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'It just means more': An oral history of Justin Tucker's game-winning kick against Texas A&M

In September, Justin Tucker kicked a 66-yard field goal in the final seconds of the Baltimore Ravens' 19-17 win over the Detroit Lions. It was the longest kick in NFL history and another milestone for Tucker, who in his 10-year NFL career has made 311 field goals at a 90.7% success rate and has a Super Bowl ring.

Yet Tucker recently told the American-Statesman he might not have succeeded in the NFL had he not first hit the 40-yard field goal as time expired to beat Texas A&M 27-25 on Nov. 24, 2011, the last time the Longhorns and Aggies played each other in football.

"Without that kick, for me personally, I don't think l have a pro career," Tucker said. "I think by making that kick, I at least proved to myself that I have the ability to come through in big moments."

For the past 10 years, Tucker's game-winner has been the last memory of the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry. The Statesman recently discussed Texas' winning drive at Kyle Field with former Longhorns players, who shared their recollections.

Don't forget: Case McCoy's legs set up Justin Tucker's kick

For a little while that Thanksgiving night, Tucker thought that final Texas A&M game would be a lowlight in his career file. With Texas nursing a 24-19 lead late in the game, Tucker had a chance to pin the Aggies deep, but his 28-yard punt instead set them up at their own 32. A&M's Ryan Tannehill engineered an eight-play drive that he capped with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Fuller.

That made it A&M 25, Texas 24. The Longhorns had 108 seconds left to respond.

Texas quarterback Case McCoy breaks free for a 25-yard gain and a critical first down in the closing seconds of the Longhorns' 27-25 win over Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night 2011. It's the last time the two schools played each other in football. McCoy's run set up Justin Tucker's winning field goal.

Case McCoy, Texas quarterback (2011-13): "I'll never forget; I walked into that little huddle on the side, and I was smiling, right? Mason Walters, one of our big offensive linemen, was like, 'What the hell are you smiling for, McCoy?' I'll never forget; I said, 'Listen, I don't know why; I should have no confidence up to this point, based on what we've done. But this movie script has already been written. We all came to Texas; we had the choice to go to A&M, and we chose Texas because that's the school you go to, and they will always be our little brother. Now all the years up to this point, now we just have to go execute, and we're going to go do that.' That was kind of my mentality: Just go do your job because this has already been written. We're here for a reason."

Mason Walters, offensive lineman (2010-13): McCoy "had a ton of confidence, which is what you need to play the quarterback position well. Talent's a huge part of it, don't get me wrong, but you've got to have that factor. ... He was also a master of those cheesy lines in the huddle. Too much 'Friday Night Lights,' or maybe that's just West Texas flair of the romanticism of football. That was par for the course for McCoy."

After a nice kickoff return by Quandre Diggs, Texas opened its final drive at its own 29. The Longhorns were aided on the possession by a questionable personal foul that was called on A&M defensive back Trent Hunter. The biggest play, however, was McCoy's 25-yard scramble that took the Longhorns to the Aggies' 23.

Craig Way, the "Voice of the Texas Longhorns" (2001-present): "Amazingly enough, as big as Tucker's kick was, the vision I always have in my mind is Case McCoy pinballing his way on that last drive, spinning, his coaches, like, 'Get down, get down,' and all that stuff."

Mack Brown, Texas head coach (1998-2013): "Heads-up, smart play by Case. What I remember is he had the ball hung out in one arm. I was trying to say tuck it away and get down!"

Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill looks for a receiver in the first quarter of the Nov. 24, 2011, game against Texas at Kyle Field in College Station. Ten years later, Tannehill is quarterbacking the Tennessee Titans.

McCoy: "I still honestly wanted to throw the out route just based on time, right? I wanted to catch an out route with that cover-2 man (defense) and get out of bounds, get us a little closer to midfield and/or a little past. (Jaxon Shipley) had a banged-up knee and was actually wearing a knee brace in that game, and he fell down on his out route, so that took that option from us. I had to go run and knew just based on time, I had to get a first down, and then whatever else we could get would be good.

