(First in an occasional series.)
It is exactly 7:30 a.m., and the silence in the neighborhood is shattered as a garage door hums open. Matthew Slater, special teams captain of the Patriots, emerges, wearing a black Red Sox cap and driving a black Lexus. He has a big grin on his face. Today is a good day. Slater has just won the NFL’s Bart Starr Award given annually to a player who exemplifies character and leadership on and off the field.
Smack dab in the middle of the Patriots’ bye week, we are carpooling to work on a cold January day.
Slater, wearing glasses he never wears during a game, looks more like a professor at UCLA (his alma mater) than a special teamer who has been named to six Pro Bowls, but the nine-year NFL veteran has football coursing through his veins. His father, Jackie Slater, was a Hall of Fame offensive lineman who was named to seven Pro Bowls. They are the first father-son duo to win the Starr Award.
It’s exactly 13 minutes and 28 seconds to Gillette Stadium. What follows is an impromptu chat along the way with the charismatic and thoughtful Patriot leader.
Q. Why are you going to work now? Couldn’t you still be snuggled up with the missus and the little baby?
A. “I could be going in a little later. Our first meeting is at 9 o’clock. I’ve always felt I’ve needed to do extra to earn my keep around there and stay on top of my game, and it’s something I pride myself on. Coming in early, leaving late. I want to make sure that when I leave the game of football, I have no regrets about the effort I put forth.”
Q. The Bart Starr Award — what does it mean to you?
A. “Honestly, it probably means more to me than any other individual accolade I’ve had as far as what I’ve accomplished on the field. Being acknowledged by my peers, it’s extremely humbling.”
Q. Your dad won it too.
A. “He did, in ’96, and it’s something he has cherished. He was a man who stood for something. He was raised during some tough times in the South in the ’60s and ’70s and he was able to overcome that, and he would attribute that to his faith in God, and that’s very important to my family.”
Q. He didn’t want you to play football, did he?
A. “Not at all. He didn’t want me to feel the pressure of being Jackie Slater’s son and having to live up to his name, and also he didn’t want a little scrawny kid like myself to get hurt playing football.”
Q. What about (your 1-year-old son) Jeremiah? Are you going to let him play football?
A. “The decision ultimately may be up to my wife, so we shall see. Whatever he wants to do, we’re going to support him. A part of me wants him to play, but a part of me is, ‘Ahhh, I don’t want him to get hurt out there,’ so we’ll see.”
Q. Have you seen the movie “Concussion”?
A. “I actually have not seen it. But I have seen the real-life version with some of my dad’s former teammates and guys that I have played against, so it’s definitely something that makes you think about what you are doing and what some of the long-term effects will be.”
Q. What’s the difference between driving in California and driving here?
A. “The roads. I never had to deal with black ice. I never had to deal with snow. We don’t get much rain. The drivers are . . . just as aggressive.”
Q. Did anyone ever give you the finger and then apologize when they realize you’re Matthew Slater?
A. “No, there’s never any apologies when someone gives you the finger.”
Q. Do people know you in this town?
A. “A few of the neighbors, but I try to keep a pretty low profile and just enjoy my family. [At the local market] people will look at me like, ‘I know this guy from somewhere,’ but they don’t know who I am, and that’s fine with me. I kind of enjoy my privacy and staying under the radar.”
Q. You don’t go into Dunkin’ Donuts like Robert Kraft and buy everyone in line coffee?
A. “I do things like that from time to time but I try to keep as low a profile as possible. ’Cause I’m not doing it for the attention. I do it to try and be a good human being, living in a community with other people.”
Q. Tell me a story about some of the kids you’ve met doing community service.
A. “I can think of some hospital visits I had. Unfortunately, one of the patients passes away. To hear from his family afterward about what it meant for him to spend time with myself, it makes you feel like I’m doing some things that are making a difference, and that’s important to me. That’s going to last beyond what happens on the field.”
Q. I was hanging out with Nate (Ebner) when he was playing (Olympic) rugby. I was struck by his incredible drive. He’s a lot like you. Is that taught? Is it heart? Some guys are blessed with more physical attributes but they’re messed up.
A. “I know exactly what you mean. I think for me it was the way I was raised. I was raised to believe in myself. To believe in my dreams, but more importantly to work for everything I got. I didn’t expect any handouts as a kid, because of what my dad did. We had to work for things.”
Q. You are relatively short for a football player (6 feet), so when Isaiah (Thomas) goes off for 52 points, do you feel a kinship with him?
A. “Oh, man. Definitely. Us little guys, so to say, have always had a chip on our shoulder. We’ve got to prove that we belong. Isaiah, he’s so much fun to watch. A guy his size playing there amongst the trees, to be as dominant as he is . . .
“So yeah, definitely as a little guy I think you’ve always got to drive to prove yourself a little bit more when people say you can’t and telling you what you should and shouldn’t be doing.”
Q. Tell me about being a gunner. How do you get downfield first when there’s a guy or two always trying to mess you up?
A. “The one thing that goes through my mind is how am I going to battle one or two guys and get them off me and second it comes down to see ball, get ball. We want to disrupt the return even when we can’t get to the ball.
