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MIND OVER MATTER
PRINCETON PRODUCT ROSS TUCKER DRAWS ON SMARTS AND TOUGHNESS TO ACCELERATE HIS NFL EDUCATION

Go ahead and ask him. Ask him anything about the New England Patriots or, for that matter, any player on any team in the National Football League. Ask him where Pats veteran special teams ace/third-string middle linebacker Larry Izzo played college ball, and Ross Tucker will spew out Rice.

The Buffalo Bills test Tucker all the time, mostly just for fun because they figure he knows the answers. They've watched enough film with him. They've heard him rattle off enough innocuous details. They understand, much to their amusement, that he's a walking -- and definitely talking -- football encyclopedia.

"He's definitely a study," left tackle Jonas Jennings said with a laugh. "I mean, he's a damn brainiac. He knows every guy on the film, his name, where's he from, even in the preseason when it's a fourth-string guy."

"Ask him about anybody, where he went to college, where he played before, anything," reserve offensive lineman Mike Pucillo said. "I'm telling you, dude, the guy is weird that way. We're like, 'What is wrong with you?' We'll throw out questions just to see if he gets them, and he gets them right 95 percent of the time."

Tucker is familiar with a 95 average. After all, the Bills left guard attended Princeton. He worked as an intern with Merrill Lynch during the offseason because he wanted to educate himself in the investment world. His middle name is Finch, which was his grandmother's maiden name. He's a motivational speaker.

How many players around the league know that about him? In fact, how many know him at all? Well, they're learning. Defenses are realizing that 95 percent is a little low considering he gives 100 percent on the field.

This year, Tucker has emerged as a sound NFL player. He was solid for four games at center while Trey Teague recovered from a broken leg. Teague came back last week, but the Bills kept the 6-foot-4, 316-pound Tucker in the lineup. They ran through holes created by him and Jennings most of the afternoon in a 22-17 victory over the New York Jets.

"A lot of people want to start because of the money or being on TV," Tucker said. "I really just love playing. Sunday against the Jets, when we were running on them, I was just having so much fun. . . . No matter how much money you have, if you work on Wall Street or whatever, you can't reciprocate the feeling of being in front of 80,000 people or running into somebody as hard as you can or cutting (Jets defensive end John) Abraham and getting into a fight."

The thing is, you believe him.

Tucker has a way of speaking simply and sensibly because, when it's really broken down, he's little more than an NFL survivor. His father, Jim, is a 5-9, 170-pound Berks County golf champ from Wyomissing, Pa., a stone's throw across the bridge from Reading. "Put down 5-10," Tucker said, "or he'll get mad at me." You hear that, and it's obvious where Tucker learned to fight for every inch.

"He's smarter than I am," Bills offensive line coach Jim McNally said. "He's a real tough guy, too. He'll go after you. The combination of his toughness, durability and his smarts makes him a good football player."

Tucker was an undrafted free agent who appeared in six games over two years with Washington. The Redskins cut him in 2002, and he started seven games after catching on with Dallas. The Cowboys waived him during the offseason in 2003, and the Bills grabbed him as a backup for last season.

Tucker, 25, started five games last year, took advantage of an opportunity when Mike Pucillo suffered an injury and evolved into a starter this season. The offensive line began coming together when he took over at center. Teague came back and Tucker further solidified the O-line when he bumped Lawrence Smith from his spot at left guard.

"He's got some experience playing a lot of different positions, and it makes him very valuable," Teague said. "Obviously, he played well enough that they think he deserved to stay in the field. It's being smart and knowing your stuff. If you're playing center in this league, you have to be that. And he's a really aggressive player."

Tucker certainly has the right approach. Defensive tackle-designated pulling guard Justin Bannan described Tucker as "a crazed fan who happens to play football," an assessment Tucker endorsed. Tucker was a diehard Philadelphia Eagles fan growing up and knew every little detail about all the players.

It all makes sense now.

The fan in him helped make him fanatical about being prepared. That was the message he had for 198 players and 136 cheerleaders of the Town of Tonawanda Youth Football Association last Tuesday: Study hard, play hard, and everything will work out.

"I try to keep this whole football thing in perspective," he said. "It's going to end sometime. I might as well just enjoy it. I've already exceeded everybody's expectations for football other than my own. In some sense, this is all kind of gravy.

"I don't think it's that complicated. I'm not the best athlete on the offensive line. I don't have the best technique. I really, honestly, prepare as hard as I can so I feel like I'm 100 percent prepared to play. Then, on game day, I give it everything I have."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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