Falcons kicker Matt Bryant reflects on advice he got from Giants Hall-of-Fame DE Michael Strahan:
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – On the night of Sept. 4, 2002, Michael Strahan was a four-time Pro Bowl defensive end on his way to the Hall of Fame, and Matt Bryant was a rookie free agent kicker seemingly with the Giants only until they found a more experienced option.
But with a Thursday night season opener against the San Francisco 49ers less than 24 hours away, Strahan approached the untested kicker.
"He took me under his wing when I got in there," Bryant said this week. "I think that helped tremendously. Some of the things he told me…he said, 'You have this position because you belong here.' When you get words like that from someone who turned out to be a Hall of Famer, I think that's very important for a young guy getting into the league. I still keep in touch with him now."
Perhaps Strahan saw something in Bryant few others did at the time. Bryant kicked two field goals in that season-opening loss to San Francisco ("I snuck the first one inside the right upright," he said. "Your first kick is kind of like your first kiss. I remember that first kick.") That season, he made 26 of 32 attempts and scored 108 points for a Giants team that finished 10-6. He was twice named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week.
"My whole philosophy back then was, 'Do good today, so they let you come back tomorrow,'" Bryant said. "I've taken that with me into year 15. I just try and focus on each kick each week. Hopefully, they let me come back for one more week."
That philosophy has worked for more than 14 years. And now the next week brings the biggest game of Bryant's career. On Sunday, in his native state of Texas, he will play in his first Super Bowl when the Atlanta Falcons, his team since 2009, face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI.
"This has been a great year," said Bryant, who hit 34 of 37 field goal attempts and was finally selected to his first Pro Bowl – but couldn't play because of the somewhat more important contest the Falcons have on Sunday. "I've done well. To be a part of this team and to get here is an exclamation point, individually and as a team."
As he has at all of his NFL stops, Bryant has earned the respect and admiration of his teammates in Atlanta.
"Matt has been so consistent and so good throughout the years," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "For him to get recognized this year individually for his first Pro Bowl, I couldn't be happier for him. He deserves it. He has deserved it before. He's one of the guys that we rely on in critical situations. If you can just get the ball to the number that he talks about at the end-of-game situations, you just know that he's going to put it through the pipes. He has had a great season. I'm happy for him. I think his longevity and consistency speaks to how hard he works during the offseason, taking care of himself, working at his craft and the time and effort that he puts in during the season, as well."
Bryant participated in one of the craziest plays in Giants history. At the end of that 2002 season, the Giants traveled to San Francisco to play the 49ers in an NFC Wild Card Game. After jumping out to a 38-14 lead, they trailed 39-38 when Bryant lined up for a potential game-winning 40-yard field goal with six seconds remaining. But veteran Trey Junkin, playing his only game ever for the Giants, fired an errant snap. Holder Matt Allen picked up the ball and threw downfield to lineman Rich Seubert, who was interfered with by Chike Okeafor. But the only flag on the play was mistakenly thrown on Seubert for being illegally downfield (the penalty was declined). The following day, the NFL released a statement that pass interference should have been called. But it was too late for the Giants.
"It was crazy," Bryant said. "You hate for a game to end that way. Obviously, we should've had one more play to kick. I think the worst part about that was when I got to Tampa (he played for the Buccaneers from 2005-08), Ronde (Barber) said San Fran winning that game was the best thing that could've happened, because they didn't want to play us (the Bucs won that season's Super Bowl). To think about how good of a chance we had that year, it's tough."
Bryant stayed with the Giants for one more season (though he missed five games with a hamstring injury in 2003). In two years, he made 37 of 46 field goal attempts and scored 158 points.
"I had fun," Bryant said. "Some of the best times that I had were driving to the game on game day. That 30-minute car ride got me into my zone. I didn't realize how significant that franchise was until after I left. Growing up in Texas, it was Oilers and the Cowboys for me. It was an honor to play for that franchise and get my start there. I wish we could've finished it better my rookie year, but I guess that's just how it goes sometimes."
Bryant was released soon after Tom Coughlin arrived as head coach in 2004.
"When a new regime comes in, sometimes they get rid of the other guys and bring in their guys," Bryant said. "I knew my ability to kick in the league was there. Whether it was in New York or somewhere else, I knew I was going to get another chance."
That year, Bryant played one game for Indianapolis and four for Miami before signing with Tampa Bay prior to the 2005 season. He has been steadily employed ever since.
Strahan was spot-on when he expressed his confidence in his unproven teammate in 2002. Bryant has kicked 334 regular-season field goals (in 390 attempts, an 85.6 success rate). His 1,487 points (including a franchise-record 892 with Atlanta) place him 21st on the NFL's alltime list.
"A lot has happened in the game and in life," said Bryant. "As I'm getting toward the end of my career, I think back. There were some special moments there in New York. Obviously, to get to year 15, you have to start somewhere. I started with the Giants, and I appreciate the opportunity they gave me."
The end might be near, but according to Bryant, it's not imminent. Although he turns 42 in May, Bryant has no plans to retire.
"I'm not going to try and break Morten (Andersen's) record (25-year career) with years played in the league, but yes, I still have some good years left in me."