“I think when I get on the field, there’s a switch that goes on and I’m thinking to myself, ‘I have to be disruptive. I have to be a maniac out here.’ ”
Q. What is your heart rate? Is it jacked up?
A. “No question. I’m thinking about not getting my butt kicked. It’s almost like a street fight, especially out there at gunner. You get antsy before every single punt, knowing that pretty much you are in for a legal fight. It’s a pretty indescribable feeling. It’s a great feeling.”
Q. How do you practice that? Like, what are you going to do today?
A. “Well, when we go out to practice, they’ll probably put two guys on me. I’m sure we’ll be in full pads. It’s something we see in the games, a lot of double-teams, so it only makes sense to practice what you’re going to see in the games.
“I’ve been so well-coached over the years of how to beat a double-team, how to have a plan, what to be thinking situationally.”
Q. Do you feel like you want to get more snaps?
A. “There were times in my career where I may have felt that way, but honestly I’m in a point now where my role has been well-defined on this team. I understand what they need of me. And if and when my number is called as a receiver, I’m excited and happy to do it. But the focus is obviously on special teams.”
Q. Does Bill Belichick yell?
A. “Only when necessary.’’
Q. Is this year special because of all that Deflategate and all that horrible persecution? Is there a vendetta? Tell the truth.
A. “I think there’s extra incentive possibly for us. I think maybe there’s some extra incentive there, but I think every year we have plenty of motivation coming into the season. There’s so much to play for during the year, so much to prove.
“When you feel like you don’t have anything to prove, it’s probably time for you as an individual to stop playing. So I think, as a franchise, if you think you have nothing else to prove, it’s not going to bode well either.”
Q. What about life after football?
A. “I want to get into family counseling. That’s something I wanted to do since I was a kid. I’d like to go back to school and get my master’s in pastoral counseling. And try to help people in a different capacity.”
Q. How do you get through to kids that don’t listen? The ones that just look down into their mobile devices and never look you in the eye?
A. “It’s certainly a different generation, even than the one I was raised in. But if you just take the time to listen to someone and hear who they are and take the time to learn what they are about, it goes a long ways.
“It’s not always about talking their ear off or telling them what they need to do; sometimes it’s about listening. That’s something I’ve learned over the years, and it’s something I have to learn more about as I transition into the next phase of my life.”
Q. What would you tell Aaron Hernandez if you went to visit him in jail?
A. “Ooh, that’s a tough question. I think, as a Christian, I’d tell him I’m praying for him and that I hope he can learn something about his current circumstances. Obviously it’s a tough situation and a lot of people have been affected for a lot of different reasons. But the best thing I could do for him is pray for him. Pray for the direction of his life moving forward and obviously pray for the families that have been affected by this whole situation.”
Q. Tell me a Belichick story. What’s he really like? He swats away questions at press conferences.
A. “The thing about Coach that I think everyone sees but they don’t understand fully is that he’s 100 percent about doing what’s best to win football games. He loves the game of football. It’s something that he lives and breathes every day. He’s not going to do anything that sacrifices preparation or sacrifice an edge by giving away too much information to the media.
“It’s really hard to explain genius. And in my mind when you talk about football, he is a genius and I think his track record has shown that.”
Q. What’s he doing supporting Trump?
A. [Laughs.] “I’m going to say no comment on that one.”
Q. Did you ever talk to him about that?
A. “No, I never had a conversation about that.”
Q. What about Tom?
A. “I never had a conversation with Tom about it. We live in a country where you are free to believe in what you want and support who you want, and that’s the beauty of America. Those guys are well within their rights to support whoever they want politically.”
Q. Are you afraid we are slipping back into racism and hate? You’ve seen these offshoots.
A. “I’d be lying if I said as an African-American that I didn’t have concerns. But that’s not going to change the way I think about people, the human connection. You just hope and pray that change is possible.”
Q. What’s the best part of being here?
A. “The relationships you have here. I love the game of football. It’s something I’ve been around my entire life. But I love the connections you make with people. For example, Sebastian Vollmer, a guy from Germany, a guy I never would have met in my lifetime. But the game of football has connected us and we’ve been teammates the last eight years. The stories I have about the guys in the locker room are something I’ll remember forever.”
Q. What kind of music do you listen to?
A. “Motown and R&B. That’s what my dad listened to. Gospel, the Temps, the Stylistics. Actually, when we are at practice, I’m a plan-ahead visualization guy. I’m not a big music guy. I’ve got my goals for the day and I try to get them done, but music is not a part of my everyday routine.”
Q. What if you saw Roger Goodell in a dark alley? What would you say to him?
A. “That would be a lengthy conversation. I have a lot of questions about some of the things he’s thought about, but look, the guy has got a tough job, and we all understand that. I guess he’s trying to do the best he can with the cards he’s been dealt. “
Q. Is the extra incentive discussed in the Patriot locker room?
A. “It’s not something we talk about often at all. I mean, our focus is on us and what we need do. We really haven’t talked about Tom’s suspension, Tom’s situation, or any of that stuff. It’s not like we come in every morning and say, ‘We’ve got to get this guy back.’ ”
Q. What about Tom’s health regimen?
A. “I’m not quite on that.”
Q. Ever stop at Mickey D’s?
A. “No. I won’t eat McDonald’s. But every now and then, I like to have a doughnut or something nice. Doughnuts, I love them. That’s my favorite food. We had them at my wedding, actually. Krispy Kreme has always been my personal favorite. Glazed. Hot off the press there.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.