Saints helped Bryant resurrect NFL career

Updated: August 10, 2005, 7:04 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- It took a few minutes of paralysis for Tony Bryant to truly appreciate his career in the NFL.

Fortunately, the spinal injury he suffered on national television in 2002 was the type that heals and allows for second chances.

"I'm going to the weight room right now. I'm not cutting any corners," Bryant said as he walked off the practice field at Saints training camp Wednesday. "I'm running. I'm the last one out. I'm leaving it all here and doing whatever I can to make this a better team."

Although the Saints missed the playoffs in 2004, Bryant's comeback season had an otherwise positive ending when he blocked Carolina's field goal attempt as time expired, clinching a victory that temporarily kept alive New Orleans' playoff hopes.

While his teammates celebrated wildly around him, Bryant kneeled in a prayer of thanks.

"I dropped down and said thank you for this season and thank you for everything you've done for me and my family," Bryant recalled. "I'd rather walk off making the last play of the game then get carted off."

Drafted by Oakland in the second round in 1999 out of Florida State, Bryant quickly became a regular on the Raiders' defensive line and was a starter in 2002, their last Super Bowl season.

Halfway through that season, however, Bryant feared his career was over. After fighting off a block in a Sunday night game against San Francisco, Bryant collided with running back Fred Beasley and crumpled to the ground without any feeling in his body.

He felt nothing for about three minutes. Then, gradually, he realized he could move parts of his body. Concerned for relatives he knew would be watching, he asked trainers to let him walk off the field, but they forbid it. Instead, they told him when the camera was on him and he gave a thumbs-up.

"I know how emotional my mother and grandmother are," Bryant said. "It wasn't that I was down that hurt me most, it was that they were at home not knowing."

The Raiders included Bryant in their Super Bowl festivities in San Diego later that season, but not being able to play was hard on him -- especially after successive seasons in which he was on the field for Oakland's playoff losses to Baltimore and New England. His team had finally made it, and he could only stand on the sideline as it fell to Tampa Bay.

The Raiders released him the following summer, and Bryant began rehabilitation despite some doctors telling him he'd never play again. The Saints kept track of his progress and signed him in late 2003, although Bryant never played that season.

At 6-foot-6, 282 pounds and with muscles bulging from his shoulders to the side of his once seriously injured neck, Bryant hardly looks like a man who was nearly crippled by a football injury. The only lingering signs are his perspective on life.

"I used to party, I used to do a lot of things, and now I'm starting to calm down and be more thankful for everything in life," Bryant said.

He readily admits being fearful of hard contact during last year's training camp and performing poorly because of it at the outset of his comeback.

"I was real nervous. I kept second-guessing. 'Did I prepare myself? Did I rehab right? Did I do all the things I should have done?' Things like that racing through my mind," Bryant recalled.

Finally, his instincts took over in a short-yardage situation early last season.

"Once I took that first big hit," Bryant recalled while driving a fist into the palm of his other hand, "I was like, 'Yeah, OK, now I remember how to do this."

He ended up playing in 11 games, getting two sacks and finishing with his big field goal block, and decided to return to New Orleans for another season.

Coach Jim Halsett said he expects to use Bryant primarily on third downs and on special teams for now. Bryant has no complaints.

"They gave me my second chance," Bryant said. "If it wasn't for them, I'd probably be home, fat, eating -- you know what I'm saying? -- and they kept calling, saying, 'How do you feel?' And that made me want to come back because they were showing an interest in me."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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