FOXBOROUGH — Matthew Slater remembers vividly the night when he was about 7 years old and his father came into his room to have a very important talk.
Slater had been going to church with his parents throughout his young life, but Jackie Slater felt it was time to share the gospel with his older son, to tell him about Christ and his plan for young Matthew’s life.
“Even though I was 7 years old, I think I was old enough to understand and grasp it on a broad spectrum, so I started walking with the Lord at 7,” Matthew said. “And from there it’s been quite a journey.”
Now in his sixth season with the Patriots, Matthew Slater is a team captain, widely respected in all corners of the locker room and throughout the organization. On the day of the Boston Marathon bombings, Patriots players had gathered at Gillette Stadium for offseason workouts, and coach Bill Belichick asked Slater to address the team and offer a prayer on an uncertain day.
When he was significantly injured for the first time in his career earlier this season — missing four games to a broken thumb — Slater became one of the very few players during Belichick’s tenure allowed to travel with the team even though he wasn’t able to play.
He was also recently named to his third Pro Bowl, in his case selected as one of the two best special teams players in the NFL.
Perhaps above all, Slater is a man of faith, and by all accounts, it isn’t just talk: He speaks of striving to live life in a Christ-like manner, and he walks it as well.
It isn’t easy, Slater acknowledges. Temptation can cross anyone’s path, but as a professional athlete, with a measure of fame and money and hangers-on and groupies, the perils seem greater, and more accessible.
“There’s a lot of things out there he could be involved in, but he’s intentionally chosen not to, and understands that’s a force he has to deal with,” said pastor Howard Jenkins of Bethel AME Church in Providence, which Slater has attended for nearly three years. “I think the key to spiritual transformation, to spiritual growth, is the awareness of knowing you can easily take a left turn.”
David Mitchell, a senior pastor at Calvary Church of Santa Ana, Calif., has known Slater for approximately 18 years, and has had discussions with him about the temptations being very real. But Mitchell believes the continued influence of his father, Jackie, and mother, Annie, as well as other people Slater has surrounded himself with have helped the 28-year-old remain steadfast.
“Proverbs says it’s iron sharpening iron, one person sharpens another,” Mitchell said.
“I think for me, all in all, what I have to understand is the NFL life — and some people might be offended by this — it’s temporary,” Slater said. “And that kind of helps me realize: It might be fun to do X-Y-Z, but it’s only going to bring temporary satisfaction in my life, and in light of eternity, it’s really not that important.”
Patriots offensive lineman Ryan Wendell, who recently attended church services with Slater at Bethel, thinks NFL life pushes a person’s true self to the fore.
“Slater and I have talked about it before, and I know he believes this and I do, too: The game of football and everything it brings, as far as fame and notoriety and money and things like that, it just accentuates who you already are,” Wendell said.
“If you’re a guy doing the wrong things, it just makes it easier to do those things. If you’re a guy doing the right thing, it gives you a better platform.
“A guy like Matt, it just accentuates who he is.”
‘I’m not supposed to be here’
The conversation with his father struck a chord in Slater, but he will quickly acknowledge that he has strayed from his faith and questioned it, perhaps never more than while he was a student-athlete at UCLA, getting very little playing time his first couple of years.
In his final seasons with the Bruins, Slater was a special teams player, but he never started a game in his college career, getting just spot duty at receiver on offense and as a defensive back on the other side.
If I’ve lived my life to honor God, Slater thought, why are things not working out in my favor? It was immaturity, he says now, and also just being human.
Yet it was also through football that Slater says he got proof that God is in his life.
“A kid who didn’t start a college game is now in his sixth year in the NFL,” said Slater, shaking his head.
“Every day I come in here, I can’t help but grin, because it’s easy for a man to boast about what he’s done and all he’s accomplished, and many men think they’re self-made men, and many men have worked hard to get where they’re at, but at the end of the day, I’m in no position to boast for anything that I’ve accomplished, because I’m not supposed to be here. I understand that.”
Slater certainly beat the odds, going from lightly regarded college player to Pro Bowl pick. But, it is pointed out to him, you play for the Patriots. Maybe you were shown favor by being drafted unexpectedly, but the famously cutthroat Belichick wouldn’t keep you around if you weren’t working hard and earning your keep.
“I have to be a steward of the opportunity that I’ve been given, and being a good steward is me working hard at my craft, preparing, trying to take care of my body, trying to do the right things on and off the field,” Slater replied.
“Have I been a perfect steward? No, not at all. But I’ve tried to not take for granted the opportunity and the platform that he’s given me in order to try to keep it.
“Because if I was just going to sit here and say, ‘Well, God’s got me, I can just go on cruise control,’ that’s just ignorance. So I have to do my part, but my little bit of part, it pales in comparison to what he’s been doing in all of this.”
Not pushing it
Football is a collision sport, one in which players are hurt every week and must learn to play through pain. Slater bristles at the notion that his piety is out of place on the field.
“I think it’s a common misconception that as Christians we’re supposed to be passive and shy and timid,” he said. “The Bible talks often about us not having a spirit of fear and telling us to be strong and courageous, so when I go out on the field, I’m competing for an audience of one.
“I feel like if I don’t compete as hard as I can and play as fast and physical as I can, I’m doing a disservice to the Lord, who’s given me the opportunity and the talents to play this game.”
Slater will discuss his faith with anyone and everyone who asks, but as Mitchell notes, he has managed to find that balance of not being obnoxious about it — not, as Slater jokes, thumping teammates on the head with his always-close-by Bible.
Along with his sterling work ethic and dedication to the team, that is part of what has endeared him to fellow players.
The fact that Slater is exactly who he professes himself to be plays a role as well.
Former Patriot Kevin Faulk, also a devout Christian, saw hundreds of players come and go in his 13 years in the league.
But Slater is one of the few who lives the life that he speaks, Faulk said in a text message, adding that Slater isn’t outspoken, isn’t telling others that he lives his life this way so they can, too.
“That’s not him,” Faulk said. “He is a very special person.”
Slater believes it is not his place to judge others, mostly because he is not in their shoes.
“This is what I do understand: Before I knew Christ, I was a sinner; after I’ve known Christ, I’m still a sinner,” he said. “I understand that I have many flaws in my life and have made many mistakes, but it’s by the grace of God that I am where I am, and I’ve been forgiven and restored.
“When I look at other people and situations that they have in their lives, things that they may be experiencing, I understand that I can’t pass judgment on them because I don’t know their story. I don’t know where they’ve been, I don’t know what they’re going through all the time at home, I don’t know what may have happened in their life that has them doing what they’re doing.
“I think we’re taught to love people and that oftentimes speaks Jesus way more than what we can say out of our mouths.”
More work to do
When his playing days are done — and he wants to play for as long as he’ll be allowed — Slater plans on entering the ministry, perhaps after spending time at a seminary.
Jenkins believes that Slater will do far bigger things in his post-playing career, when he’s able to use his experiences and the platform afforded to him as an NFL player to impact people, perhaps young men, like ones he’s connected with through Bethel.
“Who know what the Lord has in store?” Slater said. “But I feel like I’ve been blessed too much, I’ve been given too much, to not try to give it back to somebody else.
“Don’t get me wrong — just because you accept the Lord and become a Christian doesn’t mean he’s going to allow you to play in the NFL. Everybody’s plan is different.
“But he does, I truly believe he does, have a plan for everyone. It’s just a matter of surrendering and letting him take the wheel of the car.
“I’d love to get involved in the ministry when I’m done — hopefully it’s not for a while — and, you know, just have that opportunity to use what I’ve been given and give it back.”Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.