Socci’s View: Matthew Slater is still running in his father’s footsteps
(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Larry Izzo had a story to tell about Matthew Slater but needed to make it quick.
He was almost home on his drive from Seahawks headquarters in Renton, Wash., about a half-hour after wrapping up a day of work last July as Seattle’s special teams coach. With hands free to grip the wheel and eyes on the road ahead, Izzo’s mind went back to 2008, his final year playing for the Patriots.
Izzo had entered the NFL as an undersized linebacker, defying odds for a dozen seasons and chasing down enough of the game’s speediest and shiftiest athletes to tackle more kickoff and punt returners than anyone in history. But turning 34, he suddenly was at a loss.
Slater, a recently-drafted understudy with a recognizable last name and unmistakable speed, was routinely assigned to Izzo in practice. The kid was unbeatable downfield, leaving Izzo unable to shake the uncertainty that clung to him like the 22-year old constantly on his heels.
“I’d get matched up against him and I’m running down on punt(s),” Izzo said. “I’m trying to separate from the kid and here this rookie wide receiver is just staying on me like flies on a rib roast.
“After these plays in practice, at times, (I’m) like really getting down on myself because I’m just like, ‘Man, I’m getting old. I can’t even get away from this guy.’”
Izzo chuckled, concluding with a thought about the player Slater had become in the 15 years since, as football’s most decorated special teamer, a 10-time Pro Bowler.
“Now that his career has taken (the) turn that it did, I feel a lot better about myself that the kid I was battling against in practice that made me feel like an old man has turned into a Hall of Fame-quality special teams player,” Izzo quipped. “You know, maybe the guy was just pretty good.”
Slater, a 10-time Pro Bowler and 12-time captain, decided in February to return for his 16th season. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
Matthew Slater stood inside the cramped interview room of Highmark Stadium on the season’s final Sunday and described himself as “shell-shocked.”
In a white sleeveless tight-fit featuring a mock turtleneck and the Patriots ‘Flying Elvis’ logo over his heart, Slater’s rawest emotions, like his muscular arms, were fully exposed. As arguably the best kick-coverage player in history, he tried to process the unfathomable: a 12-point loss started and sealed by two kick-return touchdowns from Buffalo’s Nyheim Hines.
Outside moments earlier, CBS trained its eye on Slater as time elapsed on the crushing loss and lost 2022 season for the Patriots. He was shown embracing assistant coach Matt Patricia on the sideline before being spotted near midfield, pulling Bills quarterback Josh Allen close for a few private words in full public view.
The scenes CBS director Mike Arnold showed seemed to presume the answer to a question posed in these tight quarters: had Slater played his final game? He couldn’t say. He honestly wasn’t sure.
Besides, talking about his future wouldn’t be fair to the crestfallen guys in the visitor’s locker room next door. However, he was in an appropriate time and place to speak of what — and specifically who — had driven him to this crossroads.
Sniffling, Slater first had to apologize. He needed to wipe the tears trickling down his cheeks with the towel in his left hand. Then, after pursing his lips and casting his eyes softly downward, Slater broke the momentary silence.
“I’ve given it everything I had. My dad told me when I was young if I was going to play the game that…,” the son of Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater paused, dabbing again at eyes and nose, “…you know there’s a certain way to play it, a certain way to go about it. I tried to make him proud (and) represent his name the right way (wiping again) because that’s how he did it.
“That’s what it’s always been about for me. For me, at heart, I’m just a kid following in his dad’s footsteps.”
Jackie’s traversed two decades, all with the Rams, and led to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Matthew’s had trekked a decade and a half, all as a Patriot.
Slater needed about a month of prayer and contemplation with his wife, Shahrzad, to decide he wasn’t done. In February, he agreed to a one-year deal to keep going.
Contrary to most, close friend and ex-teammate Nate Ebner wasn’t surprised.
“Every year for the last three or four years, we talk. ‘I think this is the last one, Nate,’” Ebner jokes. “At this point, he’s probably got five more. I don’t know; I don’t believe him. But no, if he’s got it and he’s healthy, I’d love to see him continue to go.”
