TAMPA — Somehow, Matt Bryant still is kicking, field goal after field goal, despite emotions that tumble end over end with every football he sails between the uprights.
Entering the bye week, Bryant's 20 made field goals led the NFL. He is now tied for third with the Eagles' David Akers, trailing only the Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski (24) and Giants' John Carney (21). With seven games left, he is just eight shy of his career high set last season.
Bryant also has booted three winners, including two in overtime. Among his three misses, two have come from beyond 50 yards, and his 87 percent accuracy is his best in seven years as a pro.
Statistically, it is the best season of Bryant's career. By any other measure, of course, it's the worst.
Bryant and his wife, Melissa, still are mourning their 31/2-month-old son, Tryson, who died Sept. 24. He was buried three days later after a service at the Agape Fellowship Church in Groves, Texas. The next afternoon, Bryant kicked three field goals, including the winner, against the Packers at Raymond James Stadium.
"Every day I think about him, so it's not necessarily just the games," Bryant said of Tryson.
"The first thing that happens when I walk into the locker room is I walk through that door. I see one wall in my locker, and it's covered with all the pictures. So it's an everyday event."
Somehow, Bryant has summoned the strength to come to work every day and excel in a pressure-packed position in which you are only as good as your last kick.
It has been anything except routine.
"One of the hardest parts for me has been part of my approach to each kick," Bryant said. "Prior to that … to kind of take the edge off, I would always think of my son, Trey. I would imagine his face. And in the beginning this season, I was imagining Trey and Tryson. So after that, it's been hard on that aspect of things. It's hard to picture him. But you always try to remember the smiling faces."
Then Bryant's voice trailed off.
"You just try to do the best you can."
Bryant, 33, says he doesn't remember much about his performance against the Packers. He was perfect on three extra points, and his 24-yard field goal put the Bucs ahead 23-21 with 2:26 remaining.
With each kick, Bryant kissed his fingers twice and pointed to the sky. In fact, he was so overcome with emotion after his final field goal that he hooked the ensuing kickoff out of bounds.
"I was so physically tired that day," Bryant said; "just with the series of events from when it happened, with the traveling, with the day of his funeral and getting back. Physically, I was just kind of on fumes out there. Part of it wasn't too, too bad. The field goals were short, but you've still got to make them.
"The only thing was I got kind of worried there at the end because it felt like we did so much as a team and I was able to go out there and do what I did. That last kickoff, I don't know what happened. … At that point, I just wanted the game to be over with."
Since then, Bryant has been nearly perfect. According to punter and holder Josh Bidwell, he rarely even misses in practice.
"I never had this many kicks this early in the year," Bryant said. "But you know what? For whatever reason, even during camp, I couldn't miss. … I've had great days. I may have had some off days here and there, but it's been few and far between. And it could be better. You look at my three misses, and there were just some minor things. So far, things are going pretty well."
Part of the reason for the 23 attempts is the Bucs' failure in the red zone. But coach Jon Gruden says there have been other times he wanted Bryant to put the score out of reach.
"We'd like to score more touchdowns, but we've strategically played for field goals, too, because we know he's going to make it," Gruden said. "If he can make it 17-0, now it's a three-possession field. We tried to get a 17-0 lead against Carolina because we knew the game would be over. It's automatic.
"He should be in the Pro Bowl. He should be in the Hall of Fame for what he's doing when you put it in perspective. He's got some issues that are so dramatic, I don't know how I could handle it. I don't know how I could call plays and come to work, let alone go out there and kick the game-winner in Arrowhead (against Kansas City) and kick the game-winner in Chicago."
Bryant speaks in hushed tones. Most days, you can find him sitting at his locker, his back to everyone, next to that wall of photos of a smiling Tryson.
The Bryants have a large family. Melissa had four children before they married, and they had Trey and Tryson together. The ultimate goal, Bryant says, would be to kick well enough for his team to play in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa.
"I guess the things I always think about with Super Bowls, the sideline, guys going grabbing their kids," Bryant said. "I mean, I'll get to do that. Obviously, Trey is here. It'd be great to be there on the field and do that.
"But it's that double-edged sword deal when you know you're not going to be able to bring Tryson down. This year, with Tryson and what happened to him, it's tough. But you just do the best you can."
Rick Stroud can be reached at email@example.com.