CHARLOTTE - Twenty-one months after graduating from Wake Forest in 2007, defensive end
Now, it's been 21 months since Tucker played in an NFL game.
"This has made me realize that football is a blessing," said Tucker, who signed with the Panthers this offseason. "To have something that you put your heart into - but that you feel like you could have put a better effort into at times - taken away from you, it makes you so hungry.
"Now I'm trying to get it back, trying to get the rust off."
On Jan. 3, 2009, Tucker tallied seven tackles to help the San Diego Chargers knock off the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC Wildcard Playoff. It was a feel-good moment for a team that started the season 4-8 as well as for Tucker, a second-year pro who went undrafted but ended the season ranked second on the team in sacks.
Tucker received a lucrative contract extension after the season, but it's been tough going ever since. An ankle injury in 2009 and a torn pectoral in 2010 - both occurring on special teams plays - limited him to 10 games over those two seasons. The Chargers released him right after the NFL's work stoppage ended last July.
That began a long waiting game that ended when the Panthers signed him on February 21.
"You never truly arrive, but you finally get that break you've been waiting for your whole life, and then it's like, 'Where do you go from here?'" Tucker said. "It's either up or down, and somehow I went down a little bit.
Tucker was a starter for portions of all four of his seasons at Wake Forest. He wasn't drafted, but the Chargers signed him up as an undrafted rookie free agent shortly after the 2007 NFL Draft.
He spent the first 10 games of his rookie season on the practice squad but shined once given an opportunity. He earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after recording three sacks, forcing two fumbles and scoring a touchdown in a Week 17 victory over the Oakland Raiders.
That catapulted him into a starting role in 2008, the same year that Panthers head coach Ron Rivera took over as the Chargers' defensive coordinator midway through the season.
So it's no surprise that Rivera and the Panthers are giving Tucker a chance to recapture his previous playing form. Tucker's parents and sister live in Greensboro, N.C., about 100 miles northeast of Charlotte, but now he doesn't have to travel that far to feel at home.
"The best thing is being back around family - and I don't just mean my personal family. This organization, with a coach like Ron Rivera who knows what I can do and is giving me an opportunity, is amazing," Tucker said. "When I finally got that call, on February 16 after being out of the game more than 600 days, it was a blessing."
Joining a 90-man roster is a big step for Tucker, but it's still a long ways from making the opening day roster. That's a journey, however, that Tucker is excited about tackling.
"This isn't something you can do forever, and once it's taken away, it's over," he said. "I got the chance to see what it's like outside of football. I understand what it's going to take to get back in."
Be sure to read other recent profiles featuring the Panthers' offseason veteran free agent acquisitions, including running back Mike Tolbert, safety Haruki Nakamura, guard Mike Pollak, safety Reggie Smith and linebacker Kenny Onatolu.