The same feeling prevails at One Patriot Place, where Slater links the present to the glorious past as the last of the Patriots’ three-time Super Bowl champs still on the roster.
“Couldn’t be happier,” owner Robert Kraft stated, announcing the return of Slater, the team’s Good Samaritan and eloquent orator.
“Thrilled,” added head coach Bill Belichick, who’s likely to rely more heavily than ever before on 12-time captain Slater to lead a special teams unit infused with numerous draftees and signees.
They include a kicker from Maryland. The punter from Michigan State and his Spartan teammate, whose bio at a previous college resembles Slater’s profile. A returner from Liberty and a ‘tweener’ from Sacramento State. And so on, up and down the roster, including a proven stalwart imported from Detroit.
“Nothing but respect,” that ex-Lion, Chris Board, said of Slater this month, speaking for others around the league — from teammates to opponents, among players and coaches, with staffers and fans.
Some, like Miami’s special teams coach Danny Crossman, recently went to greater-than-usual lengths to show it. Crossman’s coached in the AFC East for 10 straight seasons, continually catching up with Slater after games. When they last met, following the Patriots’ Jan. 1 win, the two lingered in the cold.
“Obviously, with the possibility at that juncture, the unknown of it possibly being the last one for him, I went out of my way to make sure that I probably shared more than I needed to,” Crossman said via Zoom from his South Florida office. “But, with no regrets whatsoever.”
Detroit’s coordinator Dave Fipp enjoyed a similar exchange in October. Twelve years earlier, while he was with the Dolphins, Fipp reached out to Slater after his first Pro Bowl selection with a gesture unprecedented and unrepeated in the coach’s career: he wrote a letter to an opposing player.
“All I really did was just write a note that said, ‘Hey, man, it was incredible watching you play. I’m really happy for you,’” Fipp said, Zooming from a Lions conference room near Detroit. “It was just admiration for him, just saying, ‘Great job, congrats.’
“But it’s really, for me, just watching the story of him making that happen.”
Slater, who never started on offense or defense at UCLA, excelled as an all-conference kick returner for the Bruins. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
The foreword of Matthew Slater’s NFL story includes the Pro Day for his outgoing class at UCLA in March 2008. Coming off a losing season and caught in a coaching transition, the Bruins were light on prospects. Only three would be drafted come April.
Therefore, according to Crossman, few NFL evaluators attended besides himself and the Patriots’ Nick Caserio, who conducted the workout. Caserio’s involvement represented the Patriots’ most extensive contact with Slater in the entire pre-draft process.
Unlike Jackie, a 20-year fixture on the Rams’ offensive line, much smaller Matthew didn’t have an every-down position. For the Bruins, he tried offense (rushing for minus-6 yards, with nary a reception) and defense (logging spare snaps in the secondary).
His audition included work at safety, which Slater trained for with Jackie’s old Rams teammate, Lucious Smith. One of the day’s few details he vividly recalls is how hard Caserio slung fastballs around during defensive backs drills.
And, naturally, he can’t forget the sense of high stakes.
“Your lifelong dream is right at your fingertips,” Slater says. “I just remember being very nervous.”
Nervousness subsided, Slater’s hands survived catching Caserio, and opportunity lay at his feet, two reasons he was being scouted in the first place. Slater had the feet of an all-conference kick returner and coverage standout who created takeaways and made multiple tackles in multiple games.
“I was not delusional about what my role was going to be if I were to have a chance to have a career,” he said recently on the phone. “I knew that I was going to have to play on special teams.”
Special teams hopefuls aren’t gifted free kicks from agents and marketers, so Slater had to lace up game-worn cleats. They were the shoes he was so excited to wear when the Bruins switched from black to white his senior year — Size 12, Adidas, striped in sky blue. They made an impression, marking 40 yards in fewer than 4 1/2 seconds.
A month later, Belichick swapped fifth-round draft picks with Tampa Bay, gave the Bucs a seventh-rounder, and took a flier on No. 153. Slater’s phone rang at his family’s Southern California home. He picked it up to hold his dream in his palm.
“I was very shocked, obviously,” Slater confessed on a draft-night conference call, “and very ecstatic.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Jackie told the Boston Herald’s Karen Guregian, repeating his reaction to the sound of Matthew answering, “Hello, Coach Belichick.”
