Matthew Slater has always served an invaluable role as a compass of sorts in the Patriots locker room.
Choose your metaphor: unchartered waters, foreign territory, long and winding road, deep in the jungle, the Patriots are about to enter it for the first time without Tom Brady.
And it’s at times like these where you need a steady hand on the ship. A hand that everyone else on the ship trusts to handle moves in the dark with confidence and skill.
Slater is no longer just a captain entering his 13th season with the Patriots, he is the moral and emotional compass of the team.
Sure, there are other leaders still left on the team like Devin McCourty, Stephon Gilmore, Patrick Chung, Dont’a Hightower, Julian Edelman and James White. But Slater is now official the heart and soul of this franchise. Slater signed a two-year extension on March 14 for $5.3 million, with $2.35 million guaranteed. But beyond the money, why did he come back? Was it the thrill of playing in the NFL or the pride he takes in playing for the Patriots his entire career?
“That’s a great question. I love the game, and I’ve loved playing football from the time I can remember. I’ve said it so many times, the reason I love it so much is because I’m getting a chance to do what my daddy did,” the son of Jackie Slater told me in a conference call on Monday. “I see my son now, and he wants to do whatever I do. He’s copying whatever I do. It was no different for me as a kid, and even now as an adult, I still think to myself, ‘Man, I’m getting to do something my dad got to do.’ I think about all the memories we had just talking about the game and his love for the game and the preparation of the game. So, certainly, I love the game.
“But, as I think about my career and my experience the last 12 years, I’ve fallen in love with this team and this organization. I love being able to represent this team, the people of this region, the fans of this team, and I hope that I represent them in a good way, in a way that they’re proud of. It’s hard for me personally to imagine myself playing in a different uniform at this point. I’ve given a lot of myself to this organization, and this organization has given a lot of themselves to me. So, it would be hard for me personally to imagine going elsewhere, but I’m just thankful for the opportunities I’ve had, I’m thankful I get to play the game I love and I’m thankful that I get to do it for the Patriots.”
Slater has been to five Super Bowls in his 12 seasons with the Patriots, winning three. Slater, who will be 35 in September, just passed Steve Tasker for the most Pro Bowl selections for a special teamer in NFL history with eight. Listed as a wide receiver for most of his career on the flip card, he has caught only one pass for 46 yards in his 12 seasons and has played just 201 offensive snaps since 2012. He is not just one of the best special team specialists in team history, he’s one of the best to ever do it in the 100-year history of the league and SHOULD earn him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday. That’s not hyperbole, just obvious from watching his film over 12 seasons.
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) September 22, 2019
Oh, but the intangibles. He’s missed the playoffs only once, his rookie year of 2008. He’s been to the AFC Championship eight times. All of that glory and success came with Brady at the helm. Despite his departure, he insists the bar of excellence doesn’t change.
“I don’t think the goals change at all,” Slater said. “The standard doesn’t change at all. The pillars that we stand upon, they don’t change at all. I think if you go into the season with a defeatist mindset, then you can’t expect to be successful. We’re not the victims here. We have a great opportunity, we have a lot of good football players, we have a tremendous coaching staff. You don’t have time to waste any season in the NFL. We all know it stands for ‘not for long,’ and I think all of us can appreciate that a little bit more now considering the circumstances we are facing.
“So, we have to go into the season expecting more from ourselves than anyone outside the building expects from us. We have to go in with the same drive, the same focus, the same determination. And if we don’t, we shouldn’t even step foot in the building because we’re already going to be beat. So, let’s come in there with the same goals, and that’s going to be from day one just come in working hard, doing your job, trying to perfect your craft. You’re not worrying about what everybody else is doing. Let’s take care of yourself first and foremost. It starts small and hopefully it grows into bigger things, but I think our mentality as a team and our approach to what we’re doing has to be the same that it’s always been.”
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) January 5, 2020
Whether you listen to Slater in the moments after the 20-13 playoff loss to the Titans on Jan. 4 or on Monday, you can easily see why those in uniform around him in the Patriots locker room not only follow his lead but trust him.
With Brady and Stephen Gostkowski gone, Slater is now the elder statesman in the locker room. As shocking as it was to learn the news of Brady’s departure last week, Slater had nothing but praise and admiration for the pair, especially No. 12.
“I got the news I’m sure the same way many of us did, I found out through ESPN, different outlets like that or friends texting me or what have you,” Slater said. “When you talk about Tom and everything that he’s meant to this organization, our team, a lot of our identity over the last 20 years has been centered around him. Any time you transition away from a player like that, it’s a tall task. There are a lot of emotions involved as you try to process it, especially for me personally. I think the one thing that I am feeling right now is a ton of gratitude.
