Max Tucker gains strength from late father


Max Tucker gains strength from late father

This past football season, Max Tucker experienced the ultimate high. After transferring from Wheaton Academy to another Chicago-area high school – Westminster Christian – the junior won the starting varsity quarterback job and wound up passing for 1,513 yards and 12 touchdowns while running for 3 more scores.

Tucker also experienced the ultimate low. His father, Jim Tucker, Max’s biggest fan, best friend and fellow football fanatic, passed away on Nov. 21 after being diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in September.

It was an emotional rollercoaster ride for Max, who will never forget the season or his dad.

“It’s been pretty crazy,” Max said. “I was talking with some friends a couple of weeks ago just about how much my life has changed from this time last year. On May 1 of last year, I decided to transfer from Wheaton Academy to Westminster Christian because I felt like I’d have a better opportunity as a football player to play. My dad was really behind that decision. The coaching staff at my old school basically told my dad, they didn’t tell me because I wasn’t allowed in the meeting, that I would never be a successful high school quarterback and my dreams to play in college were unrealistic.”

After hearing that, Jim Tucker stood up for his son, just like he always did.

“In the meeting, my dad quoted Philippians 4:13 which says, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,'” Max remembered. “And then he quoted Matthew 19:26 which says, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ Then he said, ‘My son will do whatever God has called him to do,’ so we decided to transfer. My middle school coach gave me the Westminster coach’s number, Coach (John) Davis, and I gave him a call. He said, ‘Well, we already have a pretty good quarterback but why don’t you come down.’ So I worked out for him and I threw for him and he said, ‘If you want to transfer we’d love to you.'”

At that point of his life, Max Tucker was walking on clouds. Since the age of 5, he only had one dream and that was playing in the NFL. Finally, the 6-foot, 185-pound QB was going to get the opportunity to show off his skills.

The right move

“I ended up transferring and it was a really good decision for me and my family,” Max said. “I wound up becoming the starting quarterback and was All-Area. It was more than anything I could have expected.”

Two days before his first start for the Warriors, Max was at practice going over the game plan with Coach Davis. That’s when everything turned upside down.

“My dad came out to practice and he had rashes all over his face,” Max recalled. “He had been sick for a while but we didn’t know what it was. As it progressed, he had it looked at. Coach John was talking to me about the game plan and I was sitting next to him. I’m usually very involved because our offense is a no-huddle, fast-paced Denver Broncos type of offense; a lot of times I’m making the play call at the line of scrimmage on the fly.

“I just remember totally tuning him out,” Max continued. “I was looking at my dad and I was so confused. I had asked him when he showed up if he was all right. He said, ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ But I knew something was wrong and Coach looked at me and he knew I was kind of out of it. He asked me what was wrong and I said, ‘Coach, I think my dad’s sick.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I think something’s really, really wrong.’ He sat and prayed with me and my dad.”

‘It hit me really hard’

Jim Tucker already knew he had one of the worst cases of cancer possible, but he kept the somber news to himself for the time being. “He didn’t want to tell me until after my first game,” Max said. “After the game, we went to a wedding and he waited until the wedding was over because he didn’t want to ruin it. After the wedding he told me he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Me and my dad were really, really close. I was so shocked and it hit me really hard.”

Jim Tucker always was in the stands when his son was on the football field, but he was unable to make most games as his illness worsened. “I rea1ly tried to play the season for my dad,” Max said. “In middle school when no one believed in me, in high school when no one believed in me, my dad was one of the only people that was willing to stand up and say, ‘You can do this.’ This whole season, I just felt like it was an enormous opportunity to, not prove everyone wrong, but I wanted to prove my dad right. I didn’t know how much time I had with my dad. He lasted about six weeks longer than the doctors told him, just by sheer will.”

Against doctor’s orders, Jim Tucker willed himself to attend Max’s last home game for Westminster Christian and he wound up having the best seat in the house. Coach Davis pulled his car onto the field and parked it on the sidelines, right around the 25-yard-line, and Jim watched from there.

The Warriors were trailing Christian Liberty Academy by 9 points at halftime and, well aware it would be the last time his father would see him play football, Max spoke up during the intermission. “I just remember looking at my team and being so frustrated,” Max said. “I gave a speech and don’t even remember it. I was kind of somewhere else.”

Westminster took Max’s words to heart and rallied for a 33-28 win over Christian Liberty, and Max will never forget the postgame celebration.

Fitting finale

“We came all the way back and won with two minutes left,” Max said. “I took the last knee and the student section made a tunnel we went through. I got to the car and I hugged him and started bawling my eyes out. I said, ‘I love you dad, this is for you.’ My dad grabbed me and said, ‘I love you so much son. Thank you.’ And me and my teammates, we did a tribute hash-tag that said, ‘Win for Jim’ and we’d wear that on our eye paint. It became the saying around our team. After the game everyone in the stands, my teammates, they all started chanting, ‘Win for Jim.’ Coach (Davis) doesn’t get very emotional, but he started crying. There wasn’t a dry eye in the stands.”

A couple of weeks after that, Max had to temporarily drop out of Westminster Christian.

“I was gone about a month to take care of my dad because he got very sick and my mom couldn’t do it on her own anymore,” Max said. “He just got sicker and sicker.”

Max remembers the very last talk he had with his dad.

“He told me, ‘You know, I never really told you this and I probably should have a long time,’” Max remembered. “‘I didn’t want you to love football because I love football; I wanted you to love football because you love football.’ I was like, ‘Dad, even if you hated football I’d love it.’

“He said, ‘This has been your one dream.’ He was a very spiritual person and he believed God put passions in your heart and it was your job as a Christian to follow them. My dad said, ‘I never told you this, but this is my dream, too. It always has been. And there are going to people that are going to tell you you’re crazy, you’re not good enough, you’re not big enough, strong enough, fast enough, you don’t throw a good enough ball.’ Those people are going to tell you that because they’re too afraid of the possibilities of this world and the possibilities of God. They don’t like not being able to have control over something, so they don’t want you to have control. I want you to see this thing through.”

Max plans to heed his father’s final words. He is heading to Central Michigan this weekend for junior day and is also looking at Cornell, Northwestern and USC.

“Anything is possible,” Max said. “I learned that from my dad. We say that but we don’t mean it genuinely. I think life has limits because we allow it to have limits. I never had total faith in that until now.”

Max credits his father for so many things, and finding NFA is one of them.

He started attending camps in middle school and completely credits NFA Founder/President Darin Slack for his polished throwing mechanics.

“My dad also bought NFA’s entire video series,” Max said. “Every summer for the last four or five years, it’s just been repping all of those videos and I’ve gotten better and better.”

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Scot Gregor is an award-winning sportswriter for the Chicago Daily Herald. In addition to writing about Big 10 and Notre Dame football, Gregor has also covered the White Sox, Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls and college basketball. He grew up in Pittsburgh and watched the Steelers rise to prominence in the 1970s. Gregor has a B.S. degree in Journalism from Ohio University