Undrafted rookie Justin Tucker approached Ed Reed one day in the Ravens’ cafeteria in the summer of 2012. “It’s an honor to meet you,” Tucker said as he introduced himself and shook hands with the future Hall of Fame safety. “I modeled my game after you when I was playing in high school.”
“That’s what’s up! That’s what’s up!” Reed replied with a grin, then gave Tucker a quizzical look. “But wait. … You’re the new kicker, right?”
That’s about the last time Tucker was anonymous in Baltimore.
Having long since given up the safety position he played (as well as kicker) at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas — also the alma mater of NFL quarterbacks Drew Brees and Nick Foles — Tucker proceeded to win the Ravens’ kicking job, beating out veteran Billy Cundiff. Throughout the ensuing decade, Tucker not only has established himself as a franchise cornerstone, but as one of the greatest ever to play the game, and he furthered that case with his NFL-record 66-yard field goal in September.
Tucker also has immersed himself in the Baltimore community, engaging with fans at local parks during offseason workouts, showing off his baritone voice in charity concerts at the Baltimore Basilica, and landing in living rooms all over the area as the singing pitchman for Royal Farms coffee. He’s also been a steadfast supporter of the Baltimore School for the Arts and has been seen belting out an “O!” during the national anthem at Ravens games. He even proposed to his wife, Amanda, overlooking the Inner Harbor.
For his record-setting performance on the field, his emergence as one of the greats in the history of the game, and the way this son of Texas has adopted Baltimore as his second home, Justin Tucker is PressBox’s Mo Gaba Sportsperson of the Year for 2021.
One day at the Ravens’ practice facility a few years ago, former linebacker Terrell Suggs walked into the locker room and caught sight of a media gaggle surrounding Tucker after he had made one of his 18 game-winning kicks. “C’mon, man!” Suggs yelled, his voice booming across the locker room. “He’s just a damn kicker!”
CBS isn’t buying that. On a recent fall afternoon, lighting gear and production cables filled a plaza behind the Ravens’ facility and a camera crew tracked Tucker’s every movement. On a team with magnetic quarterback Lamar Jackson, “60 Minutes” was on hand to profile the Ravens’ Renaissance man who can sing opera in seven languages.
“To be a kicker in the NFL, you have to have a different kind of swagger,” veteran defensive end Calais Campbell said. “But ‘Tuck’ definitely has the biggest personality. You’ve never seen a kicker make so much noise in a team room. … He’s always keeping it light, keeping it fun in there.”
“He’s like the white noise to me,” deadpanned punter Sam Koch, Tucker’s longtime holder. “It’s like a kid crying in the background. I don’t listen to him, ever. He’s in the locker room, making noise, and I basically choose to put him out of my ears, because it’s all day, every day.”
Tucker’s presence in Baltimore can be credited to former special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, who put Tucker through a workout at the University of Texas a few days before the 2012 NFL Draft.
Rosburg saw the leg strength and the unerring consistency with which Tucker executed each kick. He had seen him capably handle pressure, such as a game-winning 40-yarder to beat Texas A&M. Still, Tucker was not among the four kickers selected in the draft that year: Randy Bullock (Texans) went in the fifth round, Greg Zuerlein (Rams) and Blair Walsh (Vikings) in the sixth, and John Potter (Bills) in the seventh.
As a free-agency destination, Baltimore appealed to Tucker for several reasons. The Ravens’ 2011 season had ended with a disastrous missed 32-yard field-goal attempt by Cundiff in the AFC championship game, so Tucker saw a route to a starting job. He felt he could thrive under the tutelage of Rosburg and kicking coach Randy Brown. Plus, Tucker explained, “Ed Reed was probably my favorite player that wasn’t a kicker, and the Ravens’ all-black uniforms are the best uniforms in all of sports.”
