As he has done before every game and practice since college, Tucker will finish his warm-ups with a kick from the right hashmark, 48 yards out. It was from that exact distance 20 years ago that Tucker’s idol, Adam Vinatieri, kicked a last-second field goal to lift the New England Patriots to their first Super Bowl victory, 20-17, over the St. Louis Rams.
Tucker remembers watching that game as a 12-year-old. But it took him a few years, after he found his passion for kicking, to really appreciate the magnitude of the moment.
“To me, this is one of the biggest kicks that’s ever been, if not the biggest kick that’s ever been made,” Tucker told ESPN. “This [routine] just puts myself in that mindset, each and every day. How am I going to approach this kick and this moment when it arrives?
“That’s one of the greatest parts of sports, seeing one guy propel his team to that winning moment.”
Tucker learned about Vinatieri through Doug Blevins, a personal kicking coach who helped Vinatieri transform from an unknown out of South Dakota State into a Super Bowl legend with four rings. When Tucker wanted to fully commit to being a kicker in high school, his family tracked down Blevins, who noticed one key similarity.
“They both want to be on the stage,” Blevins said. “They both want to be ‘the guy.'”
An undrafted rookie a decade ago, Tucker has since earned a Super Bowl title, five first-team All-Pro selections and an immeasurable amount of respect from around the league. When a kicker misses a late field goal, it doesn’t take long before “Tucker would’ve made it” is posted on social media.
Tucker’s 91.1% accuracy on field goal attempts is the best in NFL history. And he’s not only the most accurate, but he’s also the best in high-pressure situations. He has converted 59 straight field goals in the fourth quarter — including a 51-yarder Sunday in Miami — and overtime, which is the longest active streak in the league. That includes an NFL-record 66-yarder last season in the closing moments of a 19-17 win in Detroit.
Those who’ve known Tucker since he was a child aren’t surprised. They’ve seen his confidence fuel his ability to thrive in the spotlight, whether it was a fifth-grade talent show, a game-winning penalty kick in high school or a singing audition for acceptance into the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music.
But there have been challenges. The first was convincing his mother, Michelle, to let him play football. And the person who helped him achieve that goal was — of all people — Drew Brees’ stepmother.
“I equate him to Mariano Rivera, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods,” said Ravens special teams coach Randy Brown, who has been on the sideline and practice field for every one of Tucker’s kicks. “They’re the guys who want the ball at the end of the game and the end of their tournament.
“Justin’s ability to focus, and his need for the ball at the end of the game, is really what sets him apart from others.”
ONE OF THE early signs that Tucker wasn’t afraid of the moment was when he took the mic and sang “Danke Schoen,” during his fifth-grade talent show. The performance sparked memories of the parade scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Wearing a suit, Tucker played to the crowd by going up and down the aisles of the school auditorium.
“He just is not afraid of the limelight,” said Justin’s father, Paul Tucker, a cardiologist in the Tuckers’ hometown of Austin, Texas.
Michelle, who is a professional photographer, said: “He has zero inhibitions. I don’t know why he’s like that, but it’s just the way he’s wired.”
An example of that came during Tucker’s first year at Westlake High School. He was the only freshman on the varsity soccer team, and during one game against rival Austin, he was fouled in the box with only seconds remaining. And while he wasn’t the one who usually handled penalty kicks, he grabbed the ball and set it down on the spot.
“I just made it a point that I’m taking this PK,” Tucker said. “I’m putting this game away.”
Tucker ripped a shot into the upper right corner for his first game-winning kick.
Many, including Tucker’s parents, believed soccer represented his best shot at a college scholarship. But Tucker wanted to play football, and he tried to convince Michelle in the eighth grade.
“No, you really need to concentrate on soccer. You’re so good,” she told her son, who had played the sport since he was 4.
Michelle wasn’t giving in — until she had lunch with Amy Hightower Brees. Westlake High School can boast two alums who are likely headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tucker and Drew Brees. Amy is Drew’s stepmother.
“Oh good god, woman! Let him play!” Amy told her close friend Michelle. “There’s tons of pads. He’s so much more protected than soccer. Just let him play.”
