By Mike Unger. Photography by Mike Morgan
t took you about 1.3 seconds to read “it took you about 1.3 seconds.”
In that same flash of time, Justin Tucker’s right leg can win or lose a football game, changing the fate of a franchise and driving a city to euphoric heights or destroying its collective soul.
Talk about pressure. No wonder the Ravens kicker is kind of obsessed with the number. He mentions it during interviews and made it a central theme of the commencement address he delivered to his alma mater, the University of Texas College of Fine Arts.
Those 1.3 seconds are the reason he’s at the Ravens Under Armour Performance Center practically year-round, and they’re why he’s been known to show up by himself at Patterson Park, drilling kick after kick into the muggy summer air while some very surprised and excited neighborhood kids retrieve the balls.
“This 1.3-second field-goal operation, from the snap to the hold to the kick, is a performance,” he told the UT grads. “It is choreographed specifically, then rehearsed literally thousands upon thousands of times. To me, in those 1.3 seconds lies a sort of cathartic beauty. Almost paradoxically, I become so engaged, so focused, that I lose myself in that moment, much like a musician who performs a piece that he has studied and rehearsed time and time again.”
What kind of NFL player—let alone any 24-year-old—speaks like that? One who can sing operatic arias in seven languages, yet also likes to rap and pick ’90s tunes on the guitar. One who booted six field goals (including a 61-yard bomb) on Monday Night Football, then told fantasy owners around the world, “I hope you guys appreciate the points, as well.”
One who, after the tryptophan had sent most fans to sleep last Thanksgiving night, insisted that his snapper, Morgan Cox, and holder, Sam Koch, join him for his player-of-the-game interview.
“My mom always told me it was rude to chew with my mouth full, so sorry about that, guys at home,” he said as he ripped into a turkey leg on national television. “I wanted Morgan and Sam here because they’re kind of the unsung heroes of the operation. Together we all get the job done. We’re just happy to be of service.”
Tucker knows he’s blessed to be the Ravens kicker, to have earned a Super Bowl ring, to have legged his way to the Pro Bowl, to be increasingly beloved in his adopted hometown. That’s why on a sticky July afternoon, just hours after returning from Austin, the day before he was to embark on a weeklong cruise with Ravens fans, he squeezed in a workout at the park. In a profession where the stress is astronomical and the margin for error infinitesimal, he’s determined to not only put a stranglehold on his dream job, but to enjoy the ride along the way.
He knows that, like those 1.3 seconds, it can all be over in an instant.
The state of Texas produces some of the country’s best baseball players, basketballers, sprinters, hunters, fishermen, rodeo cowboys, and the list goes on.
Sports are big in Texas. Then there’s football.
The first Halloween Tucker can recall was when he was about 5, and he donned a Dallas Cowboys helmet and No. 8 jersey for his Troy Aikman costume. But he didn’t snap on a real chinstrap until eighth grade, when he realized that he might not be playing the right brand of fútbol.
“Everybody else I knew was playing flag football before they could even walk a straight line. I was a little bit late to the party,” he says of his soccer playing days. “I found out I was in the wrong sport because I kept kicking the ball over the [crossbar]. I was getting too many yellow cards. I really liked the contact.”
Despite his size—today he’s “only” 6-feet, 189 pounds—Tucker excelled on the gridiron for Westlake High School in Austin. He also played wide receiver and safety, but it was clear that his best chance for a scholarship rested with his right foot.
Both his father, Paul, a cardiologist, and his mother, Michelle, are UT grads, so for Tucker, wearing the Longhorns burnt orange was the ultimate goal.
Legendary Texas coach Mack Brown offered him a scholarship (seven years later, they would deliver commencement speeches on the same day). His career progressed slowly. As a freshman he only kicked off, but by his senior season he was kicking more than the Karate Kid, serving as the Longhorns placekicker, kickoff specialist, and punter.
While his five-for-five performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers last year was remarkable, it was actually his second most memorable Thanksgiving game. Two years earlier, Texas was playing hated Texas A&M for the 118th and final time. The Aggies were leaving the Big 12 Conference, and all eyes in the state—and many around the nation—were focused on Tucker as he trotted onto the field with three seconds on the clock and the ’Horns trailing by one.
After A&M used a timeout to try to ice him, he coolly drilled a 40-yarder right down the middle to close the book on one of college football’s most storied rivalries. He desperately tried to flee—ultimately failing—as a mob of ecstatic teammates chased him.
“Being the guy who put the dagger in that rivalry is something I’ll hold close to my heart,” he says. “I started running toward the other sideline and saw everybody coming toward me. [Teammate] Kenny Vaccaro, who is now a safety for the Saints, tackled me pretty hard. I almost got flattened at the bottom of that pile. I came out of it with a bloody nose. I think I did pass out for a couple seconds.”
It was a storybook ending to a splendid college career, but Tucker had designs on a postscript. When the NFL draft came and went without his name being called (five kickers were chosen), his resolve only hardened. But he knew if the NFL wasn’t to be, he’d be fine.
Justin Tucker is no one-kick pony.
“I thought he was kind of goofy at first,” Amanda Bass says of her initial date with her now fiancé. “He was fun, but I’m kind of shy, and he really put it all out there. It took a few times of us hanging out for him to relax.”
Sitting together at a coffee shop, they’re an impossibly attractive couple—him with his facial scruff and backwards cap, her with her long red hair and pearly white smile.
He laughs easily, recalling the first time he saw her, on the UT campus before their freshman year: “I thought she was really cute, so I hollered at her on Facebook, like anyone else would do these days.”
