FOXBOROUGH — The game is violent, made for large men like him, and carrying his name onto a football field would be a burden.
Or so the father thought.
As Jackie and Annie Slater raised their two sons in the Anaheim, Calif., area, they tried their best to steer them away from football. Jackie coached their older son, Matthew, at the YMCA, introducing him to soccer, baseball, and basketball.
But when they weren’t at the Y, young Matthew went with his father to work, at the Los Angeles Rams practice facility. After his father ran, Matthew ran. When his father was in the weight room, Matthew watched, his wrists taped so he looked the part.
While his father was putting in all the hours necessary to stay on the field, to rehab from injuries, to honor the game he loved, Matthew had a front-row seat.
Jackie Slater, a 6-foot-4-inch offensive lineman, was with the Rams for 20 seasons. A third-round pick out of Jackson State in his native Mississippi in 1976, he didn’t become the starting right tackle until his fourth season. Once he took over the job, however, it was a long time before he surrendered it.
Matthew was born at the start of the 1985 season, midway through what was a Hall of Fame career for his father.
Jackie never intended that the time Matthew spent with him at the Rams facility would be on-the-job training.
“It was a really hard way for me to go, and it was very physical and very demanding, and I was a big guy, I was always a big guy, and I have always felt football is a big man’s game,” Jackie said.
“I saw that he was going to be a little man and there was very little I was going to be able to help him with as a smaller player. I didn’t know enough about the skill positions to teach him and help him and so I just kind of discouraged him away from it.
“To be perfectly honest with you, I just didn’t think that he was going to be cut out to play the sport.”
Matthew was smaller than his father — though, of course, most men are. But he was fast. And he loved the game his father played, in spite of Jackie’s reluctance. He begged his parents to let him take up football.
“My dad did everything in his power when I was young for me not to play,” Matthew said. “I think part of that was he didn’t want me to feel the pressure of living up to being ‘Jackie Slater’s son’ and secondly he didn’t want me to get injured because he understands this is a dangerous game and he wanted his son to be healthy.
“But what he didn’t know is he was the reason I wanted to play. Because even talking to my dad now, you hear him tell the stories of when he played, he still loves the game so much. You can see it in his eyes, and that was kind of contagious for my brother and I — what is this game that’s bringing so much joy and passion in my dad?”
Eventually, the Slaters relented.
From Bruin to Patriot
Annie Slater isn’t sure when Matthew started excelling at football. He was a stellar student at Servite High, the top-notch all-boys Catholic school he attended, and his college choice came down to two schools: UCLA, not far from home, or Dartmouth, an Ivy League college in the East.
He was a standout track athlete, tying for second in the 100 meters at the California Interscholastic Federation state meet in 10.67 seconds, and was part of a state-champion 4 x 100-meter relay team.
On the football field, though, he had modest numbers: 39 receptions for 707 yards as a senior. But he had enough tools that he was appealing to college programs. He settled on UCLA.
Slater was a versatile performer with the Bruins, playing at receiver, in the secondary, and on special teams. He had the most impact as a kickoff returner, obliterating the school’s season record for kickoff-return yards in 2007 with 986 yards on 34 returns (a school-record 29.0 yards per return), with three of those going for touchdowns.
What former UCLA coach Karl Dorrell most remembers, however, is Slater’s work ethic.
“His effort and how he did things, it stuck out like a sore thumb, so to speak,” said Dorrell, now quarterbacks coach for the Houston Texans. “If you go through practice and scan everybody that was practicing, there was always one guy that was just going so much harder and so much faster than everyone else, and that was Matthew Slater.
“He just kind of stuck out that way.”
When his career with the Bruins was over and the draft process began, Slater had no sense of what would happen for him. He had established himself as a special teams player, but he didn’t know whether that would be enough to earn him a shot with an NFL team as a free agent, let alone receive a phone call telling him he’d been drafted.
If Dorrell had gotten his way, Slater would have been a Dolphin. After a 6-6 season in 2007, he was fired by his alma mater and wound up in Miami as receivers coach.
“He can do so many different things, and his effort and how he did things was really unmatched compared to what most people would do,” Dorrell said. “I was trying to get [the Dolphins] to draft him because I felt that strongly about his ability.”
But Miami didn’t draft Slater. A surprise team, one that he’d had little to no contact with in the previous weeks, chose him in the fifth round: the New England Patriots.
“When you look back on it, it was a perfect fit because they appreciated guys like me around here and they still do,” Slater said. “They view things a little bit differently in regards to special teams. So it was a perfect fit with the way my college career went for me to end up here.”
His rookie season of 2008 is not one Slater remembers fondly. He struggled on the field, averaging just 14.1 yards on 11 kickoff returns, and off the field, the transition from college student to professional — far from his family and his familiar Southern California surroundings — was difficult as well.
And then came Scott O’Brien, the mustachioed, frenetic special teams coach the Patriots hired after Slater’s rookie year, the yin to Slater’s quiet yang.
