New England Patriots


Socci’s View: There’s so much to say about Matthew Slater

When you open your mouth to a live microphone for three unscripted hours at a time, trying to instantly find the right phrase to frame the unpredictable action of an NFL game unfolding before you, there are bound to be a few words you’d like back at the end of the day. Add up mostly Sundays and a few weeknights per year over 11 seasons and, at least for this announcer, lines you wish you could rewind and re-word are too numerous to rue.  Except for one, spoken on Sept. 29, 2019.  On a cloudy and cool afternoon in Orchard Park, N.Y., the Patriots led Buffalo, 6-0, as the Bills set up to punt from their 33-yard line midway through the first quarter. Poised for an all-out rush, the Pats stacked 10 players in tight, including Matthew Slater tucked well inside of J.C. Jackson on the right edge.  Fourteen yards away, Corey Bojorquez, who began his career in New England, caught a low snap inches below his knee caps. Righting himself, he took two steps and dropped the ball onto his left instep, just as Jackson instantaneously extended his arms.  There was a loud thud. The ball popped high in the air before plummeting to the Bills’ 11, on the field’s far side. It bounced straight up to Slater, who in a singular act plucked it, carried it across the goal line and held it in his outstretched right hand while dropping to his knees. Given a clear view of Jackson, I saw the block correctly. But the score I botched. Seeing the “8” of Slater’s “18” as a zero, to my unending regret, I blurted out the name of No. 10, Josh Gordon.  The word bubble barely off my tongue, the error of my ways hit harder than the force of Jackson’s block. “Make it Matthew Slater,” I uttered a split second later, sinking where I stood in our booth. “Matthew Slater with the recovery and the score.” No exclamation mark. Barely a period to punctuate the sentence. It was the first, and would turn out to be the only touchdown in the brilliant career of the player I most respected then, as now. If ever there was someone whose milestone merited a clean call, it was Slater. The following day, I told him as much, and was received with a smile. No need to feel bad, he assured.  Still, it bothers me now, as then. Maybe more, knowing there won’t be another opportunity to nail the call of a score by Slater. On Tuesday, after 16 seasons as a Patriot, including 13 as a captain and 10 as a Pro Bowler, and with his one career touchdown, Matthew retired.  [caption id="attachment_216686" align="alignnone" width="1024"] (Photo by Eric Canha/USA TODAY Sports)[/caption] Expectation was made official. Following a lopsided 2021 Wild Card playoff loss at Buffalo, Slater joined Devin McCourty in opting to play one more year. At least. When another loss at Buffalo in the 2022 finale kept the Pats out of the postseason, even as McCourty stepped aside, Slater committed to one more year. Again. But as the 2023 season spiraled toward its disastrous end, it was obvious there’d be no ‘one more year.’  One such sign was in November on the Pats’ trip to Frankfurt, Germany, where Matthew was met by wife Shahrzad and their family. Sleep deprived on the morning of arrival thousands of miles from home, he was nonetheless in his element: a husband and father doting on four little kids over a hotel breakfast. More signs appeared en route to January’s season-ender vs. the Jets. For days leading up to the game, Slater repeatedly obliged team and media requests, reflective and relaxed. A year removed from pushing away from a podium in Buffalo, teary eyed, emotional and uncertain of his future, he seemed at peace.  On game day, teammates stepped into a Nor’easter for warmups wearing special sweatshirts in his honor. “The Patriot,” they said across the front. “Captain,” they read, above an “18” on the back. And on the left shoulder, in perfect order: “SON, FATHER, HUSBAND, TEAMMATE,” along with a list of career achievements.  A short time later, the Slaters reunited there on the field. Matthew embraced his parents, Jackie and Annie, and brother David. Shahrzad and the kids cheered him on in their own “18” jerseys.  We’d later learn from a team-produced mic’d up feature that word was getting around, even among New York players. Slater confirmed to contemporaries Thomas Morstead, 37, in his 15th season, and Aaron Rodgers, 40, in his 19th: this was it.  