Tucker McCann and evolution of mind and foot

Short-term memory has yielded long-term success for Missouri's junior kicker, whose up-and-down career started at a kicking camp he was five years too young for.
Kicker Tucker McCann lines up for an extra point attempt in the first quarter of Missouri’s matchup with UT-Martin on Sept. 1, 2018.

The previous five hours converged on one temporarily idle figure at midfield of Williams-Brice Stadium. Tucker McCann stood there all alone, center stage in a game that seemed far beyond the control of one person or a hundred after being subjected to the whims of nature – a game whose fate seemed unfair to be laid on one person’s foot.

Especially when that foot was 57 yards from the goal posts.

But faced with a mammoth kick, his team down two points to South Carolina late in the fourth quarter after a 76-minute lightning delay, McCann didn’t think once of the 25-yarder he had missed for Missouri earlier that afternoon. This was well over twice that length, but no matter.

“I’ve changed dramatically because I’ve just learned it doesn’t matter,” McCann said three days later after practice. “Last kick doesn’t matter. If I hit a 65-yarder, it doesn’t matter. I’m still on to the next kick.”

This next kick was do-or-die for Missouri. After a flawless swing of his boot, after his holder Corey Fatony prematurely pumped a fist in the air, after this unprecedented kick split the uprights with room to spare, McCann turned and pointed his finger to the same sky that had rained down on his team’s spirit.

For Missouri, it was a brief moment of triumph before looming deflation. For McCann, it was a lasting moment of poise and consistency in a career that has been scrutinized for those two things. It illuminated one constant in that career – McCann’s leg strength, which traces back to a soccer field in his hometown of O'Fallon, Illinois.

Like a lot of college and professional kickers, McCann grew up using his leg on the soccer pitch. As a 9-year-old, McCann was already curling free kicks and corner kicks as his team’s set-piece specialist.

One weekend, McCann asked his dad to help him practice his kicks at a nearby soccer field. When McCann’s father Jeff, a former high school kicker, was loading the car with soccer balls, he found an old football in the garage. By curiosity or impulse or both, Jeff threw the pigskin in the trunk.

Later that day, Jeff stopped Tucker from practicing his soccer kicks and presented the new challenge.

“Kick this over the goal,” Jeff said, setting the football 21 yards away on a pitching rubber in unruly three-inch grass.

Tucker kicked the first try straight into the net. One adjustment later, the second try split imaginary uprights and led McCann’s father to believe Tucker might have a future as a kicker.

“I told him, ‘No, you need to get some lift on it,’” Jeff said. “Then he did it again and had nice rotation and nice height. I thought there had to be people doing this at this time.”

So the summer after McCann started kicking, his father put him in a camp from the National Kicking Service at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. Fifth-grade McCann soon discovered it was a high school camp; the next youngest kicker there was a sophomore. But by the end of the week, the child would be called upon for his biggest stage yet among the great big high schoolers. The camp ended with a challenge round, the camp director picking three kickers to attempt a pressured, 35-yard field goal. Other campers stood aside, creating as much clamor as possible.

One of the first two campers chosen made their kick. The other missed. Third-picked was Tucker. The counselor showed some mercy to the youngest camper by placing the ball near the goal line.

“I looked around like, ‘What’s going on?’ because I knew I could kick it farther,” Tucker said. “I just picked it up and moved it back.”

The instructor was in disbelief as the grade school student replaced the ball and set up for his turn at the 35-yarder.

“The camp instructor turned to me and said, ‘Can he make this?’ and honestly I had no idea,” Jeff said. “Then he stepped up and put it through.”

For McCann, it was the beginning of a road toward becoming one of the top prep kickers in the nation. During his high school career, he broke the Illinois state record with a 60-yard field goal against Belleville East. His father celebrated, but no one else was aware they had witnessed history.

“He makes it and I’m screaming my head off,” Jeff said. “Then I bent down and told my wife he broke the record. The press box realized something was going on after I was so loud. I knew it and Tucker knew it, but no one else did.”

McCann’s leg earned him an offer from then Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. McCann, the No. 1 kicking prospect in the 2016 class by Kohl’s Kicking, committed to Missouri over offers from Alabama, Illinois and Florida State. He won the starting job at the beginning of his freshman season after four-year starter Andrew Baggett graduated and it wasn’t long before the newcomer put his first career field goal through the uprights. But the roller coaster ride was just beginning. McCann missed his next two kicks in a loss to West Virginia and then missed extra points against Eastern Michigan and Delaware State.

