FOXBOROUGH — Matthew Slater’s words carry weight. The special teams ace is a voice of wisdom and the voice of victory for the Patriots. If the 12-year veteran is addressing his teammates after a game it was a good day for the good guys.
It’s Slater, not Tom Brady, who breaks the most important Patriots huddle of the week. The one that comes postgame in the locker room with the team gathered around to acknowledge another win. The one that concludes with Slater asking some variation of a familiar question everyone wants him to pose — “How do we feel about . . . ?” and his teammates responding in stereo with a ritualistic reply, “Awwww . . . yeah!”
The homily of victory is a staple of the Patriots culture. It’s a long-standing tradition for a long-running dynasty. Presiding over it is an honor and a responsibility that the revered special teams captain is perfectly suited for as someone who played with Patriot Way pillars Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel as a rookie, and who hopes to do another type of preaching on Sundays when his football career concludes.
Slater can’t remember exactly when he inherited the role of Fort Foxborough’s featured speaker. The line of succession is a bit hazy. Bruschi started it in 2003. Brady tried his hand. Randy Moss had a turn in there, according to Slater. Slater pegs it as around 2011 when he inherited the role full time. But his sermons of success are as much a part of his career as the stellar special teams play that has earned him seven Pro Bowl nods.
Slater starts thinking about what he’s going to say as the team comes off the field. He wants his message to not only sum up the win but the week of preparation that begat it. He wants it to be positive, uplifting, and team-building each time.
“It’s a big responsibility, in my mind. I feel like that’s one of the ways that I can serve this football team is to keep us together, to keep us focused on the right things, and to just keep us believing in what we’re doing, week in and week out,” said Slater. “The season is a long, grueling process. I think you just have to try to stay in the moments, enjoy the moments.
“When you are able to win in this league, celebrate those victories, although it may be for five to 10 minutes. I think you never want to lose sight of what it means to win and have success and enjoy the company of good men. So, hopefully I’m doing my job.”
After the Patriots defeated the Bills, 16-10, last Sunday with Slater collecting the first touchdown of his career on a blocked punt, he summed up a tractor pull of a win.
“It’s just what we thought it would be, wasn’t it? Let’s keep fighting. Let’s keep believing. Let’s keep leaning on one another,” he told his teammates in a video tweeted by the Patriots. “I’ll tell you what, we’re going to have a lot more games like we did today than what the first three were. A quarter of the way done. Let’s keep fighting. Bring it in here. How do we feel about being 4-0, though, fellas?”
The soft-spoken, mild-mannered, pensive Slater lends a different tone and timbre to the role than the founding father of this postgame pastime, Bruschi, did. Bruschi was boisterous, fiery, and swaggering. His motivational tone was more barking personal trainer at a gym exhorting you to squeeze out one more rep than Slater’s adenoidal upbeat clergyman.
Slater was around for Bruschi’s postgame breakdowns. His rookie year of 2008 was Bruschi’s final NFL season.
“Tedy had a unique way about him, a very charismatic guy, a guy that was very easy to follow,” said Slater. “Anybody who was in this locker room with Tedy knew that he was a leader, knew that he was about this team, and he was about what was best for this team. He was a guy that was easy to follow. He obviously started it off, and he did it the same way that I try to do it, which is to uplift the team, keep the team focused. He did a tremendous job of it. He is the forefather of this whole thing. We’re just following in his footsteps.
“I just have to be myself. I can’t try to be Tedy Bruschi. I can’t try to be Randy Moss. I can’t try to be any of those guys.”
There are a lot of great orators that Slater could look to for inspiration — Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill, Knute Rockne. But if there is one great man he’s channeling when he speaks it’s his father, Rams Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater. Father and son have opposite builds and opposite demeanors.
Upon being told he was Matthew’s muse, Jackie Slater, said, “Is that right?” The old man was both proud and flattered.
Growing up, Matthew would not have been a natural choice to deliver the Patriots’ postgame address. As a child, he was more introverted.
“He was very observant, slow to speak, watching everything going on around him, trying to figure things out,” said Jackie. “As he has grown, he has gotten to the point of being more comfortable. I’m just amazed to see him take charge of that situation and be so comfortable with it. It has been fun watching him do that and grow into that role. He was always one of those guys that kept his mouth shut and did his job.”
Slater is such a natural now that his teammates say he is the perfect player to preside over the ritual.
“Because when he gets done playing football he is going to be a pastor. He is going to be preaching,” said safety Duron Harmon. “We always talk at the end of the game, and you hear guys saying, ‘Preach, Slate. C’mon. What’s that good word like this week?’ While he is in there and he’s talking and he’s breaking it down he always has a great message for us.”
The obvious question is whether Slater is ever at a loss for words or aphorisms. Does he ever not know what to say? Does he ever get to the, “How do we feel about . . . ” part and just go blank?
“In my house, with three young kids, I don’t get to say a whole lot. So, I like to take the opportunity to speak up in the locker room,” said Slater with his trademark laugh.
This being the Patriots there is always a backup plan, even for the postgame oratory. If Slater can’t go or is hurt, Devin McCourty is next in the line of succession. He fills the void, as he did in 2017 when Slater missed time with a hamstring injury.
Both Slater, 34, and McCourty, 32, are a bit long in the tooth, so it might be time to train the next generation. But right now it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Slater delivering the postgame gospel.
If the Patriots defeat the winless Washington Redskins on Sunday at FedExField — a virtual given — Slater will provide the coda of inspiration and affirmation again. It’s a quirky part of his Patriots existence. But there’s no question how Slater feels about it.
“It’s something that I’m thankful to be able to do,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of fun with it over the years. I certainly appreciate the guys taking the time to listen to my mini-sermons on Sunday.”