OWINGS MILLS, Maryland — When Justin Tucker was in eighth grade, he discovered the joy of watching a football sail through the uprights.
The way it made him feel was a little like the way he felt when he made music.
This is therapeutic, he thought.
Two years earlier, he had taken up the trumpet. Classical music stirred his soul. Even rigorous practices for concerts didn't bother him. He was given a guitar, and he taught himself to play with YouTube tutorials. His first song was "Wingman" from the old Coors Light commercials.
His plan was to pursue his twin passions in high school: music and sports. But it wasn't to be. His football coaches had no problem sharing him with the band. The band director, however, told him he had to choose.
|Justin Tucker 2016 stats|
Put off by the band director, Tucker chose football.
It is a decision for which the Baltimore Ravens are thankful.
Through five NFL seasons, Tucker has the second-best field-goal percentage in NFL history at 89.4 percent. He had a streak of 35 straight field goals that dated back to last season until a kick was blocked on Monday. In a league full of kickers who can't shoot straight, Tucker is a rarity who could make a difference in the most critical games of the season.
He never gave up music though. He couldn't if he wanted to.
Tucker went to the University of Texas as a kicker, a punter and a broadcast journalism major. One week into his college experience, he knew broadcast journalism wasn't for him. He wanted to major in something that didn't feel like school.
What could that be? Music, again.
He took several months of voice lessons and auditioned for the Butler School of Music. He was accepted, and during his time at Texas, he found his bass-baritone voice and learned to sing opera in English, Russian, Czech, Latin, Italian, French, German and Spanish. He learned about chord analysis, secondary dominants and counterpoint too.
Along the way, he kept kicking.
In the 2012 NFL draft, four kickers were selected. None of them were named Justin Tucker. Three teams expressed interest in him as a free agent. The Bears would have taken him as a punter. The Cowboys were interested in him as a kicker/punter. Only the Ravens wanted him as a pure kicker.
He chose Baltimore, where his competition was 2010 Pro Bowler Billy Cundiff. The truth is, no one expected Tucker to beat him out. Tucker struggled early. After two days of training camp, Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg and kicking consultant Randy Brown called in Tucker for a "come to Jesus" meeting that lasted two hours.
For nine years, Rosburg and Brown have worked together, developing kickers such as Steven Hauschka and Graham Gano by convincing them to adjust their style and adopt specific techniques for approach, alignment and aiming point. If Tucker was going to have a chance to stay, he was going to have to start kicking the Ravens way.
"I liked his swing and his talent," Rosburg said. "But there were some things that were unusual about the way he approached the kicks, and his results were not very good. To his credit, after our talk he changed the way he approached kicking at a remarkable pace. It worked."
Tucker beat out Cundiff, and after hitting only 81 percent of his kicks his final season at Texas, he connected on 90.9 percent of his attempts his rookie season. He completed his rookie year by kicking a 38-yard field goal from the left hash with a little more than four minutes remaining that effectively clinched Super Bowl XLVII.
He has mastered the art of kicking to the point that he has never been in a significant slump in five NFL seasons.
"He's really valuable to us," Rosburg said. "We think we have an advantage with him."
How did Tucker get so good so fast? It goes back to his other passion.
When Tucker was studying music at Texas, he learned how important attention to detail is to serious musicians. And it was attention to detail that helped make Tucker an NFL kicker.
He knows well the punch line to the old joke, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"
"You practice," Tucker said. And does he.
On the field in back of the Ravens' facility, he takes note of width and length from his planted foot to the ball, placement of his foot on the ball and the steps to get downfield after swinging through the ball. Every motion between running out onto the field to the post-kick celebration is scrutinized.
Tucker takes between 40 and 60 practice kicks three days a week during the season as the Ravens video staff tapes. Then he goes back and studies each one.
"He's able to follow the same technique and ball-striking ability every time that some kickers can't," Ravens long snapper Morgan Cox said. "He's able to do the exact same thing every time. That's what makes him really good."
Cox is part of Tucker's success, too. As is holder Sam Koch. As are Rosburg and Brown. They have been with Tucker since he's been in the league, and they function exceptionally well as a unit. Tucker is quick to praise the people around him, saying they share a passion for being great.
"We emphasize detail so much and so frequently that when we get into a game, those 1.3 seconds between the snap, hold and kick almost are automatic," he said. "Any specialist will tell you they want to be known as automatic. And the same could be said for a performer in a fine arts setting."
Tucker studies kickers who strike the ball the same way he does. Among them are Adam Vinatieri, Phil Dawson, Matt Stover, Robbie Gould, Morten Andersen and Stephen Gostkowski.
It was a habit he picked up by studying singers he admires—Placido Domingo, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Luciano Pavarotti and Bryn Terfel.
"I listen to guys who can produce that big, room-filling sound, or vocalists I feel may fall into a similar voice classification with me," he said.
At 6'1", 180 pounds, with long legs, Tucker was made to kick a football.
