(Orange, Texas)

September 9, 2009

Tampa Bay bubble curiously bursts for Bryant

Bob West

Matt Bryant sensed he was on the chopping block last spring. But that didn’t make Saturday’s announcement saying the Bridge City ex had been cut by Tampa Bay any easier to swallow. Especially since the Bucs threw him on the scrap heap following his must successful year in the NFL, a year in which he’d solidified himself as one of the game’s best, most accurate field goal kickers.

Though he’s bitter about the way he was treated, and is careful about what he says since there may be legal ramifications, Bryant knows all too well the latest hand he’s been dealt isn’t a life or death matter. Putting things in perspective gets a lot easier when you’ve buried a three-month old son.

“It’s unfortunate, it’s sad and it’s mind boggling to me and a lot of others,” he said Tuesday from Tampa. “But it’s certainly not the end of the world. I’ve been through much worse. I have to believe there’s something better out there for me. I’m looking forward to the next chapter.”

The next chapter almost certainly will involve signing with another NFL team that’s either unhappy with its current kicker, or one that recognizes Bryant is clearly an upgrade. Don’t be surprised if it’s the Miami Dolphins, since the Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland was Baylor’s kicker before Bryant arrived in Waco for the 2000 season.

No matter what happens going forward, however, Bryant will always wonder about the chain of events that led Tampa Bay to start pushing one of its most popular, successful and civic-minded players out the door.

In 2008, his fourth season with the Bucs, Matt kicked the second most field goals in the NFL (32) en route to scoring a career high 131 points. Included were three game-winning kicks and an .842 field goal percentage that ranked as the fifth-best single season mark in team history.

The most memorable moment, of course, was the late September Sunday afternoon when he returned less than 72 hours after burying three-month old son Tryson to make all three field goal attempts against Green Bay. They cried a river of tears over his courage that day at Raymond James Stadium and the NFL was so moved it named him the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week.

Ultimately, the Pro Football Writers Association of America would name No. 3 the winner of the George Halas Award that goes to the individual in the NFL who overcame the most adversity to succeed during a season.

Bryant’s bittersweet honor was the culmination of four productive seasons for the Bucs. During that time he had kicked seven of his nine game-winning NFL field goals, had become the most accurate kicker in team history (.831), had earned four NFC Player of the Week and one NFL Player of the Month Honors.

The highlight of all highlights was kicking a 62-yard, last-play field goal in 2006 to beat the Philadelphia Eagles. It was the second longest game winner in NFL history, a scant one-yard shy of Tom Dempsey’s record.

Tampa mayor Pam Iorio was so excited she declared the next day — Monday, Oct. 23, 2006 — Matt Bryant Day in Tampa.

That was sort of the launching pad for Bryant and wife Melissa to endear themselves to the Tampa Bay community. He was named the Bucs Man of the Year in 2007 and was a finalist for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for his work on and off the field.

The Bryants became the March of Dimes Florida Bay Division “Ambassador Family” in November 2007, and he and Melissa served as the co-chairmen of the 2007 Tampa Tailgate Kickoff to a Cure for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum selected Matt as spokesman for the state’s Child Predator Cyber Crime Unit that helps protect children from computer-based exploitation and harassment. The Bryants were also involved with an ALS Group (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and are starting a foundation to enhance awareness of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).

All in all, Matt Bryant was a dream guy to have on your team, because he was a blessing on and off the field. Then things started to go a bit haywire with the firing of head coach Jon Gruden and GM Bruce Allen. In came a new regime apparently not all that impressed with Bryant. One of its early moves was to sign kicker Mike Nugent, a high draft pick who failed with the NY Jets.

Not only did they sign Nugent but they rewarded with a $2.5 million contract that was significantly larger than Bryant’s.

Bryant was stunned, hurt and angry. His reward for four outstanding seasons was to have a free agent who’d been cut elsewhere brought to town for better money. When I ran into him at the Tyrrell Garth tournament last May at Beaumont Country, he was steaming but not talking on the record.

He could see the writing on the wall, but couldn’t figure out why it was here. All he knew for sure was that he would be going to training camp to

compete against management’s fair-haired boy. And things got worse from there.

Early on in camp, he tweaked his hamstring. While Bryant sat, stewed, watched and rehabbed, Nugent had the job all to himself. Frustrated, he tried to come back to soon, aggravated the injury and missed more time. Although Matt felt he was ready to kick in last week’s final pre-season game against Houston, it didn’t happen.

Nugent, who hardly set the world on fire while making only 4 of 7 field goal attempts, got the job by default. Bryant, against the unwritten NFL code that says a starter doesn’t lose his job because of injury, got the shaft.

Fans in Tampa didn’t take Bryant’s axing much better than he did. They reacted with irate e-mails, phone calls office and threats to stay away from

games. Nugent will go into the season opener against Dallas a marked man.

As for Bryant, he’ll be kicking at neighboring colleges and high schools until the phone rings. In the meantime, he’s more than a bit disillusioned.

“I have never seen anything like what I’ve been a part of this offseason,” he said. “Another player and I were sitting in the training room recently and we got to talking about what people think life in the NFL is like, as opposed to what it’s really like.

“We talked about how when we were about eight years old and dreaming about making it in the NFL. If we knew then what we know now, we’d dream about something else.”