Jeff Tucker. My, my, my. Where do I even start with this one? Jeff Tucker is semi famous in my world. Jeff Tucker, up until this point, has been a mystical, elusive creature in my mind. Kind of like a unicorn. Yes, a unicorn. (Goodness, I hope he doesn't read this. Ha!) Jeff Tucker is an icon to me, thus, he's earned the status of being called by his first AND last name at all times. It's kind of like Harrison Ford. Listen, I'm not gonna call that guy Harrison. It's just not happening. He is Harrison Ford. Period. Jeff Tucker is Jeff Tucker. Period.
Why is he famous in my world? Well, because he's quite possibly one of the coolest guys ever. He's done some pretty rad stuff in his lifetime. But, more specifically, he is the head honcho in the CrossFit Gymnastics world. That's how I initially became familiar with him. And, if you don't CrossFit, this likely means nothing to you. But, if you do CrossFit, well... you can understand my fanaticism. CrossFit is, basically, a cult. It's taken the world by storm in recent years. As with any sport, it's best coaches and athletes are famous. Jeff Tucker is basically a ninja at coaching one of CrossFit's most technical, difficult facets: gymnastics. Thus, making him famous to me.
Now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about the good ol' boy side of Jeff Tucker. The first time I met him, he was doing a little mini gymnastics clinic at a CrossFit gym in Brownwood, Texas. It was super awesome. And, guess what he wore to teach a gymnastics clinic?!? Jeans and a denim shirt. Yep. Even when a cowboy does something so far outside the world of cowboy, they still wear jeans and a denim shirt?!? Man oh man.
The second time I met Jeff Tucker was at Gore Bros. I'm standing behind the counter one fine afternoon, and I hear the chime of the door alerting me to someone coming in. I look up, and there walking toward me is Jeff Tucker. I stumble over my words like a giddy little schoolgirl, "You're Jeff Tucker!" He looks at me like I'm crazy. And, I likely am.
"How do you know?" he asks.
Apparently, this is not an exclamatory phrase with which he is accustomed. Or maybe he's playing it cool. Who knows?!?
"You're famous," is my reply. And, there again, I stumble over my words when I explain to him how I know him. He buys his round bale of hay, and he's on his way. What he doesn't know, however, is that after he left, I told each and every coworker that would listen (or not) about the famous Jeff Tucker.
Fast forward a month or two and another visit or two to the feed store. Maybe I can write a Bio Of A Cowboy about him. I ask, and, to my surprise, he agrees. I arrange a date and time to come out to his place to photograph and interview him. It is at this interview that I discovered he is quite possibly the most interesting man in the world. (Sorry, Dos Equis guy... your title has been stolen.) And, his life is poetic in the most bizarre, juxtapositional kind of way.
I typically don't tell stories, you know? I mean, I do, but usually they're more like anecdotes, and I skim over people's life stories to get to the real meat and potatoes of who they are... the secret stuff... the stuff below the surface. But, with this guy, I've GOT to tell his story. His story is so, so, so very responsible for everything below his surface. Because, really, I found out that he's a man who's head to toe denim (and muscles) pad and protect his tender heart.
As a youngster, his grandfather was the foreman at the Kimberlin Ranch in Palo Pinto County. Of this wide open ranch he says, "at a young age, I learned the value of work; back then it was just play. It's where I learned the invaluable things. I learned to be quiet and just listen."
But, then his father, Jack, became a fireman in Irving. So, they left grandpa and the ranch out in the country and headed for the city. And, so begins the impact of firemen in his life.
He told me the most beautifully dramatic story that ultimately ended up shaping his adulthood. He tells me that he and his father were planning to go out fishing early one morning when he was somewhere around six years old. As they gathered their things, Jeff Tucker remembers feeling a little irritated with the tardiness of their departure. "Dad, our trip is gonna be ruined! Look. The sun is already coming up," he says as he nods his head in the direction of the sunrise. He tells me his father looked toward the east and his demeanor instantly changes.
"Get in the truck," his dad orders. He listens. He hadn't noticed that his father had thrown his bunker gear in the back of the truck. They drive a couple streets over, and it is only at this moment that Jeff Tucker realizes what caused the change in his father's demeanor.. They are first on the scene of a home completely engulfed in flames.