For his first two years of high school, Tucker played two sports in the fall. He would go from practicing football for two and half hours in the afternoon to practicing soccer for two hours at night. In between, Michelle would bring two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, two Gatorades and a towel for the car because Tucker was dripping with so much sweat.
“Now I look back, and I feel like an idiot because football was definitely what opened the door for him,” Michelle said.
TUCKER WAS A communications major when he started at the University of Texas, but he found out broadcast journalism wasn’t for him. Tucker had a love for music and even taught himself how to play the guitar by watching YouTube videos. So he set his sights on the Butler School of Music, which required four months of singing lessons with a graduate student before his audition.
To get admitted, Tucker had to stand on stage and sing in front of three faculty judges. He belted out “The Impossible Dream,” and was admitted.
Tucker majored in recording technology at Texas and studied under professor Nikita Storojev, a renowned opera singer. Tucker’s repertoire includes singing in seven different languages — English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Latin and Russian.
On the football field, Tucker would finish his college career in 2011 after making 83.3% of his field goals, which was the third-best percentage in school history. Still, he wasn’t invited to the NFL combine, Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Game.
Tucker graduated a semester early in order to train for the draft. To help promote himself, Tucker shot a five-minute YouTube video — no cuts or editing — of him making all 10 of his field goal attempts from various distances. At the end, he looked at the camera and said, “Pick me.”
It didn’t work. Tucker went undrafted and ultimately signed with the Ravens after coach John Harbaugh chose him over incumbent Billy Cundiff following a preseason competition.
Finishing school early meant Tucker wouldn’t walk across the stage to graduate, but he was asked to return and give the commencement speech two years later.
He explained to the Texas graduates that “his art” takes place on a football field. The field goal operation, from the snap to the hold to the kick, is a performance.
“To me, in those 1.3 seconds lies a sort of cathartic beauty,” Tucker said in May 2014. “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.”
TUCKER’S 66-YARD FIELD goal in Detroit on Sept. 26 not only represents the longest field goal in NFL history, it also goes down as one of the gutsiest decisions ever by a kicker.
With three seconds remaining and the Ravens trailing 17-16, Tucker went through his normal routine. He took three steps back and then moved two steps to his left before making a last-second, “semi-spontaneous” audible.
“I looked up and I realized these [goal] posts are pretty far away,” Tucker said. “I’m going to have to find a little something extra to get the ball to go.”
Tucker remembered he was short on his 65-yard attempts before the game. He had practiced a “crow hop” for over a year, but he had never used it in a game. It’s more of a kickoff approach where he moves back slightly to generate more power.
“I just decided, ‘What the hell. I’ll just back up a little extra half a step, let it rip and see what happens,'” Tucker said.
— NFL (@NFL) September 26, 2021
Tucker’s kick hung in the air for three seconds at Ford Field before bouncing high off the crossbar and then clearing it.
“When it doinked off the bar, my first gut reaction was, ‘Oh my gosh it was so close,'” said Michelle, who was watching the game with the rest of the family in Austin. “Then when I saw the ref put his hands up like it was good, I’m like, ‘What happened? What just happened?'”
Tucker is the only kicker in NFL history to hit two field goals of 60 yards or longer in the final minute of regulation. He improved to 16-for-16 on field goal tries in the final minute.
“He’s not afraid to fail,” said Brown, the Ravens special teams coach.
Tucker’s white jersey, black pants and socks all were sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and it’s legitimate to wonder whether Tucker will eventually land in Canton himself. His résumé includes going 4-for-4 in the Ravens’ 2012 Super Bowl run, including a double-overtime game winner over the Broncos in the divisional round.
Only two kickers are currently in the Hall of Fame: Jan Stenerud and Morten Andersen. Stenerud converted 66.8% of his kicks over three decades, and Anderson made 79.7% of his tries from 1982 to 2007. Both are double-digit percentage points short of Tucker’s conversion rate.
“I really try not to think about that stuff,” Tucker said. “I really try to make it a point to take it one kick at a time. That’s something that I heard from my agent [Rob Roche] coming out of college, and it’s some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten, right next to my grandfather when I was trying out for the high school varsity team; he said, ‘Justin, just kick the damn ball.’
“So, between those two principles — less is more, simple is better, I guess.”