Three hours later, the snowy, slushy end to Slater’s 239th game — 264th, if you count playoffs — was marked by mutual admiration. Helmet off, he lingered on the field, heading toward the Northeast opening of Gillette Stadium as remaining fans offered a collective salute. Slater returned it by raising his right hand, just as he did years earlier in the Bills end zone. Only this time, his extended right thumb, index and pinky fingers formed an offering of his love in sign language. In recent years, I’ve listened to a handful of special teams coordinators around the league pay tribute to Slater. A couple, Larry Izzo and Bubba Ventrone, are ex-Patriots who saw him mature from unsure rookie to master craftsman. A third, Danny Crossman, long prepared his Buffalo and Miami units to biannually contend with the player Bill Belichick likens in the kicking game to Tom Brady on offense and Lawrence Taylor on defense. A fourth, Dave Fipp, once penned his respect for Slater, writing a personal letter of congratulations the first time Matthew made the Pro Bowl.  No special teamer reached more, which may be why a fifth, John Bonamego, who coordinated kicking units for 19 NFL seasons, more recently called Slater “a first-ballot Hall of Famer.” Bonamego won’t get much of an argument from his peers. Nor from me. A Patriots Hall of Fame blazer for Slater is all but guaranteed. A Pro Football Hall of Fame jacket like the one Jackie got as a legendary offensive tackle, is hardly a given. But here’s hoping this year’s selection of returner Devin Hester gets Matthew one too. Because nobody covered returners as well, for as long as he did. Not that a clothing item – in Foxborough red or Canton gold – makes the man who finds validation in faith, family, relationships to others (in and out of the game) and community service. Humility was “a core value of our home,” Slater told me last spring, stressing that Jackie and Annie also imbued in their sons the importance of blending a strong sense of self with keen self-awareness. That balance helps explain the player Matthew became, as a post-high school athlete generally devoid of an offensive or defensive position.  At UCLA and in the NFL, Slater was mostly rostered as a receiver. He concluded his career with one catch (for the Pats in 2011) and four carries (including two as a Bruin and netting five yards overall).  Adept at returning kickoffs in college, Slater struggled as a pro. Ask him about it, and in typical self-deprecating manner, he laughingly labels himself “a bust.”  Obviously, Slater found a way to hold his place, regardless of listed position. Drafted by Belichick as a fifth-rounder in 2008, he was determined to “become the best coverage player that (he) could be.”  He was egoless. And tireless, through his very last snaps. [caption id="attachment_270647" align="alignnone" width="1024"] (Photo by Eric Canha/USA TODAY Sports)[/caption] On the Wednesday after returning from Frankfurt, the Pats held a practice before dispersing for a bye weekend. And as the doors to the locker room closed on an ensuing media availability, one player remained: Slater. Of course.  Still in workout gear; headed to the weight room. Sixteen seasons in; no different than his younger self, who former special teams coach Scott O'Brien described as a guy who shows up everyday like he might get cut that day. Football’s so-called Turk never ran down Slater. Tuesday the ‘gunner’ opponents couldn’t keep down despite double and often triple teams, did what few in his unforgiving game can: he stopped running on his terms.  “It is time,” he told us in a statement through the team, “for (his) relationship with the game to evolve.” As a player, Slater was an exemplar: of his specialty, of leadership, of the Patriots’ culture when at their best. On and off the field. In the football facility and community. And he was an eloquent voice: for teammates, for the team, for special teams and for others whose stories need to be told. However Slater’s relationship with the game evolves, one expects he’ll keep advocating for all of the above. This afternoon, we’ll hear from 2008 draft classmate Jerod Mayo, as the Pats’ new head coach introduces his staff. Surely, having already issued a statement on Slater’s retirement, he’ll be asked to share more about his friend. There’s so much to say. For someone like Mayo, so close to Matthew. For others who know Slater only from a distance. And for one of us, there will always be one thing I wish had gone unsaid. Bob Socci has called play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub since 2013.  

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