Jeff Tucker recalls, "The thing that forever changed my life was watching my father. He sat me on the curb that morning and said, 'don't move.'" He watched his father run into the home and pull out two people before a firetruck arrived. His father ran to the truck and demanded a pair of boots. The man in the passenger side of the truck slipped off his boots and handed them over. Mind you, Jeff Tucker is watching all of this unfold as a frightened six year old.
Now, I must have missed this part of the story, or I was too busy being engrossed in the whole thing to make note of how this next part came to be. But, anyway, at some point, his father ended up on the roof with two other firemen. The roof collapses from under his dad's feet, and he sees him fall into the burning house. I'm pretty sure I haven't taken my eyes off of Jeff Tucker as he tells me, "As a small child, I think my dad is dead. It's catastrophic."
My jaw drops. My eyes widen. Then, he tells me that he sees the remaining two firemen on the roof pulling on the hose like someone's life depends on it. You know, like in one of those scenes in a crazy action movie where you think to yourself, "Ummm... no. That doesn't happen." Well, apparently it does happen. Because, Jeff Tucker's dad was holding on for his life on the end of that hose. As he fought to pull himself up that hose, the two remaining guys were fighting to pull him up, as well. And here is where the story really gets unbelievable and poetic. Jeff Tucker tells me that the hose was only the means of climbing out of the chaos. The thing that kept his father from falling to a fiery death was those borrowed boots. Apparently, they fit his father a wee bit tight. So, as the roof collapsed and one of the guys reached out to grab his father, all he could grab hold of was his boot. And, the boot stayed in place because it was too small.
My internal dialogue goes nutso. "WHAAAA?!?!" I think. "No way, Jose." But yes. Yep. That happened.
He tells me, "I see him come out of the fire soot covered. He looks like Adonis to me. I run to him, bury my nose in his waist, and my life is forever changed. I knew instantly what I was going to do. That's the true meaning of a civil servant." He looks proud. Reverent. I can see a glimpse of that emotion that he must have felt reappear on his now 51 year old face.
About a year later, his parents divorced. His father moved out. He stayed with his mother. "Every track that man made, I was his shadow." He talks a bit about how that rocked his world. He also tells me that the ranch in Palo Pinto became his refuge. He escaped into the solitude of the countryside as often as possible... spending his summers there.
He also began what would become a huge part of his life around that same age. He started gymnastics. "It was a love/hate thing," he says. "I played football through junior high, but I couldn't hit as hard as the guys bigger than me. They all outweighed me by 30 pounds." So, he focused on gymnastics. He recalls how he was built perfectly for it. "I did gymnastics because I was good at it and had a passion for it."
At 17 years old, he was at the peak of his gymnastics career. Until, one day, he was robbed of his passion. Thanks to a dune buggy accident, he suffered every rib on his left side broken, a punctured lung, and a back broken in two places. "It was the first time that something that was ALL mine was taken away from me," he recalls.
That's one thing I always ask my cowboys. "How would you feel if, for some reason, you couldn't do what you love anymore? Your passion is taken from you." I didn't have to ask that of Jeff Tucker because it's happened to him. He knows full well how it feels. He continued to go to gymnastics, though he couldn't do anything. And, as he began to heal, he began to do little things to strengthen his body. He used gymnastics to train for the Fort Worth fire department which he became a part of at nineteen years old. He'd realized the dream he had as a six year old with his nose buried deeply in his father's soot covered clothing. A dream becomes reality... the first of many.
Over the course of the next several years, Jeff Tucker did everything. No, really. Everything. As he recounted everything he's done, I thought, "hmmm, okay... maybe the question is what haven't you done?!?"
Over the next few decades, he became a husband and a father. He gained undergraduate degrees in both History and Philosophy. Yep, philosophy. He joined a fraternity. He gained a Masters in History. He was an arson investigator. He was on the bomb squad and trained by the FBI. He spent six years taking apart bombs. (Unspoken personal thought: WHAT?!?!?!) He worked in internal affairs. He worked as a police officer.
At this point, he's 20 years into his stint at the Fort Worth Fire Department. He's also got a four or five year old daughter. He toiled with his place in life. He remembers the worry that flooded his mind as a youngster wondering if today was the day that his own firefighting dad would not come home. And, he didn't want that for his young daughter. So, he retired... three weeks before September 11, 2001.
He tells me, "When I left the fire department, something was lost in me. It left a hole. It took a long time to find it again."