She was new in town, so he took her to Austin staples like Amy’s Ice Creams. It worked. Six years later, he asked her to marry him in a candle-filled production after dinner at Wit & Wisdom at the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore.
One of Tucker’s first attempts to impress Bass was to play her a rap recording he made with some of his teammates. A love song it was not. Perhaps he should have serenaded her with a rendition of “Don Giovanni” instead.
“It’s kind of my go-to,” he says of Mozart’s masterpiece. “If I was going to get really melancholy, I’d go with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Net, tolko tot, kto znal.’”
A music major in college, Tucker is much more than just a karaoke king. Google his Dr Pepper commercial and you’ll hear his pitch-perfect voice. At Texas, Russian bass opera singer Nikita Storojev served as his advisor.
“Opera singers use so much energy, it’s like sports,” says Storojev, who has performed in Vienna, Paris, London, Milan, and Baltimore. “Sportsmen have muscle coordination. This is very important in classical singing, because you need to control how you take respiration. That helped Justin a lot.”
Hour-long sessions in Storojev’s studio would be as physically draining as a gym workout, Tucker says.
“I’d classify my style less as opera and more as bel canto, which is how a Pavarotti or Dmitri Hvorostovsky would sing,” he says. “All [Storojev’s] voice lessons were something I felt like I had to grind through, but I loved it because it was something unique. Not a lot of young people are beltin’ it out in the bel canto style. You hear a lot of pop music on the radio, and yeah it’s catchy, but a lot of it, I would say, is commercial music. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I think it’s great to mix in some heartfelt classical music or listen to something that has true artistry behind it.”
While he hasn’t performed since college, Tucker is constantly singing around his Federal Hill home, in the car, and throughout the halls of the Ravens facility.
“I first heard him in the shower,” says Koch, the Ravens punter, who doubles as Tucker’s holder. “Right then, you knew he had a voice.”
During training camp in 2012, he was the first rookie to perform during a talent show. He didn’t hold back.
“He sang ‘O Sole Mio,’” says Cox, the long-snapper. “He had the whole place rolling. Everyone thought it was a joke at first, and then we realized he was good. Everyone just sat there listening.”
In a certain sense, Tucker’s musical talents and outgoing personality align with the narrative of kickers as quirky, faux football players. But in his case, the stereotype doesn’t fit.
“It’s always helpful to be part of the team as a kicker or a punter, and one of Justin’s strengths is his ability to communicate with other players,” says Ravens kicking coach Randy Brown. “They see a guy who comes to work everyday and wants to get stronger. My first day with him was at the end of July of 2012. Anytime I see a kicker for the first time, I always close my eyes, and I want to hear the ball. When you hear a thump or a thud, you know the kid’s got a strong leg. When he kicked the ball, you heard it.”
The NFL is a bottom-line business, particularly in the kicking arena. In a league where a quarter of all games last season were decided by three points or less, kickers earn their stripes—and keep their jobs—by hitting clutch kicks. Just ask Billy Cundiff.
Since signing with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent, Tucker has delivered. In two seasons, he’s converted 68 of 74 field goals. (He can describe each one he’s missed off the top of his head in vivid detail.) It seems as if both sides want a more committed relationship.
Tucker, who was due to make just $570,000 this season, a low salary by football standards, is interested in a long-term contract, and this offseason, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said the team would like to sign him to one.
“Mentally, it’s one of the most isolating positions on the field,” Cox says. “You have to stay calm in pressure situations, which he does exceptionally well. The New England kick [an extremely close 27-yarder in 2012 that beat the Patriots and drove Bill Belichick insane] was big. He hates that kick because it wasn’t his best effort, but to come through in that situation against that opponent earned him respect.”
In close games, as the clock winds down and the Ravens near field-goal range, Tucker tries to force his brain to ignore the specifics of the scoreboard. Instead, he concentrates on the mechanics of the impending kick.
“I really just try to make everything as simple as possible,” he says. “As best I can, I try to put all of the emotional stuff in the back of my mind. It can be hard. I’d be doing all of my teammates a disservice if I didn’t just focus on doing my job and making the kick. I say making the kick; there are several components to that. I always take into account the conditions. If the field’s a little wet, I’m going to have to be a little lighter on my plant so I don’t slip. If it’s windy, I’ve got to pick a really specific target line. Say we have a right-to-left wind, and it’s 17 miles per hour, then I might be playing the ball in the right quarter of the uprights, as opposed to the middle.
“At the end of the day, within that moment when the ball is snapped to the time that I kick it, those 1.3 seconds, I think about it as simply as possible. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to go through.”
Conditions couldn’t have been more brutal on January 12, 2013, when the Ravens faced the Denver Broncos in a playoff game in Colorado. The temperature at kickoff was in the single digits, which felt balmy compared to four hours later when Tucker attempted the 47-yard game winner in double overtime.
“I always feel good about going out onto the field,” he says. “Not a lot of people get to do this. This is a heck of a lot of fun.”
As Tucker somehow embraced the moment, an approach he applies to all facets of his life, he made the sign of the cross on his chest (as he does before every kick), while Ravens fans closed their eyes and prayed.
“This young man had never played a game that cold in his entire life,” says Brown, his kicking coach. “He steps on the biggest stage in front of 35 million people, knowing that, if he misses, they’ve got a kicker on the other side who can hit from 70 [yards]. If the other team wins, your season is over. That field had no grass on it; it was frozen solid. With the wind, the cold, making it was huge. It will go down in history as one of the most clutch kicks of all time.”
Three weeks later, Tucker hit two field goals to help the Ravens hoist the Lombardi Trophy near Bourbon Street. That epic night in New Orleans was both the apex of a magnificent rookie season, and a precursor to many virtuoso performances to come.