Everyone has their Justin Tucker moment. That instant when it becomes blindingly obvious that the 27-year-old Raven is not your average kicker. When in fact you’re forced to question every notion you previously held about the position.
Maybe your Justin Tucker moment came last Sunday. While most kickers would have been getting one more practice shot in on the sidelines as John Harbaugh considered a 57-yard attempt, Tucker was running on the field, helmet in hand, and yelling back at his coach. We’re kicking it. After nailing the kick, Tucker turned to the crowd with his arms outstretched, taking in the applause. Then he turned to the other side so thousands more could heap praise upon the most valuable player for the current AFC North leaders.
Baltimore is 6–5 despite scoring the third fewest touchdowns in the league thanks in part to its fourth-ranked defense, but also because of Tucker. In what otherwise has been a historically poor season for kickers, the highest-paid man at the position has continued to distance himself from the pack.
Whereas Tucker’s kicking colleagues have historically earned a reputation for being fragile balls of nerves wrapped in self-critical superegos, his teammates openly joke that their guy might have too much confidence. And while others try to turn the field goal operation into robotics, Tucker plays the part of performer—with encore after encore. He’s the only perfect kicker remaining in 2016, entering Week 13’s matchup with Miami 27 of 27 on field goals and 15-of-15 on extra points. He’s been worth an additional three points per game for the Ravens, according to NumberFire’s calculations. And he’s slowly convincing the NFL that kickers can ball, too.
Then-Texas coach Mack Brown had his Justin Tucker moment about five miles west of UT’s stadium, when he saw the kicker also played safety for Westlake High. Tucker had started football late for a Texan—he switched from his first passion, soccer, because he collected too many yellow cards—but still impressed Brown enough to become a rare scholarship kicker for the Longhorns. Brown witnessed another Justin Tucker moment during the kid’s sophomore year, when he attempted an unplanned fake punt from his own six-yard line. “Confidence, he does not lack,” Brown said.
During one of Tucker’s first days in Baltimore as a 2012 undrafted free agent, he sought out Ed Reed to tell him, “Hey man, I’ve got to let you know I modeled my game after you.” Reed shot back, “Aren’t you our kicker?” But the All-Pro safety quickly found out that this rookie was more than that. Reed was used to kickers keeping to themselves in the locker room. Not this one. Tucker constantly cracked jokes and sang in the shower. “He literally never stops talking,” says punter Sam Koch, who has also been Tucker’s holder for his entire career.
In November of his rookie year, as Tucker jogged out for a game-winning overtime kick at San Diego, Terrell Suggs did his best to enforce the longstanding cone of silence that is assumed to surround specialists in those moments. Nobody talk to him, he demanded, looking at Ray Lewis in particular. Tucker found the whole thing funny (he drilled the 38-yarder, of course).
The team had learned to boot all of its kicker-related orthodoxy out the window by the divisional round of that year’s playoffs. So as Tucker prepared for a 47-yard attempt to end double-overtime at Mile High, this time it was Reed who wandered over to the kicker rather than the other way around. “We know you got this,” he said. Three weeks later, they were all Super Bowl champions.
And out of all the perks that came from being a 23-year-old Super Bowl winner, Tucker says his favorite was getting to go on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Because as much as he likes to score points on Sunday, he’s a performer at heart. That’s why he’ll mimic Terio or Drake after kicking a field goal and dole out dad jokes at a press conference. He’ll do just about anything in a commercial, no matter how much crap he gets from teammates for it. A music major at Texas, Tucker can sing opera tunes in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Latin and Russian. He’s also ready and able to freestyle rap.
When he returned to Austin in 2014 to give a commencement speech at his alma mater’s College of Fine Arts, he was far from the first to draw parallels between those artistic endeavors and his day job. “My art just so happens to take place on a gridiron,” he said. Learning to sing had taught him how to properly funnel his emotions while also simplifying the task at hand. On the field, he said, “I lose myself in that moment, much like a musician.”
But you could also delve further into Tucker’s background to figure out what makes him tick. His dad, Paul, is a Hall of Famer of a different sort, a member of the Texas Monthly Super Doctors Hall of Fame as a cardiologist. When he was a preteen, Justin routinely watched his dad insert catheters and stents into patients’ chests. Precision must run in the family.
So, it turns out, all you need to become a premier kicker is the aggressive mentality of a high school safety, the confident bravado of a performing artist, and the attention to detail of an award-winning heart doc. The final product might be an oddball—capable of holding a full conversation with himself—but a confident, approachable one. The type of guy who, in homage to childhood hero Deion Sanders, lays his uniform on the ground in front of his locker before every game, helmet to cleats. But who also is willing to laugh when a teammate covertly messes up the display. For another kicker, the routine might be labeled superstition. For Tucker, Koch goes with “swag.”
Tucker already owns Ravens records for longest field goal, most field goals in a game and most in a season. On a good day, with the right weather, he claims he could hit from 84.5 yards, 20.5 more than the current NFL record (confidence, he does not lack). “He may be the best kicker ever,” Harbaugh told CBS before Sunday’s game, when Tucker added another record—this one for most makes from 50-plus in a half (three). “Just ask him.” For now, one thing is for sure.
This is Justin Tucker’s moment.