Matt Bryant knows too well that there are plenty of things in heaven and earth more important than kicking an ovoid ball between uprights spaced 18-feet, 6-inches apart.
A man who has seen the world from behind a pawn broker’s counter knows what real trials a life can hold. That’s where Bryant found himself 20 years ago, at K and C Pawn in East Texas, between leaving Baylor and beginning a typically itinerant kicker’s journey through pro football.
“Every day you’d tell yourself you’d seen it all, but you hadn’t,” Bryant said, recalling a post-collegiate job in a way that almost sounds like a country song. “You see some sad stories. See some good stories. And see some stories that made you say, ‘What is this world coming to?’ ”
A father to seven who has lost a child — in 2008, Bryant’s 3-month-old son Matthew Tryson succumbed to apparent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome — knows a pain beyond that of a kick gone wide left.
“I’ve buried a child and I’ve buried a parent,” he said. “I can’t imagine it getting much worse than that. In retrospect, (missing a kick) is very light compared to that.”
And yet ...
“It goes back to wanting to be the best, wanting to be perfect. It’s a strong feeling,” Bryant said this week, three days after his missed point-after kick with 1:53 left loomed large in the Falcons’ 34-33 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. “So, when it doesn’t happen, it just seems magnified.”
Dating to 2002, taking in stops in New York, Indianapolis, Miami, Tampa and these past 10-plus seasons in Atlanta, Bryant, 44, had stared at 573 point-after kicks leading up to that failed try in the desert. And made 566 – 98.8 percent – of them. On his 574th try, he hooked it just left of the upright.
Rather than possibly taking that game to the vagaries of overtime, the Falcons fell to 1-5 as a result. With such a record, they obviously have found no shortage of ways to lose. But to have a game turn so late on a missed PAT by the franchise’s all-time leading scorer and No. 11 on the all-time field-goal accuracy list (86 percent made) beggared believability. The man has made more kicks of 50 yards or longer the past 10 seasons – 36 – than anyone else in the NFL. He has a 62-yarder to his credit, while with Tampa Bay. Teammates took to calling him “Money Matt,” and Money Matt doesn’t miss a 33-yard PAT with the game on the line.
Credit: Christian Petersen
Credit: Christian Petersen
After such a miss, Falcons coach Dan Quinn said, “The belief in him is always so strong, that the mouth-open (reaction) happens.”
“That is the life of a competitor. It sucks when it happens. It sucks when you’re going through it,” Quinn said. “He’s made so many, and he’ll make a bunch more.”
“You certainly don’t anticipate that in those type of situations because he has been so consistent,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “But that happens. In sports, physical mistakes happen. We had so many opportunities throughout that game to try to make that a different situation at the end of the ballgame. Anybody who doesn’t take ownership for their own personal role in that is missing the mark.”
Yeah, teammates were saying all the right things afterward. The Falcons may have thought Bryant was too old and too injury-prone when they declined an option on him to begin 2019. But they scurried back to him when the younger and cheaper alternative, Giorgio Tavecchio, struggled in the preseason.
Apparently dead-eye kickers don’t just pop up everywhere like toadstools after a rain.
“There are a lot of guys who can kick a ball a long way, but not necessarily between the uprights,” Bryant said.
He’s earned every kind word, by making game-winning kicks like a 49-yarder against Seattle in the 2012 postseason, a 55-yarder against Oakland that same season, a 46-yarder in overtime against the Saints in 2010, a 37-yarder against Tampa Bay to close out 2018. With the Falcons, he’s 12-for-12 in postseason field-goal attempts, when kicks absolutely mean the most.
That didn’t seem to comfort Bryant much in Arizona. The camera stayed with him after the miss as he ripped off his helmet and made his way to the sideline, where he sat glumly. There is just no real consoling of a person who thinks he should be perfect when he inevitably falls short of the unmeetable goal.
“Like guys said to me (after the miss), there have been a whole lot more positives than that one kick,” Bryant said. “You still want to be 100 percent. I’ve always strived for that even though it’s hard to do. But it’s still the expectation.”
There is a toughness to Bryant that belies the softer image of kickers. There is a gray and grizzled look to this survivor of a capricious craft. And a pragmatism born of small-town Texas.
He’ll tell you the will to win started with him even before he was born, as he overcame complications in the womb.
“I was born two weeks late,” he said. “They told my parents I’d be disabled. They said I was living on my own, without the umbilical cord attached at the end. That willpower to survive started very early.
“And growing up, it was instilled by my dad. Us against them, them being everybody else. It came with the mental approach of succeeding at all costs.”
In such an outlook there is no room for missing.
Like most kickers, he wasn’t drafted coming out of college. Like many, Bryant struggled to gain any traction in the sport, spending years at first trying to be seen by the NFL — hence the pawn-shop gig — and years more before gaining a measure of stability with Tampa Bay. Still, after four seasons there, he was cast off, which was fortunate for the Falcons, who went shopping for a kicker at the close of the 2009 season after waiving Jason Elam.
He and the Falcons had a very good decade together (in addition to all the made kicks, Bryant was twice the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year for his community service). And for one year more, the team discovered it couldn’t get by without him.
One day, soon, this odd kicking life must end. When? “It’s hard to say. Whether it’s this year or next year – right now I feel pretty good physically,” Bryant said. “If I tried to give a definitive answer, I feel I could be lying. That’s something you have to figure out in the offseason.”
He has a beach home waiting for him near Gulf Shores, Ala. — one named “Kickin’ Back” — as well as a fishing boat — that’s named “It’s Good.” You get the theme here.
Bryant already had contemplated the end of playing days when the Falcons looked to move on from him after last season. He thought running a fishing charter sounded like a splendid way to spend his next chapter.
But, not yet. Not before making his next kick because in his world, missing is not an option.
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