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Silas Nacita (left) said his faith is what has sustained him during hardships.

Staff photo— Jerry Larson

During the final minutes of Baylor’s season opener against SMU, Silas Nacita looked for a hole and nothing was there.

So he did what life had taught him: Take a plunge and see what happens.

Nacita put his head down and plowed for a 1-yard touchdown. It was Baylor’s last touchdown in a 45-0 romp over the Mustangs, but there were still enough fans watching the opening game at McLane Stadium to give him a loud round of applause.

After scoring his first touchdown for the Bears, Nacita took a few seconds to appreciate the moment.

“I’m thinking it’s unbelievable that I’m here and in the end zone with my team with thousands and thousands of people looking at it not knowing what it took to get here,” Nacita said.

Most of those fans had no idea who No. 31 was. If they did, they never could have imagined the trials it took for Nacita to play at Baylor.

After leaving a troubled home environment during high school, Nacita survived a failed initial attempt to get into Baylor and homelessness in Waco. Finally getting his shot to play for the Bears this season, his perseverance has been an inspiration to his coaches and teammates.

“He has an appreciation for where he’s at and I have an appreciation for where he’s going because he certainly has sacrificed tremendously,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “It’s taken a lot of time, effort and finances for him to be able to play football at Baylor. It’s really an inspiration to a lot of people, myself included.”

After wandering for many years, Nacita finally has some stability in his life. He loves the family-like atmosphere on the football team and feels at home on the Baylor campus. The trials that he’s endured have made him grow deeper in his Christian faith.

“I firmly believe the hardships of my life were all part of God preparing me for the place he wants me to be, and that place is here at Baylor,” Nacita said. “Having this awesome community, teammates, fans and friendships I’ve been able to build are that much more of a blessing.”

As a walk-on for the Baylor football team, Nacita sees most of his time on special teams. Playing behind established running backs Shock Linwood, Devin Chafin and Johnny Jefferson, Nacita has carried 31 times for 131 yards and three touchdowns in Baylor’s nine games.

But Nacita relishes every moment that he gets on the field because he knows how difficult it was to get the opportunity.

“People always comment that you run so hard in the fourth quarter,” Nacita said. “Well there was so much time when I would have given anything to run on the field and carry the ball. I’m not going to waste a single moment out there regardless of what the score is.”

Early life struggles

Growing up in Bakersfield, Calif., Nacita was the youngest of four children raised by his mother Amonna. He said his father, Ransom Nacita, died when he was 16.

“My parents split up when I was young and he would come back periodically,” Nacita said. “But I never knew if he was going to be there one day or the next. It was really off and on. I wouldn’t say I was super close to him. Apparently he developed bacterial meningitis. When I heard the news, it was completely out of nowhere. I guess he had been fighting it for a few years.”

Nacita said he grew distant from his mother and left home during high school. He said he mostly lived on friends’ couches as a senior while playing football and wrestling for Bakersfield High School.

“Due to a lack of my father’s presence, my mother had to work all the time and I was involved in sports, so we just didn’t spend time together,” Nacita said. “It was really difficult to establish a good relationship. I couldn’t get along and it created a lot of tension and problems. It got to the point where it was kind of a mutual decision for me to leave home and get out of there because it wasn’t healthy at all.”

Despite an unstable environment, Nacita enjoyed a tremendous senior year on the football team, as he amassed 1,249 yards rushing and starred at safety. He excelled on the wrestling team, ranking among the best in the state in his 170-pound class.

Nacita managed to maintain a 4.1 grade point average in high school. His life looked great to the public but it really wasn’t that way at all.

“I was a known face in the crowd because of sports,” Nacita said. “But how can you come out and say in a news article, ‘Hey, by the way, I’m not living with my mom?’ I’m on couches and it’s a disastrous situation at home. No one wants to tell the press and the news that.”

Since he was an outstanding student, Nacita drew the attention of Cornell, an Ivy League school in Ithaca, New York. Looking for a change of scenery, he decided to enroll at college 2,600 miles across the country.

Nacita played in all 10 games for Cornell in 2012, rushing 36 times for 99 yards and six touchdowns. But he said he wasn’t doing well in class and wanted to play a higher caliber of college football. After growing up in a warm climate in California, the cold weather in upstate New York was a shock.

“It was a miserable year, one of my worst years of my life,” Nacita said. “It was just a lonely place way far from home. It was freezing cold, so you don’t really go out much. Football was not at all what I was expecting it to be as far as the level of play and the competitiveness. School was really hard and I had no motivation for that.”

Nacita had some friends who went to Baylor and he knew it was a rising football program that had produced Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Robert Griffin III in 2011. In the spring of 2013, Nacita visited Waco to get a look at Briles’ program.

Observing spring drills, Nacita immediately sensed a family atmosphere at Baylor. During his first few minutes with Briles, he believed Briles was a coach who would care for his well being beyond the football field.

