FOXBOROUGH — Matthew Slater is a three-time Pro Bowler and a team captain. He is humble and well-spoken, and he smiles a lot.
Maybe, one day, he’ll feel at ease about his spot on the Patriots.
Just not yet.
On June 30, Slater said his principal goal during training camp was no different than it was when he entered the league in 2008: Make the team.
“Nothing’s owed to me,” Slater said then, at a golf tournament sponsored by former Patriots lineman Joe Andruzzi. “I still feel like I have to earn it. I enjoy kind of being that grunt guy who goes in and earns everything that he can. [The] mentality’s the same seven years later.”
On Thursday, the newest chapter finally began, and the wide receiver still carried the self-effacing approach.
Slater, the Patriots’ special teams captain and a player representative to the NFL Players Association, was activated from the physically unable to perform list. He practiced for the first time, returning to the field after missing the spring’s organized team activities and minicamp and the start of training camp with an injury. He was jovial and grateful, and he predictably directed attention away from himself.
“It’s a joy to be back on the field with my teammates,” Slater said. “Real thankful to be back out there and back to football.”
He was limited during the workout under a July sun and preseason expectation. Wearing pads like most of his teammates, Slater went through pass catching drills and special teams work before performing conditioning drills. If getting fit is a race, Slater is at the starting line, while his teammates have already run a few miles.
“I’ve got a lot of ground to make up to get even with the other guys,” said Slater, 28. “So just trying to work hard and get myself back into playing shape.”
Slater, from Anaheim, Calif., missed four games last season with a broken wrist but still made the Pro Bowl, the third time in the past three seasons. He played in 12 regular-season games and both of New England’s playoff matchups.
On Thursday, he offered no clues regarding the injury that kept him out of the spring sessions and the beginning of camp.
“I can’t get into the details of that, but I feel like I’ve really been in good hands here with the medical staff,” he said. “They’ve taken great care of me.”
They also soothed his anxiety, ensuring he didn’t rush back too quickly.
“There’s definitely a balance that you have to maintain there, and I think that’s why it was important for me to rely on the training staff. They know what’s best for me, even when I don’t,” Slater said. “That’s what they’re trained and paid to do, so I just have to listen and try to do what I can when I can and go from there.”
But for help coping with one of every player’s biggest fears — watching your teammates while relegated to the sideline — Slater turned somewhere else.
“It was very tough,” he said. “Very tough, very frustrating, and you know, a lot of the emotions that come along with that. But I just thank God for bringing me to this point and allowing me to get back on the field.”
In his six-year career with the Patriots, Slater, at 6 feet and 210 pounds, has one catch for 46 yards in 2011. His contributions, of course, are less glamour than grit, and he’s OK with that. And he applies his blue collar outlook to every day.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” he said. “We’ve had a few good practices and trying to put together some good things and some consistency here, but we haven’t gone against an opponent yet and we haven’t played one game yet.”
The Patriots face the Redskins in an exhibition game next Thursday at FedEx Field, following three days of joint practices with Washington.
“I hope the guys are looking forward to getting the chance to go down there and compete,” Slater said. “When you work in those types of settings, usually they’re very beneficial, so it’ll be good for our team to get a look against some really good competition.
“I think the level of competition is extremely high. Obviously it’s high once we go against one another, but you’re getting a chance to compete against guys that you don’t see on a daily basis. You get a chance to try certain things that maybe the guy on your own team has seen 100 times, so schemes are different . . . You get a chance to really go out there and gauge where you are as an individual and gauge where you are as a team and see what you need to work on.”
And, if you believe Slater, to prove he belongs.