When Tucker was 15 and beginning to take his craft more seriously, his father read an article in Sports Illustrated about a coach named Doug Blevins. Adam Vinatieri had recently become a legend among kickers for making a 45-yard field goal in blizzard conditions to send the New England Patriots to overtime in an AFC divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. Though relegated to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy, Blevins was Vinatieri's kicking guru.
Paul called him, and it turned out that Blevins required only a modest fee to fly from his home in Southwest Virginia and work with Justin. After watching the boy for a few hours, Blevins told his parents: "If he sticks with it, he can kick in the NFL."
Justin had more than talent. "You had to make him stop working," Blevins says. "He was consumed with it. Obsessed."
Paul remembers one Christmas Day when it was 40 degrees and raining. "Dad, let's go kick," Justin insisted. So they did.
Tucker's work with Blevins marked a new level of engagement with kicking. He continued to train with the coach every six months, sometimes traveling to stay with Blevins in Virginia. And as his high school career progressed, the Tuckers heard from more and more people that their son might kick on Sundays.
Blevins fine-tuned Justin's technique, but Paul says his son gleaned more about the mental approach to kicking. For example, Justin ended every practice with a pressure kick, and if he missed, he simply had to go into the house and stew over it until the next session.
Confident and upbeat
Mack Brown was not in the habit of offering full scholarships to kickers when he recruited Tucker from Austin's Westlake High School. But he liked that the kid wasn't some specialist; Tucker was also plenty good at safety and wide receiver. Brown saw a player talented and fierce enough to handle all three kicking roles — kickoffs, field goals and punts — for the powerful Longhorns.
"I really have not met such a confident young man since I've been here," says Brown, who has coached dozens of future pros. "He's the most upbeat human being I've ever been around."
Teammates learned that Tucker, who majored in music recording, could go from singing opera in a foreign language one minute to rapping the next, all with equal boldness. But when it came to the business of football, he never seemed to make a stupid mistake.
"The thing that makes him the best is that he never makes things that are supposed to be easy look hard," says Cade McCrary, who held for Tucker at Texas and has known him since they played for rival high schools.
Before every kick, Tucker tapped McCrary on his lowered helmet, and they exchanged a brief inside joke. "He had a way of calming the people around him, of calming me with his calmness," McCrary says. "Anything under 40 yards, I never worried at all."
Despite a strong senior season, Tucker was not drafted, a slight he says he tried to treat as a disguised blessing. The Ravens had their eye on him after special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg watched him work out in Austin. And they called shortly after the picking was done to invite him to training camp.
"I really liked his leg swing. He had power in his leg," Rosburg says. "But I said to Justin, 'I think you can be so much better than you are.'"
Seizing the opportunity
The outside narrative said the Ravens had signed Tucker simply to push Cundiff as the veteran regained his mojo after the playoff miss at New England. But that was not the message John Harbaugh and his staff conveyed to the rookie. Outperform the incumbent and the job is yours, they promised.
"It was that simple, and he really liked that," Paul Tucker says. "He trusted them, and Harbaugh was very honest with him from the beginning, for which we'll always be eternally grateful."
It's almost a cliche to say a kicker doesn't look like the rest of his NFL teammates. But when you watch Tucker bop around the Ravens training complex, it's hard to avoid the thought. His sweatshirt hangs loosely off his wiry frame and with his stubbly beard and slightly mussed brown hair, he looks more like the guy next to you at an undergraduate lecture than like a football star. Even his right leg is more lean and sinewy than thick and mighty.
Here's the thing, though: Tucker's teammates don't treat him like some oddity, off on his own specialty island. Almost from the start of camp, the Ravens' veteran stars appreciated his swagger as he popped 55-yarders through the uprights in his pitched battle with Cundiff. Tucker dresses in the same corner as Ray Lewis and Ray Rice — he calls himself the "maintenance man" in their gated community — and they treat him like one of the boys as he cracks wise on team staffers and competes in locker-room games of cornhole.