Packing his cleats, Slater reported to Foxborough. His ego didn’t make the trip.
“He was a really, really humble kid when he came in,” Izzo remembers. “He just had a lot of raw tools and was a hard worker and a smart guy. You can tell he was raised the right way, (and) you wouldn’t have known he was a Hall of Famer’s son. He didn’t carry himself like that at all.”
Jackie and Annie Slater made sure of it. Faith and humility formed the connective tissue binding their family. They taught their boys, Matthew and David, that no person is self-made. Success is a blessing made possible by people in your life. Have a strong sense of self and strive for greatness, but be self-aware. And always let others sing your praises.
Slater, who would develop a great vision for the game, was already clear-eyed to read the field: jobs in this league, much less greatness, aren’t a birthright. Not even for sons of famous fathers.
If anything, he needed someone to show him how special he could be. Thankfully, more than one came along.
“I think (special teams coordinator) Scott O’Brien watered that seed when he came in here my second year,” Slater says. “He instilled a lot of confidence in me as a player and really challenged me and pushed me to keep improving. Brian Flores did the same thing.
“I had a lot of people supporting me and pushing me along the way. That’s really what enabled me to get where I am.”
Slater (18) credits Larry Izzo (53) and Bubba Ventrone (41), two future coaches, for guiding him as rookie in 2008. (Photo by Elsa Garrison/Getty Images)
Izzo was one. Ditto for a second teammate-turned-coach, Bubba Ventrone.
With Ventrone, Slater shared indignity and distinction in his preseason debut vs. Baltimore. Google the game and you’ll get a team website account of a punt return on which both “ got wiped out on hard-hitting blocks.” But they also made news by catching passes (five total) and defending them (as safeties).
Seven years later, Ventrone was hired to assist O’Brien’s successor, Joe Judge. Reuniting with Slater, he observed a remarkable transformation.
“There were a lot of people who would say Matt wasn’t going to be even remotely close to what he’s done. But he continued to work,” says Ventrone, who left Foxborough for Indianapolis in 2017. “Everybody makes mistakes as a rookie, but he continued to improve and ascend.”
“He always had the tools, but he just was a little rough around the edges as a young player, as many guys are,” Izzo says. “But he learned how to apply his skill set and his tools, and he turned into one of the greatest special teams players of all time.”
Now Izzo’s players learn from Slater, whose technique defending punts has made him a star of the coach’s instructional videos.
“I put him on a lot of teach tape over the years in terms of how to play the gunner position with the play style that he plays with,” Izzo says.
It’s funny to think of ‘style’ being associated with what writer Austin Murphy called “the dirtiest job in football” in a 2013 Sports Illustrated article. Yet Slater, skilled as he is, does lend elegance to the grit his role demands. And make no mistake; the bespectacled winner of the 2021 Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award is gritty as he needs to be.
His dirty work as a gunner begins with a half-field sprint from the outside flank of a punt formation, trying to stay on course while being shoved (at minimum) into the sideline by a single jammer or multi-player vice. His mission is to keep the ball falling from the sky or the guy catching it as deep in the field of play as possible.
“They can grab you, hold you, maul you — and the referees will tell you they’re not going to call a penalty,” Slater, not one to complain, told Murphy. “It’s like the Wild Wild West.”
Remember that the next time your favorite Boston morning-radio impressionists conjure up an image of Slater wearing a lab coat and pocket protector. The gentlemanly scholar truly is a badass.
Crossman believes Slater initially existed on talent and, as a 30s-something, added intellect, excelling with brain and body. The steel cable tying the two stages together is his iron will.
“I don’t think anybody gives him enough credit for, through those middle years, how much he won on desire,” Crossman says. “Everybody accounted for him in so many different ways, yet he was still so productive making plays. You’d double-team him, thinking he’s out of the play and, son of a gun, he’s off the ground and still getting involved in the play.”
A few times, including a 2016 playoff vs. Kansas City, Slater fought past triple teams.
“When you watch great players play on special teams, it takes so much energy,” Fipp says. “And it’s just a joy to watch when you know what you’re looking at. Unfortunately, most people don’t really know just how much all those plays take out of your body.
