Baltimore Ravens’ Kicker Pursues an Upright Life
Justin Tucker says he gains strength from the Catholic Church to face life’s challenges.
Last season, rookie placekicker Justin Tucker made all 42 of his point-after-touchdown attempts (PATs) and 30 of his 33 field-goal tries. He kicked the game-winning field goal on three occasions, most memorably during the Ravens’ double-overtime victory against the Denver Broncos in the playoffs. This feat was followed by victories over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
Curiously enough, however, last season almost never happened for Tucker, 23. Despite an outstanding collegiate career for the University of Texas Longhorns, none of the 32 teams in the NFL selected him in the 2012 Draft. As a result, he had to prove himself during training camp and the preseason in order to make the Ravens’ squad.
Challenges are nothing new to Tucker, and neither is the place he obtains strength to overcome them: the Catholic Church.
Tucker, who makes the Sign of the Cross before every kick, spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie in anticipation of the Ravens’ 2013 preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Aug. 8.
After winning the Super Bowl in your rookie season, is it difficult to find motivation for this season?
Some people might think that, but it’s really the opposite with me. After winning the Super Bowl, I woke up the next morning thinking, “It would be a lot of fun to do it again.” I don’t look back on it and think there’s nothing more for me to do; I think of this season as a blank slate and how much I can improve. I have more motivation now than ever.
The team got along very well last season, but how will you manage without the leadership of six-time Pro Bowl selection Matt Birk, also a Catholic, who retired after the Super Bowl victory?
The first two words that come to mind when I think of Matt are “intellectual” and “spiritual.” He’s someone who thinks through things intently and someone who acts through sincere convictions. Matt was a respected leader on the team, and we will definitely miss his presence on the field and in the locker room.
We still have many of the same guys on the team this year, which is great. We genuinely enjoy being around each other and working together, which is a tremendous blessing. We put in a lot of hours working hard, but we also have a lot of fun doing it. That ability to make work fun can take you a long way.
Do you pray as a team before games?
The Ravens offer a Mass on Sunday mornings. There are quite a few of us who are Catholic and attend Mass together, which is a pretty cool deal. Then, in the locker room, just before the game, we grab hands as an entire team, and someone always offers a prayer that we play to glorify God and to thank him for the opportunities with which we have been blessed.
Just like a family that prays together stays together, our team prays together, and each player knows the man next to him has his back. Our focus is to give all the glory to God, while emerging victorious in the process.
Some people think it must be tough maintaining a Christ-centered life in the NFL, or in any pro sport for that matter, but I’ve found it to be quite the opposite. I know, without a doubt, how fortunate I am to do what I do, and I am very grateful for my opportunities. All these blessings make me think of the One who gave them to me.
Has the Catholic faith always been a part of your life?
Both of my parents, Paul and Michelle, are Catholic, so I was raised in the Church from birth. The rich traditions of the Church have always been a part of my life. Every time I’ve faced a tough challenge or had a setback of some kind, I’ve always gone back to my faith — in the Holy Trinity, the communion of saints, our holy Mother Mary.
The saint I admire most for his firm standing in Christian faith as the “Rock” — or the protector — of the Church is Peter. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to Simon, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
I find Peter’s story very inspiring for the Church and all her people across the world. Jesus takes a simple man who he knows has something great inside him and changes his name to Cephas (“rock” in Aramaic). In that moment, Peter is both blessed and challenged with the task of sustaining and protecting the Christian faith for all generations to come. This is still done today through Peter’s intercession, but also through other men in the Petrine ministry, or the papacy.
One of the things I truly love about the Church is her rich history, through both good times and bad. Jesus promised us that the Church would never perish, and he directly prompted Peter to carry the Church on his back, just like Jesus carried the cross on his.
Before the Bible was completed, the Christian faith had to be passed down from one generation to the next in some way. This was done verbally, as described in Romans 10:17: “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” Knowing today that everything that constitutes Christian teaching was made possible in the first years of the Church, mainly through preaching, which is very closely associated with faith, (is amazing).
The entire Christian world must rely on faith in order to live out its mission. I’ve been blessed with a public spotlight of sorts, so perhaps it is my mission to be a beacon of faith, a rock.
One of the ways you do this is by making the Sign of the Cross before every kick.
Before and after each kicking attempt, I simply thank God for the opportunity he has given me. I ask that my hard work comes to fruition; I ask for resolve and, most importantly, that his name be glorified.
Aside from prayer, what qualities make a good kicker?
A kicker’s mind is his greatest asset. Those with a fearless resolve in crunch time tend to be the ones with the longest careers. The kickers I’ve studied most on film are Adam Vinatieri (who has four Super Bowl rings to his name), Phil Dawson (former University of Texas placekicker, now with the 49ers), and Matt Stover (former Ravens kicker). All of them have performed in adverse conditions, when their teams needed them most, which requires a sort of resolve and focus that is not easily attained. I particularly admire Matt for his display of faith on the field, pointing heavenward after each attempt.
If you weren’t playing in the NFL, what would you be doing?
There are tons of things other than football that I’m interested in, so I’m not really sure exactly which one I’d be doing. Whether it’s something music-related or in real-estate development, oil and land, etc., the same attempt to live out the Catholic faith would absolutely be there.
I’m very happy about the opportunity I have to kick in the NFL, and I’ll try to do it as long as possible. It’s a great adventure, but also a unique platform for sharing what matters most in life: God’s love for us. That love is the ultimate motivation for trying to live an upright life.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.