Sports

Tucker just keeps avoiding obstacles

The tall trees surrounding the practice field keep the remote location so quiet that water is heard shuffling through a nearby creek. A quaint destination for a football practice, its quiet serenity is only disrupted by the collision of pads, a coach’s shrill whistle and the occasional pig’s squeal.

That small-town charm appealed to New York transplant Mark Tucker while he was stationed in Bremerton with the Navy. And after a circuitous route, it’s the reason why his son, Stephen, has become South Kitsap’s star running back.

Similar to his father, the younger Tucker spent most of his adolescence in an urban environment. He was raised in Seattle by his mother, Yolanda Brown, with the agreement that he eventually would move in with his father.

“Me and his mom decided that as he got older, it was my belief that I would have a more influential experience on him as a man,” Mark Tucker said.

That came sooner than expected. Tucker was raised in a poverty-stricken area of Seattle’s Central District before mother and son became homeless and squatted at shelters and seedy hotels along Aurora Avenue.

Tucker elects not to revisit specifics of the experience and instead focuses on the present.

“My mother is a strong woman and she always supported us, but things happened at that time,” he said, adding that his mother now has a stable career and living situation. “My dad was stable and decided I could move out here. Everything worked out for the best.”

Tucker said he dreaded the thought of attending Seattle’s Garfield High School even though his cousin, former Idaho wide receiver Orlando Winston, graduated from there. Five Garfield football players recently were arrested on suspicion of robbery and assault in connection with a pair of incidents.

“You’re sucked into a black hole, all your friends are doing it,” he said. “You have to be really will-powered. I’m not saying I’m not, but it would’ve been very hard not to do something dumb that I would’ve got in trouble for.”

On the gridiron, the Bulldogs have posted a combined 2-20 record in the three seasons Tucker would have attended Garfield.

“I was concerned with negative influences, the talent, coaching,” he said. “My dad just didn’t see it as a good situation.”

A discussion between the parents ensued and Tucker found himself trading the Seattle skyline for Port Orchard’s mom-and-pop shops.

“His mother started struggling a bit and we decided to exchange custodies,” Mark Tucker said. “I got him in eighth grade and got him into Marcus Whitman.”

IN TRANSITION

The younger Tucker loves to discuss football and it’s not just related to the X’s and O’s of his favorite professional team, the Seattle Seahawks. Through YouTube, where videos from just about every genre of life can be found online, he studies the stiff-legged running style of his favorite back -- Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Walter Payton.

Many high-school players identify more closely with current NFL stars, not those such as Payton, who retired three years before Tucker’s birth on May 31, 1990, and died when he was 9.

“He’s just the player everyone talked about,” Tucker said. “He ran hard no matter what. You never really see him getting put on his back. He’s always going forward and I make sure I always am going forward, too.”

Perhaps it just as much revolves around Tucker’s commitment and dedication that he would idolize Payton, the NFL’s career rushing leader with 16,726 yards before Emmitt Smith eclipsed his record five years ago.

The elder Tucker made certain his son realized that excellence required commitment.

“When Stephen first got out here he was kind of a chubby kid,” he said. “I took him and Deandre (Jackson) out to the football field and worked them hard around the track. I pulled a few football exercises off the computer -- he thought I was going to kill him. But when he turned out that year, he saw what it took.”

After a few years in the weight room, Tucker now is 5 foot 9 and 194 pounds. A senior, he is a leader not only on game day for the 2-2 Wolves where he twice has rushed for more than 170 yards, but also at practice.

“Obviously he’s got a lot of ability -- he runs fast, strong and makes plays,” South coach D.J. Sigurdson said. “But I think more importantly, the first thing you notice is that he’s a team guy. He’s telling the offensive linemen what kind of job they’re doing and picking everyone up. The leadership and work ethic are very critical to the team.”

Quarterback Chad Tester, a team captain along with Tucker, said that extends off the field, as well. Tester returned to Port Orchard from Clinton, Ark., and Tucker came to stay with him and his family in the summer of 2006 to help him acclimate.

“Everyone was kind of standoffish toward me, but he kind of let me know how it was here,” Tester said. “That summer we became friends, he stayed with me all summer and we went to practice and out to eat together every day. It was really good.”

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

Their backgrounds are about as different as imaginable. With about 2,500 residents, Clinton is smaller than South’s student body and Tester acknowledged that he initially was overwhelmed by the school’s size.

Tucker understood -- he also spent time getting acclimated to Port Orchard, from the quiet practice field to “the level of academics here.”

“I struggled a lot at first,” said Tucker, adding that he had a 3.0 grade-point average last spring. “I made big leaps last semester and I’m trying to do that well or better now.”

He admits that life is good now, but struggles to keep his past in perspective.

“Sometimes you forget about where you came from and I have done that a couple of times,” he said. “I just sit and think about it or I’ll see things when I go back to my old neighborhood to get a haircut. Sometimes you just have to get a reality check.”

It’s the same perspective he takes when discussing college plans or just about anything. Tucker said he’s received letters from Eastern Washington, Oregon and Washington State, but will concern himself with the recruiting process after the season.

“I have to stay humble and determined if I want to make it to college,” he said.

South produced some standout running backs in recent years, including Roger Cooper (Montana State) and Ryan Cole (Oregon State and Eastern Washington), who later played college football.

“These guys are all kind of in the same mold,” Sigurdson said. “They’re tremendously hard workers, good leaders.”

For Tucker, it simply is a matter of doing his job.

“You have to carry the torch,” he said. “If my name is ever mentioned between Ryan Cole and Roger Cooper, it’s an honor. You always have little goals between your big goals, like winning state, and if that’s being mentioned with all those good players, it’s a dream come true.”

It’s kind of similar to how his transition has worked.

“I swear a lot of these (Seattle) kids had more talent than me when we played,” Tucker said. “Now just seeing how I developed with Coach Sigurdson, South Kitsap and the Port Orchard community, it’s a blessing and I’m really happy about it.”

He has found peace in this home -- as serene as the stream flowing in the background.

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