“I was still trying to figure out how to react to things as best as I could to where I would focus better on the next kick,” Tucker said. “Freshman year I just got too angry after I would miss kicks.”

The pressure looked to have fizzled after McCann made his next four field goals across the next five weeks, but the misses always came back. He shanked a 24-yard kick versus Kentucky and a 31-yarder the next week against South Carolina. Fans soon were booing him onto the field before a field goal attempt against Vanderbilt. He had missed two extra points and a field goal earlier in the afternoon, and that next attempt became his fifth straight field goal miss.

“I was thinking that I had to not let people down because I was coming out of high school so highly-ranked and everything,” Tucker said.

The freshman was briefly replaced by walk-on Ben Tesson, but new coach Barry Odom eventually stuck with McCann for the long run. He made his last eight extra points and his only field goal try in the season’s last three games. The season stats weren’t gleaming – 6 for 12 on field goals and 39 for 43 on extra points – but he showed off his big leg with a 65.6 percent touchback percentage on kickoffs, which ranked 15th in the nation.

“I just am very thankful for Coach Odom and the position and opportunities he’s given me,” McCann said. “I don’t know if I would have given myself that many opportunities as a freshman.”

He went into the offseason and was a counselor at the Kohl’s kicking camp before returning to O’Fallon, where he worked with his dad at kicking and watching film. The most prevalent topic during those sessions was handling high stakes.

“I tried to tell Tuck everyone has pressure, but you can’t put all of that on you or it will just eat you alive,” Jeff said. “He understands that very well. Last year going into the end of the year, all of it kind of slowed the game down. Everything became a habit and he got into a groove.”

The Kohl’s camp director, Jamie Kohl, saw McCann kick with other college kickers and told McCann that he had an “NFL leg.” The mental side was all that needed work.

“You’re always wondering as an athlete how good you are,” Jeff said. “That was the beginning of Tucker understanding how good he is.”

But first, Tucker would have one more wakeup call, a missed extra point against Missouri State in his first appearance of the year. He said this time, the early miss wasn’t a cause for doubt or frustration like last season. Rather, it served a reminder of a small but necessary adjustment.

“The funny thing about that was I thought it was a good hit, and I looked up at it and it was barely right,” Tucker said of the missed PAT. “Then I realized that I just didn’t close my hips enough. It was that simple, but going into that week and all offseason I felt great, and I think after that point it just motivated me to be better.”

McCann made his next nine extra points and his only field goal try of the afternoon, not letting one miss snowball into more this time. That toughness helped him finish the season making 15 of 17 field goals, including his last 11. He finished the season fifth in the country in field goal accuracy.

“There is definitely a confidence level he has now that he didn’t have back then,” Jeff said. “He understands it’s a kick by kick basis. He understands he will miss, but he prepares himself not to miss and to do his job.”

So far in his junior campaign, McCann has made the second most field goals in the country with 13, nearly equaling his total from last season already. He also has missed five kicks.

He’s saved his best for the biggest moments though, tagging several clutch kicks the last couple years. He ended his breakout sophomore season with a game-winning 19-yard field goal against Arkansas, then made a walk-off 25-yard kick against Purdue to give Missouri a week three win in September. Then there was the 57-yarder.

After the winner at Purdue, Sugarfire Smokehouse in O’Fallon, Illinois, added a new sandwich to the menu called The Turkey McCann. It’s a turkey sandwich on a hoagie bun created in honor of that walk-off kick. His parents have been able to try the sandwich, but Tucker still hasn’t had the chance.

“I can’t wait to try it,” Tucker said. “I had no idea because they didn’t contact me before. That was the last thing I would have thought of someone doing.”

From becoming a sandwich namesake to missing a 25-yarder to grabbing the attention of the college football world – if just for a moment – all within a matter of weeks, McCann has a career arc that’s seen both ends of football’s most radically criticized position. The most important thing to him is that he’s shown he can flip the script.

“The adversity has made him better,” Jeff said. “I’m telling you Tucker could have easily packed it in and said, ‘I’m not wanted here’ and put any spin he could have wanted on it. You’d be really hard-pressed to find someone like him who flipped the ticket from his freshman year to his sophomore year, where he was really successful.”

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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