OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- When Justin Tucker lines up for a kick at Lambeau Field on Sunday, it's curious to think what has been more amazing: the unprecedented numbers he has already put up or the self-made path it took to get him to this point with the Baltimore Ravens.
Tucker's All-Pro kicking can be traced back to a fortuitous Google search, some PVC pipes, a one-man YouTube video and, some may say, a touch of arboreal fate.
The second-most accurate kicker in NFL history found his calling from a tree in the backyard of his childhood home in Austin, Texas. Wading through the tall grass with his father, an 11-year-old Justin would kick the ball at an oak tree, whose trunk came 6 feet off the ground and split into a Y shape.
"It was quite ideal," Tucker said. "It’s kind of funny, those were my first set of uprights."
About 16 years later, Tucker is making 50-yard attempts look like chip shots and making the most high-pressure kicks seem routine. A unanimous first-team All-Pro selection last year, he has made 185 of 207 career field goals, an 89.4 percent success rate that ranks only behind Dallas' Dan Bailey, with his only misses this season coming from 58, 62 and 46 yards.
Those close to Tucker knew he had a powerful right leg from watching him, albeit in soccer and not football. He would hit the ball so hard that it regularly sailed above the goal.
Tucker wanted to switch to football in middle school (which is late for those who play football in Texas), and it required some coaxing from a future Hall of Fame quarterback's family to convince Tucker's parents to sign off on it. The stepmother of Drew Brees, who is a close friend of the Tuckers, said, "Let him play, it’s eighth-grade football. He’s less likely to get hurt playing football than soccer. He’s got pads on."
Tucker began as the team's utility player, lining up from running back to middle linebacker to safety. Then, the coach went looking for someone to kick extra points and asked if anyone on the team had played soccer.
"He stepped forward to kick," said Tucker's mother, Michelle. "He really wanted to play on the field. He started kicking the ball, and he realized that he was pretty good at it."
That's how Tucker landed his first kicking job.
Tucker can thank the internet for playing a part in his development as a kicker.
Around the time when he started to get more serious about kicking, at the age of 15, his father, Paul, read an article in Sports Illustrated about Doug Blevins, the kicking guru for Adam Vinatieri. Paul tracked down Blevins by Googling him, only to find out the coach had never worked with high school kickers. After being convinced about Tucker's dedication, Blevins flew from his home in southwest Virginia to work five days with Tucker.
"The moment I knew for sure he realized that he was going to be really good was when Paul hired Doug Blevins to come in and work with him for a week," Michelle said. "Justin’s kicking skills went from good to 'oh my gosh' in a week."
Blevins was equally impressed. He told the parents that you can teach technique and mental toughness, but ...
"What you can’t teach is leg speed," Blevins told Tucker and his family. "Your kid is one of the fastest legs I’ve seen in my career. That’s a gift."
Blevins added, "If he sticks with it, he can kick in the NFL."
During his sophomore season in high school, Tucker showed off his improved skills by drilling kickoffs through the uprights.
"Fans in the stands would all raise their arms like a made field goal," Michelle said.
The PVC pipes
Tucker showed his creativity as well as his zero tolerance for losing with each trip to the hardware store near his high school. Not wanting to kick off a tee, Tucker bought some PVC pipes to build a ball holder, connecting them to form sort of a tripod.
He was consumed with practicing his kicking, repeatedly suggesting to his father, "Let's go kick."
"It was literally nonstop," said Paul, a cardiologist. "We'd hop the fence to get to the practice field at the high school. I remember thinking that I didn't want to get arrested here."
The worse the weather, the more Tucker wanted to knock the ball through the uprights. They spent one Christmas Day kicking the ball when it was 40 degrees and raining.
The routine was Tucker would kick the balls and his father would gather them for him. Near the end, Paul would act as the holder and give his son some pressure situations.
One of the popular scenarios was Texas being down two points to Oklahoma with three seconds remaining. It was win it or go home unhappy.
"He was serious as a heart attack," Tucker's father said. "He wanted to make that kick. More often than not, he did. If he didn’t, it was not good. It wouldn’t be like throwing a temper tantrum or crying, but there would be a lot of destroyed PVC pipes."
One-man YouTube video
Tucker eventually kicked for Texas, where he finished his career in 2011 making 83.3 percent of his field goals (third-best in school history). Still, there were no invitations to the NFL combine, Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Game.
"Somehow I was hiding at the University of Texas, which I didn't know was a thing," Tucker said.
Never deterred, Tucker put together a five-minute YouTube video by himself in order to draw interest from NFL teams. The video, which featured no cuts or editing, showed Tucker making all 10 of his field goal attempts from all distances and him running after the balls to set them up again.
After he makes the final kick, which looks to be from 55 yards, Tucker walks past the camera and says, "Pick me."
Ravens special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg doesn't remember seeing the video. He does recall how he waited until the week before the draft to go to Austin and personally work out Tucker in an effort to not draw any attention.
Rosburg saw an explosive and fast leg and someone who could improve with some fine-tuning of his technique.
"We had a great conversation about it," Rosburg said. "He's an engaging young man. He was determined to be an NFL kicker -- and he was right on."
Becoming a Raven
Tucker didn't just go undrafted in 2012, he didn't immediately get signed by any of the 32 NFL teams.
The Ravens gave him a tryout during rookie minicamp, and Tucker ended the first day of practice with a 55-yard field goal. Still, Tucker had to wait two weeks after that to get a contract, and he received no signing bonus.
From that point on, Tucker was simply unstoppable. He beat out Billy Cundiff (who missed a 32-yard tying field goal in the AFC Championship Game in January 2012) and converted 90.9 percent of his field goals as a rookie for a Super Bowl champion team.
By his second season, he went to his first Pro Bowl. Last season, he put together one of the best seasons ever for an NFL kicker, making 38 of 39 field goals (97.4 percent), including a league-tying 10 from 50 yards or longer.
Tucker was the fastest in NFL history to make 100 field goals (50 games) and to reach the 500-point milestone (60 games), beating out Packers Hall of Fame kicker Jan Stenerud.
"We've got the best kicker in the league," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "There's no doubt about it."
Tucker is also one of the top personalities in the league. He can sing opera in seven different languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Latin and Russian. He does impersonations of George W. Bush, Matthew McConaughey, Christopher Walken and Ray Lewis.
But the one role he coveted the most -- being one of the 32 kickers in the NFL -- was achieved through relentless hard work and a journey that took him from a backyard tree to historic Lambeau Field on Sunday.
"We’re in awe of what he accomplished," Tucker's father said. "We like to say we helped him kick-start the career, so to speak. We drove him to all the practices and maybe helped him a little bit with specialized training with Doug. After that and during that, it was all him."