Justin Tucker wipes away questions about Ravens' kicking game with brilliant rookie season
Coaches, loved ones say he always had unusual stage presence, hatred of losing
Justin Tucker went 4-for-4 on field goals against the Giants on Sunday and has made 29 of 31 in his rookie season. That doesn't surprise those who knew Tucker back in his college days. (Evan Habeeb, USA TODAY Sports / December 23, 2012)
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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.