The Ravens, though, had already filled their 90-man roster with other rookie free agents, so Tucker was invited on a tryout basis to rookie minicamp. He showed well but remained unsigned, and the Pittsburgh Steelers asked him to come for a workout. Rosburg sweated. Tucker wanted to resolve the Ravens’ situation before committing to any Steelers tryout, and two weeks after rookie minicamp, the Ravens signed him.
Tucker ultimately beat out Cundiff, but some media and fans questioned the Ravens’ decision to go with a rookie kicker on a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
Tucker quickly began to dispel any concerns, hitting a 27-yard field goal at the buzzer to beat New England in Week 3. He also made a 38-yarder as time expired to force overtime against the San Diego Chargers and then made another 38-yarder to win it.
Seven weeks later, he drilled a 47-yarder through the frigid Denver air to lift the Ravens to an epic 38-35, double-overtime win in the “Mile High Miracle” game, propelling the Ravens toward a Super Bowl title.
“There’s Another Tucker Jersey!”
A few years ago, a reporter from Tennessee, looking from the press box down into the lower bowl at M&T Bank Stadium, noted, “There’s another Tucker jersey! You never see kicker jerseys anywhere else.”
Tucker lays out that No. 9 jersey — worn in deference to former Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo, whom the then-soccer-playing Tucker watched light up the World Cup in 1998 — and the rest of his uniform, head to toe, on the floor in front of his locker the night before every game. It’s a superstitious process he began years ago. And indeed, the No. 9 jersey is ubiquitous at Ravens home games.
“He’s part of the fabric of Baltimore now,” Hall of Fame kicker Morten Andersen said. “He’s winning games for them. People want to be around winners. That’s just the way it is.”
Tucker’s popularity exploded after he revealed his multilingual opera talent in a 2013 ad for Dr. Pepper. Then in 2015, a tuxedo-clad Tucker brought the house down by performing “Ave Maria” as the guest soloist at a Catholic Charities holiday concert at the Baltimore Basilica. He sang “O Holy Night” at a similar concert the following year.
Tucker had taken voice lessons and passed an audition to be admitted to the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas, but he said a solo performance at the packed Basilica was “completely outside my comfort zone.”
“What I’m comfortable doing is kicking footballs in front of a stadium full of people and millions more watching on TV,” he said. “I can do that all day. But singing in front of a smaller group of people in a packed church … I’m getting butterflies right now just thinking about it.”
He also sang “Ave Maria” as part of a made-for-TV talent show featuring NFL players and took home first prize — a $50,000 charitable donation that he steered to the Baltimore School for the Arts.
On the day he presented the winning check, Tucker sang with students during a voice lesson, and he and Amanda returned later that year to attend the school’s performance of “The Nutcracker,” meeting with young dancers backstage afterward.
“I really feel like they are sort of the fabric of BSA,” said BSA chief advancement officer Brigid Zuknick, noting there is an “electric buzz” at the school whenever Tucker visits.
“He’s not a native Baltimorean, but he’s like our adopted son. He is so generous with his time and so genuine about his engagement with the kids,” Zuknick added.
Tucker said he also enjoys the more spontaneous get-togethers such as his offseason kicking workouts at local parks.
“Heading to Patterson now. Be there in about a half an hr,” Tucker tweeted during a pre-pandemic offseason. “Come help out if u want!”
Before long, a few dozen kids were tracking down his kicks and playing catch with him.
Tucker said the idea originally was simply to save a little time during his workout, but, “It pretty quickly turned into a unique way to engage with fans and the community. … It was just this organic thing that grew a little bit over time.”
One day last offseason, a man walking at Meadowood Regional Park along Falls Road saw someone booming kicks on the turf field. “Hey, man, you look like you got some ability,” the man said. “You ever think about trying to play in college, or maybe try out for the Ravens?”
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ve thought about it before,'” replied the most accurate kicker in NFL history.
Andersen said Tucker’s success comes from “God-given talent” but also from being “well grounded. … He has fun. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s well versed in life, and by that I mean he has other interests.”
