HOUSTON — Of course Matt Bryant remembers.
“I snuck the first one inside the right upright,” he said of an otherwise nondescript 29-yard field goal for the Giants against the 49ers in a 16-13 loss on Sept. 5, 2002, at Giants Stadium. “Your first kick is kind of like your first kiss. I remember that first kick.”
Since then, he has made 342 others in his long career as one of the NFL’s steadiest kickers. But as he heads into his first Super Bowl on Sunday as the kicker for the Falcons, he’s drawing inspiration from a series of conversations he had with a future Hall of Famer when he was an undrafted rookie on the Giants 15 years ago, just trying to win a job and make that first kick.
The night before that game against the 49ers, Michael Strahan approached the clearly jittery rookie just as he had throughout training camp.
“He took me under his wing when I got in there,” Bryant said. “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.”
Bryant, who was thought by many to be just holding down the position until the Giants could sign a more experienced full-timer, wound up sticking with the team. He even was named special teams player of the week twice that season.
“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.”
The Falcons have, and he’s been their kicker for eight seasons now after his two years with the Giants and stints with the Dolphins, Colts and Bucs. At 41, he’s the oldest player in Super Bowl LI, but his teammates have learned that they can count on him to handle whatever comes his way.
“He’s one of the guys that we rely on in critical situations,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “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.”
Bryant has been successful on 34 of his 37 attempts this season and was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time. He couldn’t play in the game, though, because of the Super Bowl.
“Matt has been so consistent and so good throughout the years,” 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.”
“This has been a great year,” Bryant said. “I’ve done well. To be a part of this team and to get here is an exclamation point, individually and as a team.”
Bryant has converted nine of his 10 career postseason field- goal attempts, but all Giants fans will remember is the one that he never got a chance to attempt. It was in a wild-card game against the 49ers at the end of his rookie season.
After taking a 38-14 lead, the Giants trailed 39-38 when Bryant lined up for a potential game-winning 40-yard field goal with six seconds remaining. Trey Junkin, playing his only game ever for the Giants, fired an errant snap. Holder Matt Allen picked up the ball and threw an incomplete pass intended for 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.
“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. To think about how good of a chance we had that year, it’s tough.”
The Bucs won the Super Bowl that season, and the lesson for the rookie was that a season’s success or failure can hinge on one play.
Bryant said he has no intention of riding off into the sunset with a potential Super Bowl win on Sunday. He still has some good years left, he said. But he does understand that his time in the NFL will not last forever, something he knew in those first unsure days as a rookie. Now that he’s finally in the Super Bowl, he can reflect on it all.
“A lot has happened in the game and in life,” Bryant said. “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.”
Matt Bryant has been almost automatic on field-goal attempts inside 40 yards in his 15-year career, but he’s been far from a sure thing from long distance. His regular-season numbers:
Longest kick: 62 yards