at a game-winning kick in the NFL.
Ravens fans were all-too-familiar with lining up for a field goal with the New England Patriots. Cundiff was gone this time, and instead it was a 22-year old rookie who did his college kicking at the University of Texas. Tucker knew big spots and big games from his days as a member of the Longhorns. But the Ravens and their fans had been here before.
Tucker, a local from Austin’s Westlake High School and son of a cardiologist, always had a competitive streak. He always thought of himself as a football player who could kick, a testament to him playing safety and wide receiver at Westlake. Coincidentally, Tucker was trained by Patriots’ Super Bowl kicking legend Adam Vinatieri’s trainer Doug Blevins in Virginia as a college kicker trying to make it in the NFL. He played soccer as a child and spent the rest of his time on a stage singing opera and standards. He had no sense of stage fright. Tucker, who quickly earned the respect of his teammates in winning his summer battle with Cundiff, had watched the Ravens lose the AFC Championship Game on television back on the Austin campus. He wasn’t intimidated by NFL pressure. Tucker had experienced Texas Longhorns pressure and kind of liked it.
“I think kicking the football is one of the closest parallels that you can find from college to the pros,” Tucker said. “The goal posts are the same widths, you have the same challenges. There is a close parallel. It’s not like playing outside linebacker where everyone is bigger, stronger, and faster, and the game is different.”
Former Ravens kicker Matt Stover, who was on the Super Bowl XXXV team and spent 13 seasons as Baltimore’s kicker, praised Tucker earlier that week. “I’ve been impressed by him. Justin kicks a clean ball. My initial thought on Justin is that he has a great attitude about him, the, ‘Why-not-me?’ attitude. He carries a confidence about him. You can tell by the way he attacks the ball. There’s no hesitancy, and there’s a lot of confidence behind his kicks. The other thing I really like is he’s got a commanding presence. I’ve talked with both Sam [Koch] and Morgan [Cox], and they speak very highly of him. He’s a very capable guy. He seems to be a good pro. This is a very good team with hopes for the playoffs. You want to see a kid like him grow up quick, but Justin has a great support staff around him to help him and manage him.”
Now, Tucker had a chance to beat the Patriots with a 27-yard field goal and earn some redemption for his teammates who endured that awful night in Foxborough.
Tucker’s kick sailed to the right virtually over the post and orange flag and was signaled as good. The Ravens had defeated the Patriots 31-30, but not before defensive tackle Vince Wilford ran toward the official under the goal post with his helmet off and Belichick chased down the referee and grabbed him looking for an explanation.
It was the thinnest of margins, but the Ravens had avenged the loss from January, and despite Tucker’s heroics at the end, the postgame conversation was all about Torrey Smith, the loss of his brother, and his performance against the Patriots.
Smith hadn’t slept all night, had driven to Virginia in the middle of the night where he found a devastated family, and returned to catch six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns on national television against the team that kept him out of the Super Bowl as a rookie.
“It was tough. I didn’t know until 4 o’clock if I was going to play,” Smith said. “I only had like an hour of sleep. Emotionally, I didn’t know how I was going to hold up. When I came here, the more I was grounded. The more comfortable I began to feel. I’m glad I came back