Should Matt Bryant kick the field goal or extra points that sends the Falcons to their first Super Bowl win, it will earn him a wing in the tiny pantheon of sports heroes who’ve propelled Atlanta to professional titles. Then and only then will he reflect upon it.
He hasn’t thought about such possibilities yet.
The Falcons’ 41-year-old, first-time Pro Bowler is big on visualization, but when he folds inward to his mind’s eye, the kicker looks back, not forward. He’s not about to practice for a chance to kick what would be just the fourth game-winning field goal in Super Bowl history.
No, Bryant looks back at other big kicks, chiefly among his 15 career game-winners, like the 49-yarder that beat Seattle with 13 seconds left in a playoff game four years ago.
How often does he do this?
“At all times. Sometimes, it’s not at opportune times” Bryant said. “There’s been times in the past where I’ve been going down the road and I’ve found myself in a game and I’ve gone off the road.
“I try to put myself in as much imitated pressure as I can. A lot of times, I go based on past kicks and envision what it felt like in making the kick and what it felt like after the kick. You want to project positive.”
When Bryant and the Falcons take on New England in Sunday’s Super Bowl in Houston, he could find himself with a chance to join Tom Glavine and Dave Justice in the smallest of Atlanta halls of fame.
When the Braves beat the Cleveland Indians 1-0 in Game Six of the 1995 World Series for the city’s only major pro sports championship, they rode Glavine’s one-hitter and Justice’s solo home run to glory.
Bryant, though, knows as much or more about his counterpart, New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski, with whom he has a lot more in common than occasionally booting an orb of pigskin.
The Patriots’ 11-year veteran is one of the NFL’s best, a four-time Pro Bowler who’s been named first team All-Pro twice. Five times, the former fourth-round draft pick has led the league in scoring, including a run from 2012-’15 where he became the first player since the AFL-NFL merger to lead the league in scoring more than two consecutive seasons.
That streak ended this season, when Bryant led the NFL with a career-high 158 points. Gostkowski scored 127.
“If somebody was to ask me who would you watch, I’d say watch him. I like his approach, how he goes about his craft,” Bryant said of Gostkowski. “He’s swinging for the fence every time. He’s going at it 100 percent. He is kicking it … I like kicking it versus just trying to make it.”
Gostkowski’s path wasn’t standard.
Born in Baton Rouge, he grew up in Madison, Miss., and went to Memphis on a baseball scholarship. There, he walked on the football team with two artificial front teeth, having lost the originals playing hockey as a kid.
Bryant grew up in tiny Bridge City, Texas, with three older brothers and an older sister. “We played everything,” he said. “Football, basketball, baseball, soccer … we’d have played hockey if it was available.”
Older brothers Billy and Kim, who went on the play baseball at McNeese State on scholarships, did a little kicking. “They were toe-punchers,” Bryant said, recalling the old school.
Matt went soccer style from the jump.
“I was kicking extra points when I was eight years old for the Cardinals in the pee wee league,” he recalled. “It was worth two points, one if you ran it in.”
By high school, Bryant was down to football and baseball.
“Baseball was my sport. I originally signed with Panola Junior College. They didn’t have football,” he said. “Later in my (high school) senior year, Trinity Valley Community College came and asked me to come play football.
“Well, they didn’t have baseball so I was able to talk to both coaches and in the fall I played football for Trinity Valley and at mid-term, I transferred to the other school to play baseball. And then I would transfer back to Trinity Valley to play football.”
After his second season kicking, he transferred to Oregon State to play both sports. That didn’t last long.
“January in Corvallis, Oregon. … I remember from January to March not seeing the sun, not hearing a bird chirp, nothing, and I was miserable, depressed, wanted to go back home,” Bryant said. “I ended up leaving and transferred to Baylor, finished up there just playing football.”
It’s worked out all right.
Kicking for the Giants, Colts, Dolphins, Bucs and Falcons, he’s scored 1,487 points, fourth-most among active players and 21st all time. He’s the leading scorer in franchise history with 898 points — over 60 percent of his career total — in a Falcons uniform.
Gostkowski is the leading scorer in New England history and fifth among active players and 24th all-time with 1,457 points.
They both know a little Super Bowl history, a bit about kickers who’ve hit highs and lows, like when Adam Vinatieri hit a 48-yarder as time expired to lift the Patriots past the Rams, 20-17, in the Super Bowl following the 2001 season.
Vinatieri also connected from 41 yards to lift New England past Carolina, 32-29, with four seconds left in the Super Bowl two years later.
The only other kicker to hit a Super Bowl game winner in the waning moments was the Colts’ Jim O’Brien, who toe-punched a 32-yarder to beat the Dallas Cowboys, 16-13, in the fifth Super Bowl.
And who of Bryant’s age can forget Buffalo’s Scott Norwood? Trailing the Giants 20-19 with four seconds left in the Super Bowl following the ‘90 season, he lined up from 47 yards with a shot at glory.
“A lot of people will associate Adam Vinatieri with his kicks,” the Falcons’ kicker said. “Unfortunately, people will think of Scott Norwood on the opposite end of the spectrum … but that’s the nature of the beast.”
That’s true. As Gostkowski told the Boston Globe a few years ago: “You’re one kick away from being Public Enemy No. 1. No matter how many kicks that I get, how many games that we win, I’m always going to try to stay humble and have humility because you’re one play away from being trending on Twitter as the No. 1 loser in America.”
That’s a tough grading scale. Gostkowski is the fourth-most accurate kicker in NFL history, making 87.069 percent, including 27 of 32 this season.
Bryant’s ranked No. 9 (No. 6 among active players) at 85.641 percent, including 34 of 37 this year.
He’s connected from a career long of 62 yards. Gostkowski has converted from 57 with a career mark of 95.7 percent on fourth-quarter field goal tries.
With all the numbers and possibilities, Bryant just stays in the here and now — with a few flashbacks from time to time.
“There’s some I could tell you. I could be exact,” he said. “Like I can remember … obviously, the 49-yarder to beat Seattle. The 59-yarder at halftime against KC. But I couldn’t tell you us playing Denver however many years ago on Monday night.
“The main memories that come are ones that already happened.”
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