“I feel a ton of gratitude towards Tom for the way he always treated me, the respect that he always showed me from the moment I walked in this locker room, the humility with which he has always carried himself and continues to carry himself with and just the friendship that we have. Certainly, I’m thankful for the experiences that he provided for me on the football field, some experiences I’ll take with me and cherish the rest of my life, some magical moments being his teammate. But, I’m more grateful for his friendship, the man that he is, the way that he loves his family, the example that he left behind for so many of us and certainly “Thank you” doesn’t do it justice but I have a lot of gratitude when I hear the name or think about the name Tom Brady.”
As for Gostkowski?
“You really can’t say enough good things about Stephen, what he’s done for this organization,” Slater said. “If you think about the beginning of his career, when he was drafted here, he was drafted to replace a guy who is maybe the best kicker in the history of the league with some of the things he’s been able to accomplish. For Stephen to come in here and to just keep his head down and year after year lead by example, work at his craft, try to get himself better, be there for his teammates, be a light within the locker room that brought some laughter and joy to the locker room, the type of man that he is, the friendship that he offered to so many of us. He’s another guy that you just feel a lot of gratitude towards because he did so much to lead the way.
“Not a guy that you talk about a ton when you talk about this dynasty if you will, if that’s what you want to call it, but I think he’s a guy that should be mentioned right up there along some of the guys that have really carried the flag on this. I know personally, I had a special connection with Stephen being a special teams guy. Him being a specialist, we spent a lot of time together. I’m thankful for a guy like that. He showed me how to be a pro, he showed me how to go about my business, he showed me how to at times not take this team too seriously but at the same time take it very seriously. There’s a thin line there and I think he walked it as well as anyone. I’m thankful for the example that he set for me and the time we spent together and wish him nothing but the best. Whoever the next guy is, the same as the quarterback, they just have to be themselves. Be yourself, go out and do the best you can within your role and let the chips fall where they may.”
While the whole world struggles daily with coronavirus and the complications and limitations placed on society, it’s Slater’s voice that calms everyone and places the supreme sport in America in its proper perspective.
Slater has long been considered by Bill Belichick one of the best conditioned and toughest athletes on the team. With coronavirus mandating forced quarantines, the challenge to maintain that level of excellence is a difficult one, but one he’s taking in stride.
“Right now, I think we need to be focused on keeping ourselves healthy, keeping our families healthy, keeping one another encouraged, supported,” Slater noted. “Honestly, I’m not worried about when we get back to football or how it’s going to go when we get back. I think there are much more significant issues that we’re facing now that will always trump football. You look at what’s going on not only in our country but around the world, and I think football is far down on the list of things that I’m worried about right now and I’m sure a lot of guys feel that way.
“Let’s stay healthy, let’s obviously be productive with our time. This is not a green light for guys to go gain 30 pounds, which can easily be done when you’re eating mac and cheese and peanut butter and jelly with your kids, but I think let’s focus on our health, let’s be responsible with the opportunities that we have and then when it’s time to worry about football, we’ll worry about it then.”
The beauty of listening Matthew Slater is that you’re not just covering an athlete but you’re given the opportunity to hear the voice of a man who can calm things down when chaos is all around, be it physical, emotional or mental.
“After the season ended, as the season went along this year, I felt really good about a lot of the things that we were doing as a team, some of the continuity that we had, the way we were able to impact a game, as far as the kicking game was concerned. As I sat down with my wife and my family and we prayed about it and thought about it, it was very clear to me that I still love this game and still feel like I have something to give to this game, whether it’s physically or emotionally or in a leadership role. All aspects of the game still really make me come alive. It was clear to me that I wanted to continue to play. I didn’t know what my opportunities would look like, obviously, but I’m certainly thankful that coach [Bill] Belichick still feels like I can have an impact on his football team and bring some value to his locker room. I’m really excited about the opportunity to come back. With everything that’s going on in the world right now, not only does it make you appreciate football, but I think it just makes you appreciate the life that we live.
Each day that we have to get up and wake up in our right minds, get out of our beds, interact with our families to express the love that we have for our families with them is a blessing. I know that can be something that’s cliché to say but I think now, in the time and place that we’re living in with the circumstances that we’re facing, it drives that point home even more than ever. Not only will I be grateful to return to football but I’m just grateful to wake up and to take a deep breath and to look at my kids and see them laugh and to see my wife look over our home. Those things are truly blessings that I think are being brought into focus more now than they ever have before.”
The perfect words from the perfect Patriot.