By Childs Walker
The Baltimore Sun
6:04 PM EST, December 25, 2012
Justin Tucker's legs shook underneath him, and for a moment, he thought he might actually be nervous about kicking a field goal.
Then he realized, as he later told his father, that the movement didn't result from any internal tension but from 88,645 Texas A&M fans literally shaking the ground as they clamored for Tucker, the kicker from archrival Texas, to miss a decisive 40-yarder.
With that, Tucker knew he was exactly where he had always wanted to be, lining up to boot the biggest kick of his life at the center of a boiling football caldron, also known as Kyle Field.
"He had the pride of all the people in Texas who care about football on his shoulders, and he didn't blink," remembers Tucker's college coach, Mack Brown. "They called timeout, and he thought, 'Good for them. That just gives me more time to focus.' Everybody on the team knew he'd make it."
It's a confidence Ravens fans have learned to share as they've watched Tucker, the team's rookie kicker, burst onto the NFL scene. Kicking was among the team's biggest uncertainties entering training camp, with incumbent Billy Cundiff trying to bounce back from a devastating miss at the end of last season's conference championship game.
But as he coolly bested Cundiff in a kick-for-kick training camp battle, Tucker eased such worries. Now deep into his first season, he has rendered any doubts moot with every long field goal and every kickoff blasted through the end zone.
According to the statistically oriented website Football Outsiders, Tucker's excellence on both field goals and kickoffs has helped give the Ravens historically great special teams. He has been a consistent bright spot for a team that has struggled mightily at times on offense and defense.
The amazing thing, when you talk to coaches, family members and friends, is that none of them sound terribly surprised by what Tucker has accomplished in the NFL.
"I would like to tell you I'm shocked," says Doug Blevins, his first serious kicking coach. "But I'm really not at all."
"It blows my mind a little bit that it's my kid up there on national television," says his mother, Michelle. "But Justin is someone who, if he really wants to do something, he will make it happen. He's a really unusually driven person."
'I was out there to win'
Tucker's parents say he had two defining traits as a child growing up in Austin, Texas: an absolute comfort with performing on a public stage and an abhorrence of losing that bordered on concerning.
Michelle, herself a former drum major, remembers him crooning "Danke Schoen" at a middle school talent show. Tucker even sashayed down the steps and sang directly to a few teachers in the crowd, Wayne Newton-style. "They just loved him," Michelle says.
His embrace of the stage translated to sports, but there, his competitive dark side was more apt to surface.
Tucker flashes back to his first youth soccer season, when he was barely more than a toddler: "I remember losing my first rec soccer game and being so mad and so upset. Most kids don't think about that when they're 3 or 4 years old. They're just out there enjoying oranges and Lunchables at halftime, but I was out there to win. I remember that stark contrast."
"You know, in youth soccer, most of the kids are just happy to get a juice box at the end of the game," says Tucker's father, Paul, an Austin cardiologist. "But Justin would be in tears after a loss. We'd have to say, 'Justin, you've got to get a grip.'"
Tucker's parents certainly played a part in instilling his competitiveness. Paul never wanted to miss being named a "Super Doctor" by Texas Monthly magazine. He told his children that if they could be better than 99 percent of the world at something, success would follow.
Tucker always had a powerful right leg, even when soccer, not football, was his game. His younger sister, Samantha, remembers coaches yelling him at for kicking the ball far above the goal. Perhaps higher-trajectory kicks were simply his destiny.
When he started playing football in middle school (late for a Texan), he answered his coach's request for anyone willing to kick extra points. Sure enough, he was pretty good at it.
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."
The kicking expert saw a leg speed that could not be taught. "The pop and lift he got at that that age were just incredible," Blevins says.
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.
"A lot of kickers have that reputation for sitting off by themselves," Michelle Tucker says. "But Justin has never been that kind of kicker. He's in the mix."
Says Justin Tucker: "I think the best kickers think of themselves as football players who can kick."
There was nary a grumble when Harbaugh announced that the rookie had beaten out Cundiff. And from the first 46-yarder Tucker kicked through the uprights for the Ravens' first points of the season, he has made the decision look like genius.
Tucker says the technical adjustments he has made with Ravens kicking consultant Randy Brown — widening the position of his plant foot, staying over the ball longer, driving his body farther downfield on follow-through — have made him a "completely different kicker than I was in college."
Rosburg hesitates to evaluate Tucker's performance relative to the team's expectations. But when asked whether he feels calm in his gut every time the rookie lines up a big field goal, he says: "Oh, I have a lot of confidence in him. I've watched him kick a lot of balls, and there's very few balls he kicks poorly."
The one unknowable thing about Tucker is how he might respond to missing a game-ending, season-altering kick. Cundiff, for example, is out of the league 11 months after missing that 32-yarder against the Patriots. He was in the Pro Bowl two years ago.
Tucker, who has made 29 of 31 field-goal attempts this season, grasps that every kick is vital as he tries to establish a place among the 32 people in the world who make a great living doing what he does. The margin for error is tiny for NFL kickers, who have become so efficient as a species that an 80 percent success rate is mediocre and 70 percent leads to unemployment. But this reality seems to invigorate Tucker rather than gnaw at his guts.
"You don't instill that in a kid, that ice water," says Blevins, who regularly exchanges emails with Tucker. "Justin would not carry a big miss over to the next kick. He would be devastated. But he's not one of those guys that gets mental on you."
Tucker says that when he does miss, he puts a premium on making the next kick — a quick cube of sugar to drive the bad taste from his mouth.
That's why he rates a 39-yard kick he made in the Ravens' win at Pittsburgh the best of his career, even above the one at Texas A&M or his two NFL game-winners. Tucker had missed a 41-yarder in the second quarter, but he homed in on his technique, pushed any misgivings from the corners of his mind and made the next kick look easy. His field goal gave the Ravens the margin they needed to hold off their most bitter rivals.
"That's what's fun," he says of such moments. "If you don't want to be the kid to hit the walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, you shouldn't be playing baseball. If you don't want that opportunity as a kicker, you shouldn't be kicking the ball."
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