Matthew Slater and the special reason for the season in New England

Mike Petraglia
December 21, 2016 - 10:53 pm

Matthew Slater is a soft-spoken but strong leader of the Patriots. (Mark Rebilas/USA Today Sports)

FOXBORO - Matthew Slater is a man of integrity. He's also a man with his priorities firmly in the right place.

In this day and age of all-consuming football, the man who holds his faith closer to his heart than anything is quick to remind everyone what's on his mind this week.

"I want to make sure we clear something up - Christmas is not a distraction, especially for me with my faith and the way that I try to live my life," Slater said Wednesday. "It's just a little bit of a different thing this week. I think we all have an understanding that we need to do more."

Slater is uniquely qualified to speak on the balancing act of Christmas and working for the most intense and driven head coach in the history of the sport.

"One of our goals, yes, is to win the division, but that's not all we came here to do," Slater said. "I don't think that really needs to be said because the culture is already in place. Coach [Bill Belichick] and his staff have done that."

Don't make the mistake of thinking Bill Belichick doesn't appreciate a man who has other things in his life besides football. It's those other priorities that make Slater the leader of men in the Patriots locker room. Belichick has long admired the respect Slater has earned among his teammates at a young age.

"We understand that and we have a lot of work to continue to do to hopefully get to where we want to be," Slater said Wednesday. "Nobody is complacent. Nobody is popping the champagne bottles or anything like that. We're just going to continue to try to improve ourselves so that we can compete at a high level."

When not speaking of his faith, Slater reminded everyone Wednesday that - as a captain of special teams - this team is not satisfied. He also wanted to share the wealth of praise this week. Even before he was selected for his sixth Pro Bowl honor on Tuesday, he was singing the praise of Nate Ebner on the special teams unit he leads.

"I can't say enough good things about Nate Ebner, not only from what he's done this year but what he has done over the course of his career," Slater said. "I know for me personally, he has elevated my play because I know that he's going to hold me accountable each and every day to do my job at a high level. Nate has been a great friend to me. He's been kind to my family over the years, and you really appreciate the relationships that you have with guys outside of football. I'm very appreciative of Nate and who he is as a man, what he stands for, and then obviously, professionally, what he's done. I've gone on record saying this, I really feel like he's one of the elite players in this league. If you turn on the film, you definitely see that."

After Sunday's AFC East-clinching win in Denver, I reminded Slater that he had just passed his father's Rams, who won seven straight in the NFC West between 1973 and 1979. Jackie joined the Rams in 1976 and was on the last four teams of that remarkable run. Now in his ninth season, Slater has been on all eight AFC East championship teams. 

"It's pretty amazing, isn't it?" Slater told me in the afterglow of the 16-3 win in the Mile High city.

"I think there are two sides to that coin. I think that we are so thankful to have won eight straight division championships," Slater added on Wednesday. "There are a lot of teams that would be hopeful to win one, so we don't just say, 'Hey, that's peanuts.' It's a big deal, but at the same time, we've had a taste of the ultimate goal.

"A lot of people around here have had that taste. Once you get a taste of it, I think it's something you'll always be tasting. I think every team in this league is chasing the same thing, and we've had some great fortune around here. We do things a certain way but as I said, an injury here, and injury there, the ball bounces that way, who knows what happens."

Where did Slater get this valuable perspective?

Slater's father Jackie became the first player in NFL history to play 20 seasons, all with the Rams. The elder Slater went to the Pro Bowl as a Hall of Fame offensive tackle seven times. His son is just one behind that mark now after his sixth selection on Tuesday night.

Ask Slater, as I did Wednesday, if they talk about their mutual father-son bond and what they've accomplished together, and Slater directs the conversation in a different direction.

"Certainly, that's a conversation that we had. I don't think we really like to look in terms of what we've accomplished, we really feel like we've been blessed," Slater said. "My dad and I are both men of faith and we realize that we're not self-made men. We've had a lot of things happen over the course of our lives that have allowed us to be in the position that we're in - people pouring into our lives, coaches, friends, our wives, and etcetera. I firmly believe there is no such thing as a self-made man."

What does he mean by that? The humble Slater believes that there are bigger forces at work in his life than just his own football destiny. And the humility Slater speaks with is genuine. He is as sincere about his dedication to family and faith as he is his job. Slater has maintained that balance since he was taken by the Patriots in the 2008 draft.

"I'm certainly no different. I have great people that have supported me along the way," Slater said. "I was just a kid that came here with the hopes of making the football team. I still believe that's my mentality every year. I just need to try to make the football team. My dad and I feel like the good Lord has, for whatever reason, given us this platform, this opportunity, and what we're going to do to the best of our abilities is try to make sure people know why we believe we're successful and let people know, you talk about Christmas - what we believe the reason for the season is and proclaiming our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ."

That is what Matthew Slater believes - deep in his heart and soul - this week is all about. Football has its place but so, too, does his faith. They can co-exist. There's a time and place for both. And Christmas Eve against the Jets will be just such a case for Slater.

"Certainly. I think we're a team of guys who don't take for granted the opportunity that we have to play in the National Football League," Slater said. "This is not our God-given birth right. As I've said, we've had people along the way and opportunities come up, and we've worked at it certainly, but a lot of people work hard and don't necessarily get the breaks that we've gotten. I think we appreciate that. We appreciate how we got here and I think hopefully that keeps us humble and keeps us hungry to continue to take advantage of the time while we have it."