“To have to play at that speed for that long, you just don’t see guys do that. I mean, you see guys who are gunners and they play at a high level for a few years…I can’t believe he’s still going and still playing at a high level and you still have to devote a bunch of resources to try to slow him down.”
The best before Slater, former Bill Steve Tasker, knows better than most. He did it all on kicks. Covering. Tackling. Rushing. Blocking. Tasker’s seen Slater do the same. And though he played in a less-regulated time in the game’s violent history, Tasker immensely appreciates Slater’s toughness.
“The game’s rough, man,” said Tasker, laughing. “I know (about) player safety and all that. People whine about being soft and all that; that’s bull****. It’s hard to play.
“You’ve got to chase kicks, and you’ve got to protect for kicks. You’ve got to catch the ball, play the ball, play off blocks, you’ve got to block. I mean, you’ve got to do everything on both sides of the ball, hard, at a high level, covering a lot of ground. So you’ve got to be fast; you’ve got to have an incredible amount of balance, strength (and) tenacity. I mean, it all comes together.”
Last May, The Athletic’s Dan Pompei detailed Slater’s meticulousness in staying fit for a young man’s role in a young man’s game. Long days at Gillette Stadium. Evening yoga after family time. Late-night walks through the neighborhood. The latter to reduce inflammation. And a diet that’s seemingly less appealing than the TB12 menu.
“Ninety percent of what he eats, he doesn’t like,” Pompei wrote.
Pompei also noted Slater’s singular focus in practices. While others rep on offense or defense, he trains exclusively with special teams coordinator Cam Achord and assistant Joe Houston.
It’s true, the consummate team guy is also a soloist.
His reason is rooted in the sixth day of the 2017 training camp. Injuries to Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell left the Patriots short of receivers. Then Chris Hogan hurt his right knee. Loving any opportunity to run with the offense, Slater stepped in, six years removed from his only career catch. As the next man up, he was the next to go down.
“I was running a deep flag route, I’ll never forget, and felt a pop in my leg at the beginning of the route (and) finished up the play,” says Slater, who didn’t finish the practice. “It was something that I never felt before.”
Imaging revealed a ruptured hamstring tendon. Team physician Dr. Mark Price explained the rarity of the injury, and Slater consulted a handful of doctors. Their recommendations were split between surgery and rehab. He chose the latter, missing September but making it back by October.
Still, he never fully recovered and missed three more weeks. After the season, Slater met with Belichick. Adjustments, they agreed, were needed for Matthew to continue playing at a high level. An individual plan was hatched. It’s since evolved with input from Judge, Achord and Houston.
“I’ve always been a routine-oriented person. I get that from my father,” Slater says. “I think you have to give a lot of credit to coach Belichick to be willing to take that type of risk with a roster spot and allow a guy to dedicate himself to his craft…and essentially be exclusively a player in the kicking game.
“I’m very thankful for the door that he opened for me to do that…I think it’s made me a better all-around player.”
And a durable one. Slater’s appeared in all 87 games since 2018, including playoffs. Last year at age 37, he played a career-high 385 special-teams snaps. Overall, his 223 regular-season contests trail only Tom Brady in team history, and his 25 playoff games are equivalent to a season and a half.
Slater applies a similar plan to game days. Look for him an hour before kickoff; you’ll see No. 18 wide of a hash mark. His stance is that of a tennis player awaiting serve, inside shoulder opposite Achord’s outside shoulder. His knees are flexed and his upper body leans forward. His arms extend away from his torso, bending at acute angles.
A white sleeve is pulled over Slater’s left elbow and a small white towel is draped on his right hip. He tilts his head to the side to pick up the ball — real or imagined — being snapped back to the punter. It’s his cue, and Slater is off to his race downfield.
“When they’re doing this drill or that drill, he’s doing his gunner release work,” the affable Crossman says, smiling over Slater’s warmup ritual. “(So) many young players come to me and they’re just like, ‘Coach, that’s all he’s worrying about!’ Yeah, that’s why he is who he is.”
Slater hears the same. Occasionally amused, he appreciates the comments. Never proprietary, he welcomes the questions.
