Silas Nacita took a break between classes at Baylor on Thursday morning to ponder his future. Once a homeless college kid who spent a year sleeping on apartment floors and couches, he became a fan favorite as a walk-on running back only to be declared ineligible for violating NCAA rules by receiving improper housing benefits.
As a junior last fall, Nacita rushed for 191 yards, averaged 6.2 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns. He made electrifying plays on special teams. Children arrived at McLane Stadium wearing sombreros and masks and chanted his nickname, “Salsa Nacho.” With no money for books, Nacita studied pictures of book pages he snapped with his camera phone, made Academic All-Big 12 and became a Baylor legend.
On Wednesday, the second day of spring practice, Baylor announced Nacita’s dismissal from the team for “rules violations.” The school did not specify which rules he broke. But a source familiar with the situation at Baylor told SI.com that one violation was in the area of “housing.”
In late December, just before the Cotton Bowl, Nacita told SI.com that he used money from a federal loan and a small personal savings to rent an off-campus apartment. But those weren’t his only revenue streams. Friends from his hometown in Bakersfield, Calif., provided additional support.
“I did use my money, but it wasn’t enough to cover for the entire year,” Nacita said in a phone interview from campus. “They started helping me in May of 2014 with food and living. They were like, ‘How are you going to get your next meal?’ And that’s what they did.’”
Nacita admits he broke NCAA rules by accepting improper housing assistance. A Baylor source told SI.com Nacita had been warned about impermissible benefits. In fact, the source indicated all student-athletes are educated and versed on what they can and can’t do, but Nacita simply didn't follow those protocols.
Before speaking with SI.com on Thursday, Nacita acknowledged as much in the following tweet: “At the time, I did not think this was inappropriate behavior, but now I can see that I made a mistake by disregarding guidance from Baylor compliance on what benefits I may accept. I take full responsibility for my choice to accept these inappropriate benefits.”
Though coach Art Briles hinted Wednesday of a possible return from “a glitch in his eligibility,” the Baylor source says Nacita’s departure is permanent. He is attending school on an academic scholarship that covers tuition but does not provide for food or housing.
“I don’t know what will happen next,” Nacita said. “I’m just waiting. I was hoping to get a [football] scholarship. But that is out of the question.”
Nacita earned academic honors as general studies major in the fall. He will complete the spring semester at Baylor but says he is uncertain where he will attend school next fall.
His case has been compared to that of Antoine Turner, a defensive lineman from Fullerton College in California who lived in a motel and out of his girlfriend’s car before transferring to Boise State. Nacita spent a year at McLennan Community College in Waco, drifting from apartment to apartment, and once slept beneath the stars at a park near downtown.
There are, however, important differences between the two cases. When Turner’s story of homelessness broke, Boise State asked boosters not to provide Turner with assistance. Any extra benefits provided, compliance officers warned, would be in violation of NCAA rules. At the same time, Boise State asked the NCAA for a waiver that allowed Turner to enroll in May, ahead of schedule for summer school, in order to receive housing and food. The NCAA granted the request.
Turner went to Boise State on a football scholarship and lived on campus. Nacita arrived at Baylor as a walk-on and lived off campus. Boise State provided meals for Turner. Nacita scrambled for food.
To fuel his 5'10", 200-pound body, Nacita told SI.com in December he often exploited the NCAA’s unlimited snack rule for two or three meals. At noon, he ate one sandwich for lunch, took a second home for dinner and stocked up on Power Bars. “It doesn’t kill me to miss a meal,” he said before a pre-Cotton Bowl practice. “This is what I signed up for. I knew it was going to be a sacrifice.”
[daily_cut]Without campus dining privileges, Nacita learned how to stretch a dollar.
“I know how to cook rice, beans, things that cost a couple of bucks in the store,” he said in December. “I can make it last me a week.”
Nacita’s rise from homeless student to Division I football player drew the attention of Cheryl Pooler, a homeless liaison in the Waco Independent School District. Pooler asked Nacita to serve as an advisory board member for an after-school center for homeless teens. He agreed. They were to meet Tuesday at noon to discuss the center. Then Nacita informed Pooler he needed to meet with a coach and would be delayed half an hour. Later, Nacita canceled and apologized. Something had come up, he said, and he requested Pooler’s prayers.
The next morning, news of his ineligibility broke. Nacita’s explanatory tweets went viral, fans launched a #FreetheNacho campaign and Pooler began receiving calls from national media.
“I am concerned about him,” she said.
Thursday, between morning classes, Nacita sounded confused and tentative, unsure how to explain a blow he did not see coming and careful not to say anything that might offend Baylor officials.
“I want to honor my athletic director and school and coaches,” he said. “They have asked me not to say anything else. I’m just 21 years old. I have no idea how these things work. I have a class I’m late for.”