FOXBOROUGH — When Tedy Bruschi did it, it was like a crescendo of horns, booming and joyful. Matthew Slater is a bit quieter, but his postgame speeches are mini-sermons to his Patriots teammates, and they listen closely.
“Fellas, way to tote that thing,” Slater said in the visitors’ locker room in Buffalo after last Sunday’s win over the Bills. “Way to run that rock. That’s a team win now.”
Slater’s voice has a slightly nasal quality that lets it ring clear through the huddle of teammates surrounding him.
“Team win. We keep doing that, we’re going to be all right now. It’s not easy to win 10 games in this league,” said Slater, building to the part everyone has been waiting for: “How do we feel about being 10-2?”
52 voices join in to answer: “Awwwww, yeah.”
That postgame ritual was passed on to Slater, but it started with Bruschi, the linebacker who came up with it in the stretch line during training camp in 2003.
“It’s almost like a comedy session, really, with all the guys that are sort of ripping on each other and making jokes,” Bruschi described in the 2004 edition of “America’s Game,” the annual NFL Films documentary produced about the Super Bowl champions for that year.
“There was laughter erupting and then I just sort of made this sound, it was sort of this ‘Awwwww,’ and they didn’t know what I was doing,” Bruschi said. “And I just went, ‘Awwwww,’ and I just kept going up and up and up, and then it was like, ‘Yeah!’ right at the end of the stretch and everybody sort of got a kick out of it.”
Bruschi cemented the tradition in the locker room after the first win of the season.
“Out of nowhere it just came to me, I just brought everybody up and they sort of all knew what to do because of what I was doing in the stretch line at training camp. And I was like, ‘How do we feel about a victory?’ ”
When Bruschi retired ahead of the 2009 season, someone needed to take over. The tradition never died even for a game though, from the pieced-together recollections of Patriots who were on the team, it bounced around like a beach ball.
Tom Brady filled in some. During his first stint with the Patriots, Brian Hoyer recalls Matt Light doing the honors at times.
Eventually, in 2011 by his estimate, it landed on Slater.
“It kind of fell into my lap and I tried to put my own flair on it,” Slater said.
Bruschi was quick, loud, and exuberant in his delivery. Slater is more of a talker.
“I think I have more of a reverend feel to mine, so I’ve been told,” Slater said. “Tedy had his own unique style of leadership and energy about him that was very contagious, so hopefully I’m doing him proud.”
Indeed, seeing Slater offer lessons and encouragement feels like seeing him take the Patriots to church, particularly when he’s celebrating a win that was needed badly.
“What we learned today, fellas, is sometimes adversity builds character,” Slater said after the Thursday night game in Tampa, his teammates’ hands resting in piles upon his shoulders. “So what we did was put down a character brick tonight. So we’re going to continue to build upon that foundation. Sometimes you’ve got to go down in there and get dirty, and that’s what we did. All together now. How do we feel about win No. 3?”
“I’ve never been accused of not having enough words to say,” Slater joked.
It’s all off the cuff, feeding off the good mood of a winning locker room. Sometimes it seems that Slater balances out, or complements, Bill Belichick’s words to the team, which always come beforehand.
When Belichick offered muted praise — “It’s not our best football,” he began — after a sloppy game against the Dolphins two weeks ago, Slater’s words sounded like a pick-me-up.
“You know division games, they go like that sometimes,” Slater said. “They’re not always going to be pretty, but we got the win. You have to be thankful for that, OK? So, how do we feel about being 9-2?”
“Awwwww, yeah,” came the response.
Belichick was more effusive after the Falcons game, praising all three units for playing complementary football and telling the team it did a “damn good job,” and Slater’s follow-up was short and sweet.
“How do we feel about win No. 5?” he said, simply.
Twice this season, another player has had to fill in for Slater. When the special teams captain missed the first win of the season, in New Orleans, because of a hamstring injury, defensive captain Devin McCourty took over.
“You’re worried it’s not going to be good enough,” McCourty said. “But you’ve got to come up with it on the spot. And you don’t really think about it until we’re bringing it up and it’s like. ‘Aww, [expletive], Slate’s not here.’ ”
“It’s his gift,” McCourty said. “He is a preacher.”
McCourty’s delivery was rapid. It had a little more Bruschi to it.
“Now remember, I’m no Slate, now,” McCourty said. “But that’s the way we come out and get it done on the road. First one of the year. How do we feel about a win in New Orleans?”
The only other time Slater needed a fill-in this season was in Mexico, when Danny Amendola made a cameo appearance. This win was special, as Belichick moved into third place on the NFL’s all-time list for coaching victories.
Normally, the players make up the center of the huddle, with a few coaches and other staff milling about the edges or watching from afar. This time, Belichick was right in the center, with the players putting their hands in to touch the game ball Robert Kraft had given him. Belichick looked like he was trying to downplay being the center of attention, but several assistant coaches, Josh McDaniels especially, were beaming.
“How do we feel about coming to Mexico and beating the Raiders?” Amendola roared, the words coming out with a staccato rhythm.
For all eight other wins, it has been Slater. He’s come on the road even as he’s missed the last three games after reinjuring his hamstring against the Broncos.
Even in that game, Slater had finished getting the injury treated and changed into street clothes in time to lead the postgame cheer.
“The good thing this year is that when Slate hasn’t played he’s been there,” McCourty said. “It’s like, ‘All right, do your thing, Slate.’ And that’s how he is I think, for this team, he’s just a voice that you kind of need.”
By bringing Slater along, it appears Belichick has recognized that need, too. The Patriots have historically kept injured players at a distance, having them focus on rehab instead of coming along just to stand on the sideline, but that policy hasn’t applied to Slater over the last few weeks.
Eventually, someone else will take over, whether Slater passes it on or just allows for a natural successor to emerge after he’s done playing. “Some young stud” will do it, McCourty said.
Maybe the person next in line is on the roster right now, or maybe not. To Slater, it feels like eons ago that he was a rookie, awestruck by teammates such as Bruschi and Junior Seau who could command the team’s attention with the sound of their voice.
Slater never figured he would wind up in their shoes, tasked with summing up the collective feelings of 53 in a sentence or two.
“Junior used to give the pregame and Tedy the postgame,” Slater said. “And I was feeling like, man, these guys are legendary. I still feel that way. I feel honored to have played with Tedy and to be keeping one of his traditions alive.”
Has Slater done his former teammates proud?
You must know the response by now.