“I’ve had some funny exchanges with guys,” says Slater, his non-kicking plays now reduced to quarterback kneel-downs. “I kind of chuckle to myself. I’m just like, ‘Yeah, that’s all I’m going to do in the game. And you guys know, I’m not really running any routes anymore.’ It’s kind of cool when you get to a point in your career where guys are asking you about your routine(s).”
Slater’s singular focus on his special teams role extends from practice to pregame warmups. (Photos by Bob Socci)
He treasures those conversations. Not because Slater’s flattered but because he’s honored.
“I think of the NFL as a brotherhood,” he says. “We’re all pursuing the same dream, pursuing similar goals, and to be able to share that information with each other, kind of grow together, it’s a pretty cool thing.”
Others may benefit by borrowing from Slater’s programs. But most valuable to his longstanding achievement are intangibles, exclusively his own. For one, he’s incapable of taking shortcuts.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m one of those guys where, ‘You know, every day I woke up with such a hunger,’” Slater says. “I mean, I had the hunger 90 percent of the days. But there’s that 10 percent of the time where you’re really having to do a lot of self-talk, and you think about cutting a corner.”
That’s when he hears his father’s wisdom.
“I always go back to something my dad told me when I first started playing the game,” he continues. “He said, ‘Son, you want to prepare and play in such a way that when it’s all over, you’ll have no regrets.”
Unseen from the outside is the extra time and work that helped Slater block a punt at age 34, three-peat as a Pro-Bowler at 36, and rack up 13 tackles at 37.
“Yeah, Matt makes a ton of plays. But it’s the other stuff that (outsiders) don’t see that Matt does,” says Ventrone, who joined the Browns in January. “He’s nonstop watching film (and) studying his opponent, things like that. And I would say, the thing with Matt, too, is he’s never had the mentality that he’s complacent. I feel like the way he comes into every season, every practice, every game, it’s like he’s never made a play before.”
It’s a mindset of that home-bred humility taken to the extreme of insecurity.
“Not only is he insecure, but he fosters the insecurity,” says Pompei, whose conversations with Slater spanned a few hours over breakfast and several subsequent phone calls. “He doesn’t want to hear how good he is.
“(When) teammates tease him about how great he is, he doesn’t want to hear that stuff because he fears it could make him comfortable, satisfied and soft. It’s the last thing that he ever wants to be.”
Before too long, perhaps as soon as six years from now, Slater will not only have to hear it; he’ll have to speak to it. The Patriots’ all-time leader in special-teams tackles will undoubtedly enter their Hall of Fame. The real question: will he, with three more Pro Bowl honors than Dad, join Jackie in Canton?
Specialization made Slater a master craftsman. It’s what may get him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It’s also what may keep him out. Only four place kickers are enshrined there. Two, George Blanda and Lou Groza, played other positions. The lone punter inducted is Ray Guy.
Pompei is one of 49 members on the Hall’s selectors board and nine members on its Seniors Committee. He’s made a case for returner Devin Hester, a two-time finalist in the modern-era voting process, and considered the merits of Tasker, a seven-time semifinalist.
“I was disappointed this year with the Hester discussion because there were a number of people who clearly held it against him that he was primarily a special teams player,” Pompei says. “It’s unfortunate because, to me, you can have as great an impact on special teams in fewer plays than many players who play 65 snaps a game on offense or defense. I’m hoping we start warming up to that kind of thinking.”
Snap counts, Pompei says, are an “easy fallback” for detractors. Some, he adds, will argue that a returner (Hester) or gunner (Slater) “wasn’t good enough” for a full-time role.
“I’ll say this, I don’t think it will be easy for Matthew to get in,” Pompei adds. “I think it will be a process if he does get in.”
If and when Slater does, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer who’s coached the game’s greatest offensive and defensive players will likely have a say.
“Certainly Matt Slater will go up there, in the kicking game, with (Tom) Brady on offense and (Lawrence) Taylor on defense,” Belichick said in March 2022.
Slater ranks second in team history with 223 games played. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
Steve Tasker is happy for Matthew Slater.