Chief among them these days is athletic, left-footed, 5-year-old son Easton. Tucker said he gladly morphs from Pro Bowl kicker to Carpool Dad, and when Easton is “kicking it with other kids his age … I’m just Easton’s dad.”
“Me playing for the Ravens is cool,” he added, “but what’s really cool is trying to be an example for him, and letting him know I care way more about him than I do about kicking a football straight. And I certainly care about kicking a football straight, don’t get me wrong.”
Tucker joked that he’s open to scholarship offers from Nick Saban or Mack Brown, Tucker’s coach at Texas. Is Easton’s future as a kicker?
“If he wants to join the family business one day,” Tucker said, “I’d be more than happy to show him the ropes.”
Rhythm Of The “Operation”
Tucker frequently describes placekicking as “the operation,” and indeed there is a surgical precision to the process. Like music, there is also rhythm to it, a three-part harmony starring long snapper, holder and kicker. The slightest disruption sends the entire composition out of whack.
For nine years, the trio known as “The Wolfpack” — long snapper Morgan Cox, Koch and Tucker — operated in sync. The Ravens moved on from Cox this past year, but Nick Moore has succeeded him, and the operation hasn’t skipped a beat.
Every kick begins the same way: Tucker tamps down the spot for Koch where the ball will be placed, then retreats three steps, extending his right arm straight as a conductor’s baton toward his target line. He makes the sign of the cross as he steps two paces to his left, bends his right leg at the knee, driving his toe into the turf as he again eyes his target line. He gives a nod toward Koch, then a slight hunch of the shoulders. The ball spins back toward Koch, who catches and places the ball, laces forward, on Tucker’s designated spot. As 10 or 11 defenders try to breach the Ravens’ line, Tucker accelerates until his right foot drives through the ball. His right arm extending upward during the follow-through is usually a sign that this kick was pitch-perfect.
The entire process takes about 1.3 seconds from snap to kick, and no one has ever done it better. Through November of this year, Tucker had made 314 of 346 field goals in his career, a success rate of 90.8 percent that ranked No. 1 in NFL history among qualified kickers.
“He knows he’s good. He’s confident but not cocky,” Andersen said. “I see a lot of him in me that way, too. He’s a stickler for details. … I think he’s constantly curious. How good can I get? How much can I elevate this thing?”
Tucker’s most remarkable trait might be his calm in the crucible of high pressure.
Through November, Tucker had made 55 consecutive field goals in the fourth quarter or overtime, including 16-for-16 in the final minute of regulation.
“Dealing with these great, big moments in games, he seems to be able to defuse them,” Andersen said. “He’s able to … stay in the moment without getting distracted or overwhelmed.”
That included the kick this year that sent Tucker into the NFL record book. Adding an extra crow-hop step to try to harness more power, Tucker launched a 66-yard field goal on the final play at Detroit that bounced off the crossbar and over for a stunning 19-17 win. It was 2 yards longer than any other field goal in league history, and it came on the same field where Tucker drilled a 61-yarder to beat the Lions in 2013.
What’s the ceiling for Tucker?
Andersen and Adam Vinatieri both kicked until they were 47. Gary Anderson and Eddie Murray kicked into their mid-40s. Tucker, who is signed through 2023, turned 32 in November and could conceivably play another decade or more.
Vinatieri holds the all-time records for career field goals (599) and points (2,673). If Tucker’s totals during his first nine seasons were extrapolated throughout 20 seasons, he would kick 646 field goals and score 2,717 points.
“If he continues doing what he’s doing, he’ll have a [Hall of Fame] gold jacket,” Andersen said. “Based on his 10 years, I’d put him in now, but he’s not eligible. And he’s not done. He may shatter all the records when he’s finished.”
Andersen also said Tucker already belongs in the pantheon of Baltimore’s great athletes.
“Whether you’re Ray Lewis or Ed Reed or Justin Tucker, you’ve earned the right to have your jersey hanging in a bar at the Inner Harbor, you know?”
Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens and the Baltimore School for the Arts