Bill Little commentary: Justin Tucker -- The final four
A remarkable rookie and a team seeking destiny may have their legacy determined by a sport's final four minutes.
Jan. 29, 2013
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
Justin Tucker tucked his head inside a "hoodie," sitting behind the wheel as his car was filling with gasoline on a clear cold day in Baltimore. He was, for the moment, trying to be obscure in a city where he has become one of the most recognizable and popular stars in the sports-hungry sky which seems to cast a predominantly purple and black hue to an otherwise azure experience on NFL Sundays.
In the summer, the evening lights in the Inner Harbor flicker with the roar of the crowd and the crack of a Baltimore Orioles baseball bat. But when winter comes and the games provide the warmth to folks nestled near the waters of the Chesapeake, it is the imposing dark black and purple of Baltimore Ravens football (with an occasional look of gold and white) that reigns supreme.
Justin Tucker's ascension from a relatively unknown free agent to the Ravens' star kicker as they play in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans is a remarkable story of opportunity, faith, tenacity and self-confidence.
On Sunday - one week from the game - Tucker was preparing for the team's trip to New Orleans and the impending game a week later.
"These are the moments that we always look forward to when you start playing sports. You want to be in that championship matchup with a chance to take home the spoils of war, and we have that opportunity," said Justin. "It's really like a dream come true."
For Tucker's family, the dream actually began when his Dad, Paul - an Austin cardiologist - used to take him to a practice field in West Lake Hills. When he was in high school, his Mom, Michelle, photographed every game from the sidelines. Sisters Samantha (a UT swimmer) and Nicole would cheer him on. Now, the family will gather in New Orleans.
"After we had won the AFC championship game, I got a lot of texts and phone calls from friends wishing me and our team luck. It is really cool to know that I have the support of all my friends and family. Part of the reason we play is for the name on the back of our jerseys so we can honor our family names and honor our relationships with what we do on the football field," he said.
Tucker's role in honoring the family name at Texas came when he kicked the last-second, game-winning field goal to give the Longhorns a victory in what for the foreseeable future was the final regular season game ever between UT and its rival Texas A&M in College Station. To that point, he had never had the opportunity for a winning kick on a game's final play. When he booted a 47-yarder in sudden death double-overtime to send the Ravens to the AFC Championship game at Denver, it was his third game winning kick of this, his first NFL season. The others came during the regular season. En route to New Orleans and the Super Bowl, the Ravens won a playoff game at home against Indianapolis, and two more on the road against Denver and New England.
"This playoff run has been pretty cool to be a part of, especially having played in a couple of close games. That's how all games are in this league, usually coming down to the last four minutes of the game. This whole playoff run has been a blessing to share it with so many great people," he said.
Reflecting the difficulty of reaching the NFL's final game, the veteran-laden Ravens have only one player - iconic linebacker Ray Lewis - who has ever played on a team which won it all.
"Ray's message to the whole team has been that it's going to get crazy when we get to New Orleans, but it is important to remember that nobody will care if you don't win the game. All that is important is that we come out of this week , 1-0, because a victory celebration is a lot better than being on the other end of it," Tucker said.
The veterans on the team have come to believe in the rookie, who is now 32 for 35 in field goals - including a perfect three-for-three in the playoffs including the game winner against Denver.
At Texas, Tucker was the punter and kickoff specialist when teammate Hunter Lawrence booted the game-winning field goal over Nebraska which sent Texas to the BCS National Championship game in 2009, and then he responded when he had his own chance against Texas A&M. Still, the superstitions of the game usually put talking to a kicker before he goes out to try a game winner right up there with never mentioning "no-hitter" to a pitcher who has not allowed a hit in baseball.
In two of the three occasions at Baltimore, that hasn't been the case -including the game winner in the bitter cold in Denver.
"Usually everybody leaves me alone, but I was standing next to that heater on the sideline just trying to get warm, and Ed Reed came up to me. I don't remember exactly what he said because I was pretty locked in, but it was something to the effect of: `We know you got this. It's not even a question to us. Just go out there and do your thing.' And that's exactly what we did. We always think about the action and not the consequence when we are out there on the field," Tucker said.
"We," includes his holder, punter Sam Koch, and deep snapper Morgan Cox. For Tucker, the three are as one.
Before Tucker kicked the game winner on the road at San Diego earlier this year, the legendary Lewis broke the kicker code of silence.
"We were about to go out there and hit the winner and Ray clapped his hands and goes, `It's your time, Tuck.' And Terrell Suggs says, `Be quiet, dude. Nobody talk to him,'" Tucker said. "I just thought it was kind of funny. Morgan and Sam and I always run out on the field together and we were all over there laughing and smiling and saying, `It's going to be cool to watch the highlights on the plane ride home when we knock this thing down.'
"That's really all that goes through our mind. We are able to have fun with it to the point where we are not stressed out or nervous. And to have future Hall of Famers voice their support is a really cool deal."
Reed is a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, Suggs was the defensive player of the year last season and Lewis is recognized as one of the greatest linebackers of all-time.
Justin Tucker will be kicking Sunday at the very highest level of the game of football. History tells us that we are a montage of life as we have known it, and the final regular-season moment of his Texas career will always be a part of who he is.
"When I have been in those situations here where the game comes down to my foot, I am super thankful that my one opportunity in school came in probably the hardest, most hostile environment possible. Being able to come through in that situation gave me a lot of confidence going forward, and like I said, I just go out there and have fun with each opportunity that I have, like I always do," he said.
"Yeah, it's pretty cool to be well-represented and to represent not just our school but the State of Texas in this game," he said. "Being able to play in front of 101,000-plus people for home games and a bunch more watching on TV has definitely helped prepare me for playing in the National Football League. But it is a great feeling to be able to play for everybody back in Texas."
For the Longhorns, the Super Bowl and this last weekend's Pro Bowl continue the legacy of the Mack Brown era at Texas. The contrasts are reflected with the 49ers offensive lineman Davis, who came to Texas in 1997, and Tucker. Tucker was eight years old when Big Leonard first walked into the athletic offices at Texas, and now here are they - along with two other fellow UT alums - playing on the biggest stage in football, and all four continue to represent the Longhorns well.
Earlier this season, after Tucker had achieved celebrity status in Baltimore, he was in a local restaurant and was asked what he wanted to drink.
"Dr Pepper," came the reply.
To which the flustered waiter said, "I'm sorry sir, we don't have Dr Pepper."
At a nearby table, a fellow diner who had overheard the conversation, abruptly arose and left the restaurant - only to return shortly carrying a liter of Dr Pepper purchased from a nearby convenience store.
If Tucker, his kicking comrades Cox and Koch and the Ravens can continue their quest which has taken on miracle proportions, chances are next time the Dr Pepper will arrive in an 18-wheeler. An amazing response for a remarkable rookie, a team seeking destiny, and America's most popular game - all of which may be determined by a sport's final four minutes.