“I’m glad he came back,” Tasker says. “I think it’s awesome. I think it says something about his toughness, his longevity, and says something about his career.”
Tasker was 35 when he stepped aside after his 14th season. Winning was no longer as joyous, and losing was far more agonizing than before. The requisite passion was gone.
For him, the time was perfect. Tasker’s debut as a Bill in the middle of 1986 was Buffalo’s first game under Hall of Fame head coach Marv Levy, an NFL innovator in special teams. Tasker’s finale in 1997 was Levy’s too.
Tasker hailed from Kansas, but adopted Buffalo as home. And Buffalo adopted him. He became a broadcaster and since 2014, has analyzed Bills preseason telecasts. He co-hosts a local radio show named “One Bills Live.”
He’s proud to refer to himself, as anyone can tell, as “a Bills guy all the way through.” At the same time, Tasker’s a Matthew Slater guy.
“He deserves all the accolades he can get,” Tasker says by phone. “A guy who plays as long as he (has), as hard as he has, at the level that he has, bless his heart. I’ve got nothing but love and respect for him.”
Tasker was there in Orchard Park as Nyhiem Hines took the opening kickoff in the Jan. 8 finale from the left hash mark of the four-yard line to the 20, then bounced right outside of New England’s Jabrill Peppers and Pierre Strong, racing into the open as Slater pursued futilely from the opposite side of the field.
“My enduring image is going to be that opening kickoff, and Matt’s the last guy chasing that f****** guy,” Tasker says. “I’ve been there. I know what it’s like, man.”
It happened to him in a January 1990 Divisional playoff at Cleveland. The Browns’ Eric Metcalf blazed a right-sideline path, similar to Hines, 90 yards to the end zone to break open a season-ending loss for Tasker’s Bills.
“I felt so bad for him because I know how it feels, and there’s just nothing you can freakin’ do about it at that point,” Tasker continues. “And that was the first one, the opening kickoff. Then the second one, the same thing…I know that’s going to ride with him a long time.”
Tasker’s right, of course.
“As nice a guy as people think I am, I’m highly competitive,” Slater says. “I’m not going to sit here and say I’ve spent every day thinking about it. But I spend multiple days a week thinking about the way that game went and the way our season went. I’ll say this; I feel personal accountability and responsibility for that as the captain of that unit.”
The words are further proof, Matthew never stops being his father’s son.
Jackie was 41, as the NFL’s oldest player in the summer of 1995, toiling as always to ready his body for another season. Only this was unlike any of his previous 19 offeasons. The Rams had moved to St. Louis and he had undergone surgery to repair a torn triceps.
Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman paid him a visit for a July profile. In the course of his reporting, Dr. Z inquired about Jackie’s biggest pet peeve regarding teammates. Jackie gave him two. Essentially, he said, when someone doesn’t take responsibility when the teams fails and when someone doesn’t credit others when the individual succeeds.
His whole career, the Rams’ legendary offensive tackle was neither.
Jackie Slater readies to block the Saints’ Rickey Jackson in 1990. (Photo by Steve Dun/Getty Images)
“My job description is helper,” Jackie said to Zimmerman, “and I’ve always accepted the fact that my role would always be supportive.”
Kraft and Belichick’s helper is back this spring working toward the fall. If this is, indeed, his final year as a Patriot, it would only be right for the captain to lead a comeback for his unit and team.
Slater knows the game may not see it this way. Past rings won and ‘congrats’ received won’t count for anything when his 16th season kicks off. Just as they didn’t when the kid who always caught up to Izzo couldn’t run down Hines.
“I’ve never been through anything like that. It was very humbling and just a reminder that’s how the game goes, right?” Slater says. “The game doesn’t care what you’ve done (or) who you are.”
This, he first learned from Jackie, who ended up playing only one game for St. Louis before retiring. Matthew was reminded of it early enough as a rookie, when a fumble in Pittsburgh contributed to him becoming — in his words, with a laugh — “a bust as a returner.”
All Slater can do is what he’s always done: stick to his routines, lace up his size-12s and resume the chase, following in his dad’s footsteps.
Bob Socci has called play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub since 2013. Follow him on Instagram @bob.socci and Twitter @BobSocci.