"In my mind, I was thinking I've seen this before. I saw 12 (brother Colt McCoy) do this a handful of years ago and take it to the house. I'm going to do the same thing. I didn't have quite the wheels that Colt had on that run, and at that point, every yard we could get from there was just going to put Justin Tucker a little bit closer, and (I) knew the range we needed to get in. Probably should have went down a little quicker than I did, but we're just fighting for every last yard to get J-Tuck in a comfortable position to hit a good field goal to win."

Texas kicker Justin Tucker sprints downfield after his 40-yard field goal beat Texas A&M in the closing seconds of their 2011 game. "Being raised on the shoulders of my teammates and celebrating that moment with them was — it's one of the best football memories that I'll ever have," Tucker said recently.

Texas and Texas A&M's long farewell

On the stat sheet, only 30 seconds separated McCoy's run and Tucker's kick. Game time is not real time, though.

After McCoy's run, A&M called a timeout. The Longhorns then called for two simple runs and two timeouts. With three seconds left, Tucker trotted out to attempt the kick, but the Aggies stopped the game one last time. After 117 years, Texas and Texas A&M had to spend only a few more seconds together. 

Cade McCrary, Texas holder (2010-13): "We went out and got it down the first time, and they actually iced us; they called timeout. It was really awkward. You'll see on the clip, I was so nervous and just, I don't know, wasn’t thinking straight. They call timeout, and Justin always takes like a dry run run-through when people used to ice him, and I didn’t even think about it. I stood up and start walking toward the sidelines, and he’s doing his run-through, and he almost kicks me, and I do this kind of awkward hop-back thing. I was thinking, God dang, if I would have kept walking and he had swung and kicked, he could have hurt himself. That could have been bad. 

"Anyways, they ice us, and we walk over there. I'm talking to my buddies, some close guys on the team; one of them was like, ‘Hey, man, what if you mess this up? You'll have to transfer.’ I kind of slowly look at him. I'm like, ‘Why would you say that to me right now? Like, that is absurd.’ Then I started thinking about it. You know, that's some Steve Bartman-type stuff."

Walters: "I always gave (McCrary) a good ribbing before he would go out. ...  We had never been in a more high-pressure situation, and so I had to keep with tradition just to not throw him off."

Justin Tucker, Texas kicker (2008-11): "Both Case and Mack had wise words to impart upon me as I’m jogging down the sideline and getting ready to run out on the field to kick the walk-off winner. I say I know they were imparting wise words to me, but I could not tell you even close to what they said because I just straight up couldn't hear him because it was so loud. I could tell by the smiles on their faces they knew I was going to make the kick, and that was enough for me."

Brown: "I said, 'You've never missed, so just be you.' I guess I’m glad he didn't hear me."

McCoy: "He probably didn't hear me because I lost my voice in about the second quarter of that game. ...  I think what I told him when he was running out there was just, you know, it's just an everyday field goal. We got you in the position, you've done this thousands and thousands of times, and now you have the opportunity to do what you always do in a big moment. You're going to go from being an unbelievable kicker to a legend in Texas football history. That's kind of the message. Then they call timeout, so I get to talk to him again. It was really like, listen, there's no nerves here. It's simple."

Justin Tucker kicks the winning field goal in the final seconds against Texas A&M at Kyle Field on Nov. 24, 2021. That Thanksgiving night game brought down the curtain on their historic rivalry series, but it will soon rise again in the SEC.

'The Texas Longhorns break the hearts of the Aggies of Texas A&M!'

A&M was hosting Texas in front of an announced crowd of 88,645 as millions more watched on television. Additionally, two veteran announcers — Dave South for Texas A&M and Way for Texas — lent their eyes and voices to those listening on the radio.

Way was in his 11th year as the lead broadcaster in the Texas booth. His depiction of Tucker's kick would become one of his most memorable calls: "Tucker will come on now. No more timeouts for either side. The game comes down to this play. Justin Tucker, the senior, on to try a 40-yard field goal out of the hold of Cade McCrary. The final play of the rivalry. Good snap and hold ..." 

