chose to stay might come as a surprise. Once a floor-sleeping drifter, he found that Baylor had become home. "I love the people here," he says.
A Health, Kinesiology and Leisure Studies major, Nacita loves the academics as well. He took 19 units last fall and earned five A's and one B. When he considered the long term, Nacita decided a degree from Baylor would better position him for life after football.
He had one other reason to stay. Her name is Kaitlyn Burrow, a pretty sophomore he met at church, and he has fallen hard. "I'm hoping she is the one," Nacita says.
Love and faith kept Nacita at Baylor. Love and faith propel him toward the combine in Virginia. In his journey from Bakersfield to Waco, Nacita has endured homelessness, hunger, heartbreak and rejection.
Where does he find the strength to go on? On the ceiling above him in the Student Life Center, Psalms 46:1 provides a clue: "God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble."
He lifts the barbell over his head and slams it down on the rack. Since the Dream Bowl combine began four years ago, only one player has been signed to a CFL roster, quarterback Andrew Manley with Montreal. No matter. On his way out the door, Nacita passes beneath another verse, one that fuels his drive in the face of ever-increasing odds: "I can do all this through Him who gives me strength."