Former Eskimos receiver Jason Tucker loved catching passes from Ricky Ray, including one he carried for a then-team record 105-yard receiving touchdown in 2005.
But, now, the four-time CFL All-Star never wants to see his former quarterback make another throw.
“There’s nothing like playing with a future Hall of Famer like that,” Tucker said about Ray, who was his QB for most of his 6-1/2 seasons in Edmonton. “It’ll be interesting to see what he decides. I’m hoping he says he’s done and looks after his family and his kids. He had a serious injury last year. He’s done enough; he’s won enough Grey Cups.”
Tucker’s remarkable playing career included 7,046 receiving yards and 59 touchdowns on 388 catches from 2002-08 to rank sixth, second and ninth, respectively, on the Eskimos’ all-time lists in those categories.
His playing days, unfortunately, came to a sudden end after he broke the C6 and C7 vertebrae in his neck at Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne Stadium on July 25, 2008.
“When I tell the story, I took a harder hit earlier in that game that some people might say, ‘Well, maybe that was the reason that caused it?’ ” Tucker said. “It was just a short route over the middle, caught it, turned. There was a defender right there, hit my shoulder. We hit heads, and I lost feeling in my right side. At that point, I knew something was wrong.”
Because he was cradling the football in his right arm, the ball dropped to the ground, but Tucker instinctively fell on it with his body awkwardly folded across a right arm that no longer felt any sensations.
“Everything is fine (now),” said Tucker, 42, who has joined the Eskimos coaching staff as the wide receiver coach for the 2019 season. “There’s no limitation on what I can do. Nothing at all.”
Tucker was lucky. Despite having broken or displaced vertebrae that required surgery, his spinal cord wasn’t compromised, and he’s been able to enjoy a full life with his family that includes four daughters in high school or middle school – Jaelyn, 17, Kendahl, 15, London, 12, and Micah. 10 – plus wife Giesla in Fort Worth, Texas.
“That’s why I’m hoping he’s done, going through a similar thing,” Tucker said about Ray’s neck injury that occurred in the second game of the Toronto Argonauts’ 2018 season. “I talked to him when (the Montreal Alouettes played the Argos last year), and I was like, ‘All I thought about was myself in that situation,’ hoping that he was all right and thinking about his family at that point.
“I was telling him, ‘You’ve done a lot in your career. There’s nothing left for you to prove.’ I went through the same thing. Should I keep going? I was like, ‘No, family is more important right now.’
“Hopefully, he’s got the same mentality going right now.”
Tucker, a two-time Grey Cup champion (2003, 2005) and the ‘03 Grey Cup MVP after totalling 132 receiving yards, quickly moved from player to coach after recovering from his injury, joining the Eskimos staff as wide receivers coach for the 2009-10 seasons.
“At that time, Mike Kelly was the receivers coach,” Tucker said. “He told me he was leaving for the Winnipeg (head coach) job during the offseason. They had offered him the job, so he was finishing up with us. That was my prime opportunity right there to let the powers-that-be know that I was interested in coaching because my career was done as far as playing.
“It was actually a blessing that I was able to do that right there in Edmonton,” he continued. “Just coming out of that locker room with those guys and now I got to coach them, I already had a respect factor with them because I had just been in the trenches with them. So, if I said something, they knew that I was coming from that point of view saying, ‘OK, he’s done it.’
“It made the transition easier as compared to going somewhere else where nobody knew anything about me.”
Tucker had been already thinking about becoming a coach after his playing career.
“I was blessed to be coached by some great people who had some knowledge that I could pass to others,” he said.
He met two of those coaches – Tommie Robinson, the current Run Game Coordinator and Assistant Head Coach at Louisiana State University, and Dwain Painter – when he was with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys in 1999-2000.
“I was blessed to be coached by some great people who had some knowledge that I could pass to others,”
“At the time, I didn’t like what (Painter) was doing,” Tucker said about his receiver coach with the Cowboys, “but later on, I understood. He was an ex-coordinator who was now a position coach, so when he was talking to us and explaining things, he talked from a coordinator’s perspective. He would tell us what everybody else was doing, from the quarterback to the running back to the offensive line, tight end, before he even got to what we were responsible for.
“As a player, in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Just tell me what I have to do. I don’t want to know what everyone else has to do.’ As my career went on and I looked back at it, it actually was a blessing because it helped me in my playing career and my coaching career. But I didn’t like that at the time.”
Tucker now tries to impress upon his receivers that they need to know what’s going on around them and how they fit into the various schemes.
“When you know all that, you know if you’re the primary guy, the secondary guy, the third guy or however it works; if your role is to get somebody open or whatever it is, you know how you fit within the system, and now the game slows down for you.
“That’s what happened for me. The game slowed down, and I was able to have a decent career in that aspect.”
The NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals drafted Tucker in 1998 and he made the Cowboys’ roster as the sixth receiver in 1999, working his way up to a starter for the last five games. His final two outings were spectacular – Tucker set a Dallas record with 331 combined net yards by compiling a franchise-record 203 kickoff-return yards (he also had a 97-yard return for a TD called back because of a holding penalty) plus 128 receiving yards and a touchdown on seven catches and then broke the kickoff-return record with 205 yards and added another 122 receiving yards in the next game.
In 2000, he had 1,099 kickoff-return yards, but caught only 13 passes, and was released during training camp in 2001.
Tucker joined the Eskimos in ‘02 and put up his best yardage numbers – 1,632, the fifth-highest single-season total in club history – in ‘04 with Edmonton’s current Head Coach, Jason Maas, as his quarterback.
After coaching in Edmonton for two years, Tucker served as the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ wide receivers coach for three years before serving as the assistant wide receivers coach with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans in 2016. The opportunity with the Titans “was a great experience just to see a different side, see something different, a different league. Got to work with some good people and learn some new ideas and new techniques.”
But the Titans replaced their receiver coaches after the ’16 season and Tucker took a year off.
“It was a blessing because I needed to spend time with the family,” he said. “I had been coaching – even though I wanted to be coaching – but I needed to slow down a little bit and just take time with the family. So, I had a whole year with the family and Tennessee was still paying me, so I wasn’t worried about that. We were OK financially. No issues.”
He was ready to get back to work when Khari Jones called to offer a job with the Alouettes last year. Jones and Tucker had previously enjoyed “a great working relationship” in Saskatchewan so “it was a no-brainer for me to come over and help him out.”
Now he’s back in Edmonton where his CFL career began.
“Full circle,” Tucker said.
The Eskimos’ receiving corps will look quite different in 2019 with D’haquille Williams (88 catches for 1,579 yards) and Bryant Mitchell (60 receptions for 867 yards) landing NFL opportunities with the Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals, respectively, while Derel Walker (51 catches for 875 yards) signed as a free agent with the Toronto Argonauts.
Kenny Stafford (55 receptions for 781 yards) is the only starter returning from 2017, but the Eskimos signed a trio of international wide receivers – Greg Ellingson (Ottawa RedBlacks), DaVaris Daniels (Calgary Stampeders) and Ricky Collins, Jr. (BC Lions) – on the opening day of CFL free agency on Feb. 12.
The Esks also signed their 2016 first-round draft pick – Tevaun Smith, 26, who spent three NFL seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars – and eight-year CFL veteran Anthony Parker to play out of the national slots.
“Just help those guys enhance their skills and take them to the next level,” Tucker said about whichever players will be catching passes for the Eskimos this season. “Some might be looking for another shot (in the NFL). You had a few go down south this year. There might be another crop that comes in looking to do the same thing. Just help them make their weaknesses stronger and make strengths even stronger.”