Alex Zumberge, Texas deep snapper (2010-11): "If I remember right, they were overloading one of the sides maybe, maybe the right side. So that's always nice when I don't feel that sort of pressure right above me and in front of me. Watching back on the YouTube, (snap was) right down the middle. Cade didn't have to do much to reach out and grab it; that's always good."

McCrary: Maybe the best operation we had. Zum threw one back, perfect, on the money.  I didn't even have to spin it. I just caught it laces out, put it down. 

"Tucker’s kick is up ..."

Tucker: "I remember that year in college football, for whatever reason, it seemed like whenever there was a kick to win the game, it seemed like they were almost all getting blocked. I could be completely wrong, but I remember watching college football games the whole year and seeing lead-changing field-goal attempts continuing to get blocked. I'm glad it was as simple as this because it kind of helped me put aside all of my emotions and my feelings in that moment, but my thought was I just need to make sure I get this ball up and clear the line just to give it a chance. Sure enough, the ball jumps straight up off my foot after a perfect snap from Alex Zumberge, perfect spot from Cade McCrary. It was on that straight path, and the rest is history, as they say."

"Justin’s kick is good! It’s good! And the Texas Longhorns have won the final rivalry matchup with Texas A&M! Justin Tucker drives it home and one last time, the Texas Longhorns break the hearts of the Aggies of Texas A&M!"

Way: That call came “off the top. Anything I've ever done like that, I thought if I try to plan something like that, I'll screw it up or it won't sound like I think it's supposed to sound. The whole ‘Light the Tower orange,’ the Rose Bowl, 35 years, all of that, at the moment, it’s just whatever the moment brings to you at the time. That’s through some of the training and all that kind of stuff. Don't try to write the story yourself. Let the game write the story, and then let it just come naturally from you, and it was."

Texas head coach Mack Brown and his wife, Sally, sing "The Eyes of Texas" after the win over Texas A&M in 2011. "It's, if not the best, one of the best rivalries in the country," Brown said recently. "I've been around enough different places. Everybody feels like their rivalry's the best, but if you start talking about the compound rivalries in college football, this has to be it."

'I'm going to die on Kyle Field tonight. That's it for me; what a way to go out.'

Soon after the ball left Tucker's foot, McCrary jumped in the air and jubilantly swung his arms. The kicker was not as confident as his holder, so Tucker waited until the ball crossed the crossbar before he began celebrating.

Tucker sprinted down the field. He soon realized that he was not as fast as Kenny Vaccaro, the Texas defensive back, who would eventually spend eight years in the NFL. After Vaccaro caught up to Tucker and dragged him to the ground, the Longhorns dogpiled and began to party on their foe's own field. 

Tucker: "I just remember coming out of the dogpile struggling to find my breath and thankful that Kenny Vaccaro didn't shred either of my ACLs with that insane horse-collar tackle that he put on me. But after that, being raised on the shoulders of my teammates and celebrating that moment with them was — it's one of the best football memories that I'll ever have. It makes it that much sweeter that it came against our rival, I don't even have to name them; it's not important. Actually it is, you know? It just means more. When you're playing at College Station as a part of the Texas Longhorns tradition, to be able to put that game away in that moment and then celebrate with my teammates, it’s absolutely one of my favorite football memories that I'll ever have."

McCrary: "A funny story that happened is kind of post-kick. Justin takes off. I'm (one of the first ones to catch up), and I jump on top of him. The way we landed was awkward, like we were facemask-to-facemask. I was kind of propped up off the ground a little bit, my chest was off the ground and my legs were on the ground. I was face-down and obviously the rest of the team falls on top, and it's like a huge dogpile. I guess the way we both fell, neither one of us could breathe. Like, we couldn't take in air. We couldn't yell to get off and so we were stuck, right? It seemed like 30 minutes, it was probably less than 30 seconds, but I can't breathe. I see Justin's eyes start to roll in the back of his head, and he starts to get a nosebleed, and I'm like, man, this is it. I'm going to die on Kyle Field tonight. That's it for me; what a way to go out."

