- Myron Medcalf, College Basketball Reporter
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Former Wisconsin Badger and Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback B.J. Tucker is facing his toughest challenge and it has nothing to do with backpedaling or Cover 3.
As of May 3, Tucker, a native of Sierra Leone, was denied the right to be legally employed in the United States after the Temporary Protected Status agreement for immigrants from his homeland expired. Immigrants from Sierra Leone living in America were granted TPS in 1997 due to extensive fighting in the West African nation. Tucker left what was quickly becoming war-torn Sierra Leone at the age of 10 in 1990 to live with family members in Seattle, Wash.
Around this time last year, the 2003 Cowboys sixth-round draft pick was busy trying to impress coach Bill Parcells in mini-camp. Now, he's trying to prepare for multiple "what if?" scenarios.
According to Tucker, the Steelers released him May 20 after receiving the news of his TPS expiration. Tucker was signed by Pittsburgh last December and was offered a one-year deal after the season ended.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Chris Bentley said the former prep national sprinting champion can be arrested, detained and deported if the Department of Homeland Security does not receive the necessary paperwork verifying an attempt by Tucker or a sponsoring party to change his current status by July 2, 60 days after his TPS expired.
An article in Africa News said as many as 4,000 refugees from Sierra Leone may be in a similar situation. President Bush can issue TPS to a nation in civil strife or dealing with other harsh conditions that would make it difficult and dangerous for anyone to return.
But Tucker now must wait for the Steelers to follow through on a promise made to his agent, James Sims, that the franchise would apply for a P-1 visa, also referred to as an extraordinary ability visa, on Tucker's behalf. The P-1 is an employer-sponsored visa, and Tucker cannot apply for one himself. This leaves him with nothing to do but hope.
"[The Steelers] said they would help me through the process. We're just waiting to see if they're going help us out."
According to Sims, he has been in contact with the Steelers, and the franchise's legal counsel is "involved in the process."
Time has proven to be one of the biggest agents working against Tucker. He said he thought he had 120 days to fix his current situation and his agent also admitted he was receiving conflicting information about the deadline, in his client's situation, for the Steelers to apply for a P-1. But Sims, like Tucker, expects him back on the field at some point in the 2004 NFL season.
"We have someone diligently working on B.J.'s case," Sims said. "We're not worried about deportation or anything like that."
Sims also said multiple teams have called about Tucker, leaving him with other options if the Steelers aren't interested in the future.
However, Bentley said the P-1 process is not an easy one. All applicants are subjected to extensive background checks and they must also prove they are one of the leading professionals in their fields.
"The threshold is extremely high. Just because they're in the NFL, I don't know if that would be enough," Bentley said. "Just because you're in the NFL doesn't mean you're the best of the best."
But the P-1 isn't necessarily the end of the road for Tucker. Bentley said there are other options Tucker might be eligible for that would allow him to work for an NFL team via a seasonal visa. He could also be granted asylum, withholding of removal or protection under Article 3 of the Torture Convention, according to the USCIS Web site.
Tucker has been on both the winning and losing sides of the ball. Most of his early success came on the track. The two-time Wisconsin high school track and field and 1998 U.S. Junior Olympics national champion in the 100- and 200-meter dash used his natural speed to earn a UW football scholarship.
After fighting for playing time throughout his collegiate career, he finally showed potential as a senior with five INTs and 76 tackles. And his road since then has had its ups and downs. But he's hoping his current situation won't stop him from future success.
"Things may be difficult and they may not go right, but you have to keep doing right and be patient and it will work out for you," Tucker said in April after one of the Steelers off-season workout sessions.
Confidence has carried him a long way. But patience will have to suffice in a game he may have to watch from distant sidelines for a while.
Myron Medcalf can be reached at myron.p.medcalf.-ND@espn3.com
A native of Sierra Leone, CB B.J. Tucker is fighting for more than his NFL career after the expiration of his Temporary Protected Status visa.