FOXBOROUGH — If there is one game, one moment, which Matthew Slater can point to as the one that changed the course of his career, it came Nov. 30, 2008, in the third quarter of a game against Pittsburgh.
The Steelers had just scored a field goal to take a 13-10 lead when the Patriots rookie fielded the kickoff from Jeff Reed. He fumbled it, and Pittsburgh recovered the ball at the Patriots’ 8.
Two plays later, the Steelers were in the end zone. The mistake turned the game in the Steelers’ favor for good, which they went on to win, 33-10.
Slater was emotional after the game, and it was the low point of what had already been a difficult rookie season: not only was he struggling on the field as a kickoff returner, he had been drafted by a team clear across the country from his Southern California roots. The transition from college (UCLA) to the NFL was not going smoothly for the quiet, deeply Christian speedster.
“Looking back, that could’ve been the turning point of my career,” Slater recalled Tuesday. “I could’ve folded.
“It was very frustrating for me and it was very difficult to feel like I had let my team down.”
That night now seems like long ago.
Slater is now a two-time team captain and two-time Pro Bowler. He credits the arrival of special teams coach Scotty O’Brien, hired in 2009, with helping him become the player he is now, appreciated in New England for a role that is not as appreciated in other places.
“A few years ago, even when I started out, who would’ve known that I would have made it this far?” he said. “I’m really thankful. I thank God for keeping me healthy and keeping me safe and giving me the opportunities that He’s given me and put me in a place where they value a player like me.”
Between his hard work and the guidance of O’Brien, who is as frenetic and loud as Slater is reserved and thoughtful, Slater has come to love his role and encourages teammates to do the same, particularly those who are fighting to get playing time.
Special teams has “allowed me to have a career in this league,’’ Slater said. “It’s something that I enjoy doing and it’s something I’m very passionate about. I take it very seriously and I think it’s something that coach [Bill] Belichick and his staff take very seriously. It’s a very important phase of the game and I take a lot of pride in it, as well as the guys next to me take a lot of pride in it.”
He tries to impart that same passion on other players.
“If guys approach me, I just tell them, ‘Look, [special teams] is an opportunity for you to, No. 1, have yourself an NFL career and, secondly, to help this football team,” Slater said. “It’s a very important phase of the game and a lot of times it goes overlooked, but not here.
“Guys have to understand the idea of buying into being a role player: everybody can’t be Tom Brady and throw 50 touchdowns and everybody can’t be Gronk [Rob Gronkowski] and catch 20 touchdowns. You have to have role players in order for you to have a successful football team.”
Patriots coaches have credited Slater with 78 special teams tackles in his career, leading the team each of the last three seasons. He has also seen duty as a receiver and safety, recording 10 tackles in 2011.
He hasn’t practiced as a defensive back in a while, but Slater continues to line up as a wideout. His lone NFL reception came in the season opener two years ago in Miami. Thus far in camp, he’s been working quite a bit with Tim Tebow when the third-string quarterback gets reps.
He is under no illusion that the dearth of experienced receivers will lead to his becoming a larger part of the offense; as ever, he is prepared to do whatever is asked of him.
But Slater’s contributions go beyond the field. He is the spiritual leader of the Patriots. In April, after the Boston Marathon bombings, Belichick asked Slater to address the team when it was gathered for workouts, knowing Slater would be able to put the tragedy into perspective.
As captain and as someone who absorbed the lessons readily handed down by Kevin Faulk, Larry Izzo, and others, Slater now feels obligated to pay it forward.
“Definitely. I feel like you’ve got to pass your blessing on to the next generation,” he said. “There’s been those guys that you know are going to come in and be those ‘teamer’ type of guys and if there’s any way I can help them, I always try to encourage them and get them to buy into their role and get them to realize how important it is. They can live their dream of being an NFL football player. It may not be the way they thought it would be, but it’s a means to an end.”