McCoy: "All everyone talked about after the game and for years to come is the run and the kick, when in reality, you know, our special teams and our defense were the sole reason that we even got to that point. I was wanting to find each one of those guys, hug their neck and say thank you."

Texas' cheerleaders perform during the second quarter of the 2011 game in College Station, which ended with a last-second Longhorns victory. "For a split-second there, that stadium, which was an incredible environment, super loud all night, you really could just hear almost utter silence," former UT offensive lineman Mason Walters recalled. "Then from one section of the crowd, you heard everybody acknowledging what had just happened."

Walters: "For a split-second there, that stadium, which was an incredible environment, super loud all night, you really could just hear almost utter silence. Then from one section of the crowd, you heard everybody acknowledging what had just happened. I think the first guy I found was Luke Poehlmann. It was a big moment, definitely. I would have been shocked if you would have told me back then that, however many years later, Texas and A&M still hadn't played a football game. I thought that would get sorted out in time. But really just because of the four quarters of football that had happened leading up to that moment, it was a fun game on both sides. So to squeak one out was definitely a better feeling than the other way."

And it's ... hello to A&M?

The 27-25 win gave the Longhorns a 76-37-5 all-time series lead against the Aggies. Ten years later, all the players and coaches on the field that night have moved on. 

Tucker is on track to become one of the greatest kickers in NFL history. Brown left Texas after the 2013 season and has been coaching North Carolina since 2019. McCrary, the son of a former UT assistant coach, is coaching running backs at state powerhouse Southlake Carroll. McCoy still spends his Saturdays at Royal-Memorial Stadium, but the Austin commercial real estate broker is there as a season ticket-holder. Zumberge is working in the oil and gas industry, and Walters is involved with data and business intelligence.

Texas A&M left for the SEC the next year. Since then, there has been little interest between the two schools in scheduling each other again. Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte reached out at one point about a reunion game but was rebuffed. 

The two old rivals won't be separated forever, though. Texas will join the SEC within the next couple of years, so soon the Longhorns and Aggies will once again be conference rivals.

Brown: "It's, if not the best, one of the best rivalries in the country. I've been around enough different places. Everybody feels like their rivalry's the best, but if you start talking about the compound rivalries in college football, this has to be it. I'm really, really excited to go back and watch it. I hope it goes back to Thanksgiving because it was a special 16 years in my life to be able to compete with Texas A&M. It’s just two great universities, two great teams and tremendous traditions. I grew up watching this game on Thanksgiving, and I hope other people get to enjoy it as much as I did moving forward."

Zumberge: "You're born and raised in that rivalry, so there's kind of this missing generation that hasn't experienced that to some extent. It'll be good to renew it along those lines. We got a good 10 years to think of it and the way things went down."

Way: Tucker's kick "was the perfect ending at the time. I said for two or three years afterwards, when folks said should they play again, should not play again, are they going to play? I said anybody that saw the TV show, the series, 'Friends,' I said it's Ross and Rachel; they were on a break. They needed some breathing space; they needed some time away from another to let ill feelings heal. There's still some out there (who) have their doubts about it and wonder if they should still go on. I'm on board with it. I think it's great. I'm glad it's going to happen again."

Tucker: "I've always been a big supporter of the idea of the teams playing each other ever since A&M departed for the SEC and Texas remained in the Big 12. I’m a big believer in let the teams play, let the players play, let the coaches coach and let the chips fly, and let them fall where they may. Everybody watching that game will be better for it because the experience is fantastic. It's just such a great, storied rivalry.

"I've been asked before if I care if the game is played again because I won't necessarily have the last laugh or bragging rights or anything like that. Like, I don't care about that. I just want to see great football being played between one great program and its little brother."

Texas kicker Justin Tucker celebrates his field goal that beat Texas A&M in 2011. Ten years later, the Baltimore Ravens kicker counts that as one of his crowning moments: "When you're playing at College Station as a part of the Texas Longhorns tradition, to be able to put that game away in that moment and then celebrate with my teammates, it’s absolutely one of my favorite football memories that I'll ever have."