He once made a 61-yard field goal, three yards short of the NFL record. He will tell you he can kick an 85-yarder.
"It's not that I think I can," he said. "I know I can. I've done it [in practice]."
There aren't many kickers who have played the game who can kick it any farther.
After having only 12 touchbacks his final year at Texas, he became one of the most effective kickoff men in the NFL as a rookie. Tucker can send a kickoff through the uprights, and he has suggested the NFL award teams a point for such a play.
We think of opera singers as round and portly, but the linear Tucker also is built well for arias, according to his voice coach.
Nikita Storojev is an associate professor at Texas and a former soloist in the Bolshoi Theater who has performed in opera houses from Tokyo to New York. The Russian-turned-Texan taught Tucker an Italian technique used by classical singers for 400 years called bel canto.
Storojev, who played professional hockey in Russia, has found athletes have an edge in acclimating to singing bel canto-style.
"The technique is about muscle coordination," he said. "In that way, classical signing is very close to sport. It's difficult to be loud for several hours. You have to learn how to support this. It's completely different from pop singer or country music singer. You need to use whole diaphragm. And not just six-pack. Also inside muscles."
After two semesters with Storojev, Tucker was singing "Toreador Song" from "Carmen" in French.
"It is difficult, aria," Storojev said. "It usually takes people until the end of study to be able to sing, four or five years. He made it in one year."
The 27-year-old is gifted enough to be able to dream of singing professionally after the NFL is done of him.
"He is a talented guy," Storojev said. "His voice is good. To be professional opera singer, he need to come back and continue study because job not done yet. He needs more work. But even now he show good technique and voice, which is very important."
The orchestra in a sunken pit was in front of him, the chorus behind him. The backdrop was a white altar lit by six candles.
Tucker felt his heart beating. Then butterflies in the stomach.
About 700 people had paid $125 to attend the Catholic Charities Christmas Festival at the Baltimore Basilica last December, and Tucker would perform the featured song. The Basilica was built from 1806 to 1821, making it one of the oldest cathedrals in America. Tucker is a Catholic who makes the sign of the cross before every kick, and he knew his presence was helping to raise approximately $100,000 for Gallagher Services, a charity for intellectually disabled adults.
He said he was more nervous than he was at the Super Bowl.
The organist began the prelude, and then he began to sing "Ave Maria".
"Very magical," said critically acclaimed conductor Edward Polochick, the artistic director for the program. "I remember feeling how incredibly special it was and how he touched the audience. He is a classically trained singer who has a huge musical soul, and when he shares his gift, he connects to people."
On Thursday, he returned to the Basilica for another Catholic Charities Christmas Festival and a performance of "O Holy Night."
Tucker believes he developed poise under pressure by singing—specifically singing for a voice jury at Texas at the end of each semester that could determine his future in the program.
"The juries looked at him differently from normal student because he was famous already at the university," Storojev said. "Most of our voice juries, they know who is this guy. Some of them skeptical. OK, you good player, show us what you can do on stage. To convince them, it's not easy."
When Tucker lines up for a critical kick in a crazy stadium, he thinks of himself as a singer on a stage. And when Tucker approaches a microphone in front of a refined audience, he thinks about how he calms his mind before kicking a field goal.
"In each circumstance, I draw upon completely different worlds for the serenity I need to meet that moment and be better than it," he said.
In order to become the kicker who cannot be iced and the singer who gives you chills, the balance between emotion and focus has been critical for Tucker.
"When you are performing a piece of music, you are doing everything you can to emote and convey a message, while still being focused on each note," he said. "Whereas in a football game, there are a lot of ups and downs and emotions.
"I think about embracing it and harnessing them in a way that is productive, while still being singularly focused on the task at hand."
Rosburg appreciates that Tucker, who has been known to start to run on the field before a field goal has been called for, grasps the big moment.
"That's one of the things that separates him from everyone else," Cox said. "His confidence is off the charts."
At his rookie talent show, instead of stumbling through a college fight song, he performed "O Sole Mio" to stunned teammates. He has sung in commercials for Royal Farms and Dr Pepper, and these days, the shower area at the Under Armor Performance Center undoubtedly is the most entertaining in the NFL. One day, it's Mozart's "Don Giovanni" echoing through the locker room; another it's "Net, Tolko, Tot, Kto, Znal" from Tchaikovsky, and then "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini's Turandot.
Tucker is fortunate to play for John Harbaugh, a coach who encourages his players to be themselves. Harbaugh recognizes Tucker does not sing because he wants to. Tucker sings because he needs to.
Whatever that something special is that's inside of him will not be held in. And it will not go away. He learned that back in high school when he quit band but still was driven to make beats, compose electronic music and rap with friends.
Now, he has not played the trumpet in maybe 12 years. But he is reasonably certain he could pick one up and play the first two movements of Jean-Baptiste Arban's version of "Carnival of Venice."
The song, you see, could never leave him.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.