- - Wednesday, September 26, 2012

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Before Justin Tucker knew it, Terrell Suggs was pouring water out of two Gatorade bottles on top of his head in celebration.

The water was icy and the temperature was in the low-60s, which is cold for the Austin, Texas, native. But he was all smiles, having just delivered a game-winning 27-yard kick to defeat the New England Patriots 31-30 on Sunday night.

“I was going into the locker room shivering,” Tucker said.

Tucker’s kick exorcised the demons that were still lingering from Billy Cundiff’s missed 32-yarder that ended the Ravens’ chances against the Patriots in last season’s AFC championship game. Cundiff, now with the Redskins, was beaten out by the rookie Tucker in training camp.

Tucker’s kick barely cleared. It went directly over the right upright, which is good and not reviewable.

This wasn’t the first game-winner for Tucker, who played college football at Texas. Against rival Texas A&M, Tucker kicked a game-winning 40-yard field goal as time expired last November. His teammates tackled him and piled on before two Longhorns picked him up and placed him on their shoulders.

Tucker has come through in two crucial moments in less than a year. His early success in Baltimore, however, doesn’t surprise his teammates.

“I was already sending my farewells,” running back Ray Rice said. “I’ve seen him make those kicks in practice all the time.”

Changing sports

Tucker’s parents had him participating in soccer at an early age, and he quickly became competitive at it. When he was 10, he began playing club-level soccer and stayed with it until he was about 15.

Maybe his leg was too strong or maybe he didn’t take to the finesse required when striking goals, because his leg began telling him it was time to switch sports.

“I found out I was in the wrong sport when I was hitting the ball over the crossbar on a consistent basis,” Tucker said.

In addition, Tucker’s friends were playing football and he wanted in. He became the kicker for Westlake High School in Austin but also played defensive back and receiver. Having spent time as a defender in high school, Tucker never shied away from contact in college.

At Texas, he posted 24 career special teams tackles. Kickers aren’t thought of as hitters, and if a kicker is making a tackle, it’s usually a bad sign since they’re typically the last line of defense on special teams.

But if Tucker has the opportunity to hit, he’ll do it. He doesn’t back down.

“You can’t hit anybody in soccer like you can in football,” Tucker said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Kicker ‘has character’

Long snapper Morgan Cox said he hasn’t met many kickers with Tucker’s personality.

“You don’t often see goofy kickers,” Cox said. “One way to describe him is he’s goofy.”

Since defeating Cundiff for the kicking job, Tucker has done his part to fit in with the Ravens’ locker room, which is filled with unique personalities.

One example would be how competitive a lot of these players get when playing the popular tailgating came cornhole, which pits competitors tossing bean bags onto a wooden plank with a hole drilled near the top.

If you get a bean bag on the plank you score one point. If a bean bag goes through the hole, you earn three. Two cornhole sets regularly sit in the middle of the locker room, with players competing against each other every day.

Tucker took it upon himself to draft his own power rankings for each player who participates. Checking in at No. 1 is punter Sam Koch, with Joe Flacco and Cox ranked second and third, respectively.

Tucker is in the middle of the pack, describing himself as a promising up-and-comer. Then there’s his analysis of Suggs, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year who’s sidelined with an Achilles injury. Suggs is ranked last.

“Undoubtedly the worst Cornholer in the building,” Tucker wrote. “Displays horrible fundamentals. Sloppy delivery only leads to problems. Simon Cowell of American Idol and X-Factor has said of Sizzle’s technique: ‘Appalling with a capital ‘A.’ Positively dreadful.’”

Defensive end Pernell McPhee was caught laughing while reading this. It generated a big buzz among those who enjoy the game.

Tucker’s different from every other kicker,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “The dude has character. He’s loud, he’s having fun, and we’re enjoying him.”

As close as it gets

With two seconds on the clock, Tucker lined up, prepared to kick the game-winner against New England. Cox snapped the ball, and Tucker drilled it down the middle of the uprights — but not before the Patriots called a timeout.

“It’s a pretty common practice,” Tucker said. “You see that all across football, from high school all the way up to here. I really just take the opportunity to take a warm-up shot at it. I take it for what it’s worth.”

Tucker lined up to again attempt his first career game-winner in the NFL. This time, the ball began drifting to the right. If Tucker’s attempt was from a few yards farther back, it might have missed wide.

But at 27 yards away, the ball flew directly over the upright.

The referee standing below that upright signaled it good, which gave the Ravens their first regular-season victory over New England in franchise history.

“Bottom line is it went in,” Tucker said. “That’s all I care about. It went in.”

Tucker’s talent is apparent. During the preseason he made multiple 60-yarders in practice. But by beginning the season with two 50-yarders against Philadelphia and a game-winner against New England, expectations for the rookie are going to continue to climb.

Tucker said all he can do is continue to make kicks when his number is called. Having his teammates back him makes the process more enjoyable.

“That’s something I think makes us stronger as a whole,” Tucker said. “You can’t walk around this building without seeing somebody with a smile on their face at any given time. That’s one thing I’ve found out in my short time being here. There’s a lot of happy people in this building. And obviously, people are a lot more happy when you win.”