- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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He’s been through more tragedy and a very humbling experience since that 2008 weekend when he buried his infant son and booted the Buccaneers to victory. But if you thought all those off-field sorrows were going to relegate Bryant to a spot in the minor leagues and send him on a path out of football, think again.
Bryant, 34, is back in the NFL, back in the NFC South and doing just fine. He’s the kicker for the Atlanta Falcons and, in some ways, he’s stronger now than he was before the sudden death of his infant son, Tryson, and the slow and painful death of his father.
“There’s never a day that goes by that I don’t think about my son and now my dad," Bryant said after a recent workout with the Falcons. "That just never goes away. It doesn’t change and it probably never will. That’s all right because that’s my life. But when I step out on the field, no matter what has happened off the field, I go out there with the mentality of trying to be the best.''
That’s Bryant’s mindset these days and he’s in a good spot. The Falcons have some younger kickers on the roster, but all indications are they’ll go with Bryant as long as he kicks well in training camp and the preseason.
“Right now, Matt Bryant is our kicker, but we have a very competitive situation,’’ Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “Matt’s advantage is he has done it in this league. He’s had some tough times personally, but he’s a very strong man.’’
Probably stronger than any of us realize. After going undrafted out of Baylor, Bryant had to scratch and claw his way to the NFL. He worked in a pawn shop and as a personal trainer for several years before catching on with the New York Giants in 2002. He bounced around with the Colts and Dolphins, too, before finally finding what seemed like a home in Tampa Bay in 2005.
That’s where Bryant thrived for four seasons. In 2006, he made a game-winning 62-yard field goal and the city declared a day in Bryant’s honor. He firmly grabbed the city’s heart in September 2008, when just days after his infant son, Tryson, died in his sleep, Bryant kicked a game-winning field goal.
But a strange thing happened when coach Jon Gruden was fired after the 2008 season. Even though Bryant temporarily survived the purge of veterans such as Derrick Brooks that started soon after coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik took over, it quickly became obvious he also was on the way out.
The Bucs spent $2.4 million (more than double Bryant’s salary) to bring in kicker Mike Nugent.
“That was their guy," Bryant said. “It was very clear and obvious. I’d love to tell you the whole story and if I do it would actually accomplish something. If I thought it would do any good, I would. But it would probably actually hurt me. Let’s just say it was a very frustrating situation that could have been easily resolved. All the way from the top, from the owners to the GM, it was a frustrating situation that I wish I never had to have been a part of it. My family and I loved Tampa and the fans were absolutely great. But there are some situations you can’t pick and choose."
The Bucs kept Bryant through training camp as he dealt with a hamstring injury. He said he was healthy enough to kick by the final preseason game, but the Bucs didn’t let him. They released him in the final cut and the perception around the league was he still had hamstring issues.
He got a tryout in Cleveland last September.
“It was exactly a year from the day Tryson had passed,’’ Bryant said. “Going into it, I didn’t feel very good and I hadn’t kicked with a snapper and a holder in two months. I didn’t have a great workout.’’
That left Bryant with only one option -- taking a big step back from the NFL. He signed a contract with the Orlando Tuskers of the United Football League. That’s where Bryant’s kicking stroke firmly returned and the Falcons kept an eye on him from a distance. With veteran Jason Elam struggling with accuracy, the Falcons signed Bryant on Dec. 1, 2009.
“Going to the UFL was good,’’ Bryant said. “The pay was considerably less, but it still was football. It was good football. Everybody was there for their own reasons. I want to publicly thank them for letting me come into their league.’’
Bryant finished the season with Atlanta, but not without another tragedy. After a lengthy battle with ALS, Bryant’s father passed away late last season. Bryant had another funeral to attend, but didn’t miss any game time.
Painful as it may be, Bryant is trying to put distance on the tragedies. He’s spent much of his offseason in Atlanta and his family recently moved into the area. Wife Melissa’s been busy getting the children involved in sports and school and Bryant’s been focusing on football.
They once thought they had a long-term home in Tampa. That’s what they now are trying to build in Atlanta.
“It’s been a tough couple of years," Bryant said. “I’ve had some big losses and I’ve been very humbled professionally. But I’m coming in here and starting over. I’m approaching it with the mindset of going out there every day and doing my best and letting whatever happens happen."