‘What it is, dummy?’: How Ravens kicker Justin Tucker embraces Baltimore and vice versa
Tucker’s philanthropy and presence in the city make him a fan favorite
The video starts with Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker standing on a grassy lawn, surrounded by young kids as he signs autographs and takes selfies.
It’s a sunny summer day, as evidenced by all the people in shorts and T-shirts, and everyone appears in high spirits, laughing and smiling. Nothing out of the ordinary. Pro athletes meet with fans all the time.
As the 15-second video ends, Tucker, a Texas transplant who moonlights as an opera singer, turns to the camera, eyes wide, and yelled to the cellphone camera operator: “What it is, dummy?”
To the untrained — or perhaps unseasoned — ears, calling someone a dummy might be seen as an insult. But his use of this bit of Baltimore slang shows how Tucker has come to embrace this town and how the town has come to embrace him.
“More than anything, that’s me leaning into the community and just trying to put a smile on someone’s face,” Tucker told Andscape on Wednesday.
Tucker is one of the greatest kickers in NFL history. Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Ravens in 2012, Tucker’s 90.2 career field goal percentage is best in league history, and the game-winning 66-yarder he converted against the Detroit Lions in 2021 is the longest successful NFL field goal. If there’s a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of kicking, it’s likely Tucker.
As the Ravens head into their AFC Championship Game matchup with the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, there’s a good chance Tucker will play an important role. The Ravens are a 3.5-point favorite headed into the game, according to ESPN BET.
But aside from his job as a multimillion-dollar kicker for the No. 1 team in the conference, Tucker takes the time to uplift the community that he’s been a part of for more than a third of his life.
But Tucker wants to be an agent of change in the ways that he can, and the “dummy” video is just one of many ways he’s embedded himself here.
To start, that video was shot last summer in the Brooklyn neighborhood in South Baltimore. The area had recently been rocked by a mass shooting at an annual homecoming party that left an 18-year-old woman and a 20-year-old man dead and 28 people injured.
After the shooting, Ravens coach John Harbaugh and the team’s staff brought food trucks to the area to boost morale, sort of like an impromptu block party. Players and coaches showed up, including Tucker, who lives in Baltimore year-round.
“Anytime there’s something like that going on in the city and you hear about it, and if any of us can just be the reason for one kid having a smile on their face, them having a chance to meet a coach or meet one of their favorite players, that wasn’t something I was ever going to pass up,” Tucker said.
As the video began to circulate, Baltimore natives expressed their pride on social media that their kicker was showing an interest in the city, an interest in them.
“He from Austin and has had love in the hood since his Longhorn days,” one user wrote on TikTok.
“Justin Tucker good in any hood in Baltimore,” a user on X, formerly known as Twitter, wrote.
“Lamar & Justin Tucker can walk into any hood in Baltimore and be valid,” another wrote.
Tucker is grateful for the ’hood pass.
“Well, that means a lot to me,” he said with a wide smile. “That’s good.”
It should be no surprise that Tucker gets it, though. His previous field goal celebrations have referred to rapper Drake’s “Hotline Bling” music video, the Vine sensation Lil TerRio, and whatever this is:
After the Ravens beat the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 1, 2023, this season, Tucker appeared on defensive back Marlon Humphrey’s Instagram live quoting rapper Bankroll Fresh’s “Take Over Your Trap.”
“We walk in the trap, we take over the trap,” Tucker said in what can nicely be called the whitest accent ever.
He’s a cultural chameleon. In 10 minutes during the Ravens’ locker room media availability on Wednesday, Tucker went from calling singer Taylor Swift the “songbird of our generation” to doing an elaborate dap gesture with a passing teammate while asking him, “What it is, slime?”
“He the best kicker in the league, for real, for real, so that’s why the city rock with him, for real for real, just like they rock with Lamar [Jackson],” Ravens fan Keon Fisher said.
Fisher has been a Ravens fan since the franchise relocated to Baltimore in 1996. He’s a former kicker at Edmondson-Westside High School, so he has a soft spot for Tucker. “You know how it is, some people think kickers not a part of the team,” he said.
Based on how well the team plays — the Ravens won Super Bowls in 2000 and 2012 — and their commitment to the community, Fisher isn’t shocked by the embrace of Tucker.
“If they see Justin Tucker, a random white dude walking in the hood, something like that, I’ma be honest with you, I feel like he good wherever he go at,” Fisher said.
It’s not just funny social media posts when it comes to Tucker’s commitment to the city.
For more than 20 years, the Ravens have hosted a community coat drive during the Thanksgiving season. The team hosts the event in collaboration with Helping Up Mission, a Christian nonprofit whose mission statement is to provide “hope to people experiencing homelessness, poverty or addiction by meeting their physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs.”
Tucker, a practicing Catholic, has attended the coat drive since joining the team in 2012. While the event is the brainchild of the Ravens’ community outreach team, Tucker acts as the emcee for a trivia contest that precedes the coat drive, and describes how much it means to him to assist in Helping Up Mission’s core values.
“That’s meaningful to someone who is coming out of the abyss of addiction, feeling whatever they’re feeling personally, internally: shame and guilt and embarrassment and kind of head down,” said Kristopher Sharrar, the director of philanthropy at Helping Up Mission. “Let alone how they’re made to feel by some in the community … judgment and rejection.”
Tucker also visits the center outside of the coat drive. Sharrar said that the presence of Tucker and the other Ravens is uplifting.
“We feel lived, cared for, encouraged,” Sharrar said. “Being seen is being valued. Society would cast the addict, the alcoholic, the pusher, the doper, the dope shooter – all of those pejoratives – aside.
“And when the Ravens come it means ‘We see you, we value you, we’re with you.’ I’m certain [Tucker’s] words have included ‘We stand with you on this journey’ … It goes deeper than the purple and black.”
In 2017, Tucker, who studied recording technology at the University of Texas, won the CBS singing competition show Most Valuable Performer, which came with a $50,000 grand prize that he could donate to a nonprofit. He chose the Baltimore School for the Arts, a public school created in the 1970s to train city students interested in an arts career. The student body is 55% Black and 30% of its most recent graduating class were first-generation college students.
Rosiland Cauthen, executive director of the school, said that Tucker presented the $50,000 donation check in person, and spent most of the day visiting classes, hanging out in the music department, and meeting many of the students and staff. He took photos and honored every autograph request.
“It was like school stopped,” Cauthen said.
Tucker’s donation, which he asked be used for the school’s music department, went toward bringing in guest lecturers, field trips to professional and collegiate musical productions, and instrument repairs and replacement. The donation also had a snowball effect: the Ravens donated another $10,000 to the school in 2022 and had the school perform the national anthem at the season opener in September 2023. The Baltimore Orioles have reached out to collaborate as well.
“You can tell, yes, he’s a great sports player, and all that is great, but you can also tell he is working hard for his community and he’s thinking about social issues and social problems,” Cauthen said. “He’s willing to put his money where his mouth is.”
For Tucker, this is all about replicating the community that shows up for him and his teammates.
“There’s no doubt [I embraced the community]. And the community has embraced each and every one of us on this team, and I think there’s a lot of similarities,” he said. “We might not all look the same, we might not all sound the same, but there are a lot of similarities between how we approach our jobs here as Ravens players and coaches, everybody in this organization.
“In a way, I think we see ourselves as a reflection of our community: this is a town of people that work their tails off and deserve every chance to be happy watching their football team win football games.”