FOXBOROUGH — By his own admission, Patriots special teams whiz Matthew Slater is no spring chicken.
“It’s no mystery a guy in Year 11 is not a spring chicken, but I still love the game,” the 32-year-old Slater said last week after making his first appearance in pads at training camp following an undisclosed injury.
“I still feel like I have a lot to give.”
In fact, players of Slater’s mold, who rely on speed as a means of production and are often funneled into violent kickoff-return scrums, aren’t built to last a decade in the NFL. That Slater is entering Year 11 and remains one of the league’s premier special teamers is a minor miracle.
Uncovering the secrets behind Slater’s staying power requires a wide lens, able to capture Slater as a person and not just a Patriot.
Born in 1985 to a father, Jackie Slater, who manned the trenches on the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive line for nearly two decades, Matthew inherited a rigorous work ethic and general sense of decency.
In 2013, he won the Patriots’ Ron Burton Community Service Award for his regular participation in the team’s Community Tuesday initiatives and his ambassadorship of their Celebrate Volunteerism program. In 2016, Slater hosted a benefit for victims of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti through his own charity event, “Matthew vs. Matthew.”
Slater recalls competing for a spot on the practice squad as a Patriots rookie in 2008, unsure of his football future. Now, he’s imparting his own experiences to younger players in hopes of easing their transition from college to the pros.
“Hopefully I can speak more to the mental challenge of being in that position and try to give those kids some advice and wisdom,” Slater said. “I’ll try to impart any advice I have. I think it’s your responsibility as a veteran player to pass it along, to keep the spirit of the game, keep the spirit of competition moving from generation to generation.
Cultivating a strong working relationship with coach Bill Belichick has only aided Slater. A four-time first-team All-Pro who has been selected to the Pro Bowl seven straight seasons, Slater provides something Belichick treasures: excellence in the less-heralded areas.
Slater understands the gruff persona Belichick has come to embody but insists there’s more to him than a bristly exterior.
“He’s always had a gauge on the team, where we’re at, what we need, when we need it, when to push, when to draw back,” Slater said. “He’s got a unique feel for that kind of stuff. To the outside world, it may seem like he’s way out of touch, but that’s not the case.”
This time around, Slater has a bit of catching up to do. He never feels as if his spot on the roster is assured, despite the awards and adulation. Perhaps it’s that very mind-set that keeps his tool set sharp come autumn.
Some veterans would scoff at the suggestion that their fundamentals needed fine-tuning after a spring layoff. That’s not Slater’s way of conducting business.
“It’s definitely a fundamental approach, and I think that’s what Coach Belichick and [special teams coach Joe] Judge want me to focus on right now,” Slater said. “I think that’s what this time of year is about. No matter where you are in your career, you need to focus on those things because they need to be second nature.”
Slater is generous with his time and the owner of an infectious grin. For a moment, he dropped the Patriots persona and reflected on how rapidly his career in New England has flown by.
“Man,” he said, “it’s really hard to put into words how quickly it’s gone. I feel like just yesterday I was in that field house doing rookie minicamp, trying to figure out where I was. Didn’t know what was going on.
“Here it is: Year 11. I feel very fortunate, very blessed. When you think about the life span of an NFL player and a career, it’s very short. Time goes by very quickly, so you have to cherish it and make the most of it.”
Owen Pence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.