O’Brien rebuilt Slater’s confidence, believing in the young speedster, making him believe he could be a great player.
Appreciating the grind
Jackie Slater believed that his son liked the grandeur of the game, that he enjoyed sitting in the stands with his mother and brother and seeing the Rams welcome different teams to Anaheim Stadium.
That was not the case.
“What I much later found out, the thing that had the biggest impact on him was, he’d watch me go through the grind, and I think the biggest thing that happened out of all that to him was he just learned to appreciate the underside of it, the mundane side of it, when nobody’s watching and you just have to go to work and get yourself ready,” said Jackie Slater.
“Those are some unique times, when we actually spent quite a bit of time together, when I was trying to retard the aging process and he saw that. He got up close and personal with the grind of the game, the hard work and everything that goes into it, the respect that you have to pay the game on a daily basis, the practices — that’s the thing that he seemed to have remembered the most.”
Matthew believes “95 percent of what I’ve learned as far as being a professional and how to work as a pro, and how to respect the game of football” came from his father.
“If there’s one thing I remember about my dad, it was his work ethic,” said Matthew. “As a little kid, going to Rams Park with him and watching him work out, and I didn’t understand why he was doing so much and why he put so much time into it, but as I got older, I began to realize why he was doing that and he always — even now — is talking to me about being a professional, what it means to be a pro, what it means to respect this game.
“This game owes none of us anything; we’re very privileged to be playing this game and we have to give it its just due in the way we prepare on the field and off the field so we’ll have no regrets at the end of the day. I got a lot of that from my dad.”
‘This is my craft’
For most players, special teams is a means to an end: It’s a way to get on the field as a young player, with the hope of getting more snaps at your preferred position later in the season.
Though he practiced as a defensive back and receiver in his first years with the Patriots, Matthew Slater, now 6 feet and 198 pounds, at some point realized that special teams was his position, and he set his mind to excelling at his position.
“I can’t tell you how much I love this game of football,” he said. “This game has been really good to me and my family, and once I got on the field and was able to play, I really saw that hey, this is fun. I like doing this.
“I’m very competitive by nature. I want to be great at whatever it is I’m doing, it doesn’t matter if we’re playing tic-tac-toe.
“In college, when I would see guys not take special teams seriously, I would feel like they were slighting the game, like they weren’t respecting the game.
“This is a huge part of the game. It’s not a job, it’s my craft, and I want to be a master at my craft. It’s not just me coming in punching a clock, going from 9 to 5 and doing the bare minimum.
“This is my craft, I want to perfect it.”
Working on his own, working with O’Brien, Slater improved. He draws double-teams when he’s on the field, opponents doing whatever they can to keep him from making a tackle on punt coverage or kickoff coverage.
More times than not, he’s still the first player to get to the returner.
He has refined his craft to the point that he is considered by some the best special teams player in the NFL; last month, he was named to the Pro Bowl for the second straight year.
“There’s something that sets the elite apart from everybody else, at any position, and to me it’s really a desire and a passion that you have for what you do,” O’Brien said. “Not only understanding it and wanting to be good at it but wanting to be the best at what you do. And the positions he plays are the hard ones, so that’s a credit to Matt.”
“When I talk to my peers, other coaches from different teams across the league, and they come up and say, ‘Did you have Matthew Slater at UCLA?’ I’m excited to talk about him,” Dorrell said.
“I was very proud of what he did at UCLA but I’m even more proud of how he’s established himself with such a great reputation, and also to be recognized as really the best special teams player in the league, that says a lot.
“He’s a self-made man and he did a lot of that on his own because of how hard he works.”
For the father, who didn’t think his son was cut out for the game, who for a long time didn’t appreciate the work done by special teams players, seeing his son’s success is humbling.
“I always knew [special teams] was an important aspect of winning, it was just, in my heart of hearts, I didn’t value it as much as some of the other positions,” Jackie said. “It’s been humbling to watch my son go that route.
“This is the opportunity that he was given to get on the field at UCLA, this is the opportunity he was given to get in a training camp in the National Football League, it’s the opportunity he’s taken advantage of to make one of the best teams in the country, and it’s the opportunity he’s taken advantage of to distinguish himself as one of the best players in the best league in the world.”
Proud of the burden
When Matthew Slater steps onto the football field, it is with the last name of a Pro Football Hall of Fame player on his back.
He is glad he isn’t an offensive lineman, with the burden of playing the same role his father did, with the expectations of playing it at the same level. There was pressure enough when he was younger to be like his father.
But Jackie raised him to be his own man, and on the football field he certainly is.
“It’s hard because, no matter what I do, I’ll always be the son of Jackie Slater,” said Matthew. “But you know what, I’m OK with that. I’m OK with being the son of Jackie Slater because I am the son of Jackie Slater.
“But what I have to remember is I can’t be him, I won’t be him, I just have to be Matthew. He told me that at a young age, and even though at times I may struggle with that, I just have to be me and try to represent the name as well as I can.”
On and off the field, he does.Shalise Manza Young can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.