Brett Conway was visiting acquaintances in Chicago Oct. 5, ready to watch his beloved Braves eliminated by the Cubs that night in Atlanta, when his path back to the NFL was being paved by an unfortunate step by Matt Bryant.
After using his right leg so effortlessly thousands of times during his career, Bryant's right hamstring finally malfunctioned as he followed through on a 43-yard field goal at the end of the first half against the Dolphins. Bryant remembers nothing special about the kick. His leg wasn't tight or sore and didn't get caught in the turf. But something suddenly plunged his career back into uncertainty.
"If there's a light in the tunnel it's the location of the injury," Bryant said. "The lower in the leg it is, the worse off you are. My injury is higher in the leg. So that's good, at least in that aspect."
While the Giants were certainly pleased to hear Bryant will likely miss no more than a month, they still needed to find someone competent to replace him. And that person was Conway.
"I needed to get a veteran," Jim Fassel said. "I wasn't interested in a young guy who hadn't been there. So we brought in five guys for a tryout [Danny Boyd, Jeff Chandler, Jose Cortez and Neil Rackers also worked out] and after whittling it down we [the coaches] went back and forth until there finally was silence in the room. I just said, 'This is the guy [Conway] we'll take.' "
Of course, Conway's place in Giants history was secure long before he celebrated the second anniversary of his greatest personal accomplishment in the NFL by agreeing to play for them.
On Oct. 7, 2001, Conway made a 55-yard field for the Redskins against the Giants at Giants Stadium. Not only was it a career-best effort, it was the longest kick ever made against the Giants in their history.
Perhaps that memory was reverberating in Fassel's mind – like the performance of punter Jeff Feagles against the Giants last season when he was with the Seahawks – and gave Conway the edge.
"The first thing I hope to prove this season is that I can stay healthy," Conway said. "I've had a history with injury. Now that everything is going well again for me, staying healthy is my main focus."
Conway, a seventh-round pick of the Packers in 1997, had been out of the NFL since re-injuring a thigh muscle in his right kicking leg in the season opener for the Redskins in 2002. He first hurt himself as a rookie with the Packers and was forced to spend that season on injured reserve.
He scored 115 points for the Redskins in 1999 and 100 in 2001 and this summer was invited to camp by the Colts to compete with Mike Vanderjagt. But perhaps that was simply a reaction to the negative comments Vanderjagt had about the Indianapolis organization following the season and Conway was cut.
He has made 55-of-72 field goals in his career, including 20-of-31 from 40 yards and out. And when he sat down with Fassel after signing, the coach was concerned that Conway doesn't try to impress anyone by over-kicking.
"The Giants should be concerned about my injuries," Conway said. "But I was the best out there [at the tryout] and they're taking a chance on me."
As Conway worked his way through his first workout Oct. 8, Bryant kneeled in the background, his rehabilitation in full swing. In the few minutes Bryant had to wait near midfield for his ride back to the Giants locker room after his injury a stream of thoughts passed through his mind.
"What was I thinking about? I don't really know," Bryant said. "But it was probably about everything that I went through during the last five years to get to the NFL. It all kind of flashed by. It was a freak accident. I was just hoping that it wasn't as bad as it could have been.
"But it was something that no one could really do anything about. What could you possibly do at that point? I mean, you kick the ball into the net [along the sideline] 15 or 20 times before you run out to try a field goal or an extra point. This was just another kick. There was nothing special about. The hamstring just happened to pop when I was out on the field."
Perhaps there is no bizarre coincidence that has linked Giants' special teams to disaster and disappointment during the last few years. But at this point, you'd be hard-pressed to convince anyone that isn't the case.
"It's just amazing to me," Fassel said. "I mean the media has been asking me for a long time if I thought there was a dark cloud hanging over our heads along the way. We thought we'd solved our problems. But when we lined up for the season, the entire new deck we'd arranged had to be reshuffled. We had to get a new long snapper [Carson Dach]. And now we need a new kicker."
Said Conway: "I'm not superstitious. Hopefully I can come here and make my own good fortune."
Bryant's injury will certainly have a significant impact on him. He made the team in 2002 only after Owen Pochman [now with the 49ers] had to be placed on injured reserve a week before their opener against San Francisco. Bryant, who had bounced around the Arena League and NFL Europe after leaving Baylor in 1998, wound up leading the team with 108 points, the second-highest total by a kicker in team history. And he did it in the midst of the confusion caused by the mix-and-match of holders and long-snappers that ultimately caused the team's demise in the dusk of 3Com Park in the playoffs.
Bryant's reward was the realization the Giants weren't certain he could do it again. They signed veteran Mike Hollis and likely would have given him the job had he not injured his back making a tackle in the preseason. So Bryant was spared and had made 6-of-7 field goals and all nine extra points before his injury.
But now he faces one more challenge for his job, one he never anticipated.
"All you can do is perform," Bryant said. "It might be one thing if I missed a bunch of kicks, but I haven't. You still can't worry about it."
The best scenario for the Giants would be that Conway provides a seamless transition until Bryant regains his health, at which point the team would need to make a difficult choice. If Conway fails, the Giants will have no choice but to find another alternative.
"The process is going to begin short-term," Fassel said. "I'm not going to put Matt Bryant on injured reserve [which would end his season].
"I don't want to define anything, but Matt did a hell of a job for us. The only time he had trouble was when there were problems with the snap or the hold. When he comes back I will make my decision. But he is our kicker, although things certainly can change. If Brett does a great job I might have to figure out a way to get two kickers on the roster."
Conway takes over for Bryant
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