“The first question he asked me was, ‘How is your family?’ ” Nacita said. “I said, ‘My relationship with my mother isn’t great.’ He said, ‘You need to love your mom and know how important that is.’ It was a strange thing for a coach to say and I couldn’t quite understand. But it was powerful to me and for some reason it stuck out. I just knew this place was where I needed to be.”

Yet another detour

Nacita decided to transfer to Baylor and came out for preseason drills in August of 2013. But he found out he didn’t have enough financial aid to enroll at Baylor, and ended up taking online classes at McLennan Community College last fall and spring.

Once again, he began couch surfing at friends’ apartments. He even slept under a tree one night at Cameron Park.

“I’m a survivor,” Nacita said. “It’s never been something so outrageous for me to sleep outside. For most people that’s crazy. But I went to Cameron Park and tried to figure out what I was going to do. The next day I ran into some people who said, ‘Hey, you can crash with us.’ I just kind of jumped around the whole year.”

Determined to get another shot to play football for Baylor, Nacita began writing down his goals every day.

“The first one I wrote was I need a 4.0 GPA to get a scholarship because if I didn’t get it done in the classroom it wasn’t going to happen,” Nacita said. “The second one was 2014 Baylor football playmaker. It meant I had to work and condition myself. The third was glory to God.”

Nacita said he earned a 4.0 GPA during his two semesters at MCC and got his financial aid in order to guarantee that he would have enough money to attend Baylor.

One of the most difficult tasks for Nacita was staying in good enough condition to be ready for preseason drills at Baylor in August. He came up with some creative ways to stay in shape.

“It’s really hard to stay motivated and train by yourself,” Nacita said. “In Cameron Park, I was doing pullups and pushups and using rocks as weights. One time I was using boulders to work out and I was doing the military press. I picked it up and it broke in my arms and it hit me in the head. It was this huge rock, and I don’t know how I didn’t die.”

Though older brother Isaac Nacita didn’t know the full extent of Silas’ living conditions, he began to learn more as the year progressed.

“When (Silas) found out he wasn’t going to be able to go to school at Baylor that was definitely his most frustrating moment,” said Isaac, an Air Force officer living in New Mexico. “But then he started figuring things out a little bit. When I visited him that year when he was in junior college, I was surprised by how he found ways to be around the team (at Baylor). I was impressed by his resourcefulness.”

Back for preseason drills, Nacita impressed the Baylor coaching staff and his teammates with his work ethic and determined style of running. Though he’s Baylor’s fourth running back behind Linwood, Chafin and Jefferson, he practices like he’s going to start every game.

“He has a lot of passion,” Linwood said. “He knows he’s not on scholarship, but he comes to work every day. He’s smart and loves football and is very athletic. I thank him for what he does. He’s just a great guy.”

Chafin said Nacita’s upbeat attitude is refreshing and he keeps teammates loose with his humor and different perspective on life.

“He kind of breaks barriers,” Chafin said, “by saying random stuff and doing random things, it makes you more relaxed. He makes you more able to be yourself. His presence makes people around him better.”

Meet ‘Salsa Nacho’

After making some impressive runs during an August scrimmage, Nacita picked up the nickname: Salsa Nacho.

“Somebody tweeted my name on their iPhone and it auto-corrected Silas Nacita to Salsa Nacho,” Nacita said. “I didn’t know it would blow up where half the crowd is chanting it at games and kids are wearing sombreros with masks and signs. It’s almost like this alter ego. It’s funny and people seem to love it.”

Following his first touchdown run against SMU, Nacita rushed for 104 yards and scored two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter of Baylor’s 70-6 win over Northwestern State in the second game of the season. During Big 12 games, Nacita has made his mark on special teams.

Baylor running backs coach Jeff Lebby believes Nacita could be the featured back on many teams.

“There are a lot of places in America where he’d be the No. 1 or No. 2 guy,” Lebby said. “It’s just we’re in a situation right now where we have some really good running backs and he’s one of them. We’re dang sure glad he’s here and stayed the course through the entire process and is now making a name for himself.”

Looking to future

Nacita hopes to eventually earn an athletic scholarship at Baylor instead of relying on academic scholarships and financial aid. He doesn’t know yet what he wants to do after college, but he plans to go into a profession where he can help people.

“I know I’m going to work with people,” Nacita said. “I’m going to be there to share and invest my life into other people’s lives. I want to help other people and give them hope.”

Though Nacita rarely gets back to California, he recently attended the wedding of his brother Isaac. He got a chance to see his mother and enjoyed his time with her.

“He played a song on his guitar that he wrote that was a tribute to my mom,” Isaac said. “It was for me and mom for the mother-son dance and it was really special. It was good to see him acknowledge how much she put into raising us, and that was cool. I think their relationship is growing again and that’s great.”

It was just part of the ongoing healing process in Nacita’s life. One that’s grown brighter and more promising every day.

“I’d say my mom and I are better than we’ve ever been,” Nacita said. “For a long time, God just needed to work in my life. The time has come for me to decide who I’m going to be and mature and see my mom’s side of it and being empathetic and learning all those things. It allows me to rebuild relationships that were broken.”

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