After all, when I asked him what piece of advice he'd give to a large crowd, he responded with, "Always be of service. Give. It's really the Golden Rule... regardless of the circumstances. There is no higher calling than to give of yourself; that is what gives me the greatest happiness. It fuels my jets."
I'm sure the timing of his retirement didn't help his transition from civil servant (which is so deeply embedded into every fiber of his being) into being a regular ol' Joe. He didn't make note of that, but I did. I remember my own deep, deep desire to be of service after 9/11, so I can only imagine what he, as a veteran civil servant, must have felt.
But, with someone who just IS a certain way naturally, with someone that holds certain values near and dear to their heart, he found other ways to give. Now, this next anecdote wasn't a part of the interview. The only reason I even know about it is because a coworker witnessed it and told me about it. (You know... because all my coworkers know I obsess over him. Sheesh.) He, I'm sure, would prefer me not share this, but I'm going to anyway. Ha.
Apparently, at some point, a woman came into Gore Bros. and asked if she could place a box on the counter requesting donations to help pay for funeral expenses for TWO family members that had died. (Freaking awful.) Of course, Gores allowed her to do so. Jeff Tucker stopped by in the following days (probably for a round bale), and very graciously put some money in the box. And, we're not talking his change or a dollar or two, by the way. And, while it's a very simple act, I do wonder how many folks passed that box after reading very clearly what it was for. I wonder what sort of cynicism flashed through others' minds. But, not Jeff Tucker. Not for a second. So, when he left the fire department, no, he does not carry an official title that delegates him a civil servant. But, you don't need a title to be a servant, do you? Simple, yet profound lesson learned for this ol' gal.
Anyway, from the fire department, he went a very different direction. He went to TCU. At TCU, he started working as an athletic, academic adviser. He also coached intramural gymnastics and athletics. And, he eventually moved on to coach the TCU cheerleading squad for six years. Yep. He went from disarming bombs to coaching cheerleading. But, you know what? I bet his sweet daughter worried a heck of a lot less about him. From there, he went on to open his own tumbling studio where he gained recognition from the powers that be in the CrossFit community for his coaching ability. And, that is how he became the head honcho of the CrossFit gymnastics world.
Honestly, going into this interview, I was most interested in hearing about that world... the CrossFit world. I was most interested in hearing how he balances gymnastics and cowboying. But, as I talked with him, as he bore his soul, as he shared those things just under the surface with me, his fame (semi-fame?) became a heck of a lot less intriguing to me. It was replaced with an intrigue into who he really, really is. Who he is at the very core of his being. His willingness to give and to think and to be honest and to be curious stole his CrossFit thunder. His mind and heart stole the show.
And, with that, there's one last thing to find out. Why, oh why, did he move from a very successful life in Fort Worth, Texas, to a ranch in May, Texas? Yep, May. And, honestly, he's not even in May. He's in the middle of NOWHERE. So, of course, I ask.
The answer that I got, while somewhat expected, was still unexpected. See, I have an English degree. My two favorite American authors are Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. So, when he answered with a Thoreau quote, I immediately understood.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
Ummm... yeah. I gotcha. I understand. Not another word needs to be said. But, as a diligent and good little novice interviewer, I continued to pry.
He tells me, "This is where you get that subsistent living. This is where you get life lessons. This is where you learn to build a fire. I wanted the kids to have what I consider to be a better life. It's a polite, caring community; people say yes ma'am and no ma'am. It is what our youth was."
I can very clearly see the passion and fervor that energizes him when he talks about it. He's an old soul. He's nostalgic. He deeply values something that so many of us that have lived here all our lives take for granted. And, now... now I wonder if his ranch outside of May, Texas, is his refuge as the Kimberlin Ranch was his refuge as a child after his parents divorced. And, if it is his refuge, what did/does he need refuge from? Darn it. I should have asked him that.
Maybe it isn't necessarily refuge. Maybe it's just looking to truly live. Maybe he wasn't running from something but rather to something? Yes, that must be it. Because, the very last quote from Mr. Jeff Tucker that I wrote down was, "Everything out here is simpler; you have more time to give or be kind." So, yes... if giving of himself is what makes him feel alive, I am willing to bet he moved his family to find life... to truly live.
Amy Coffey is a writer and photographer. This piece first appeared on TexansUnited.com.