FOXBOROUGH — The game is violent, made for large men like him, and carrying his name onto a football field would be a burden.
Or so the father thought.
As Jackie and Annie Slater raised their two sons in the Anaheim, Calif., area, they tried their best to steer them away from football. Jackie coached their older son, Matthew, at the YMCA, introducing him to soccer, baseball, and basketball.
But when they weren’t at the Y, young Matthew went with his father to work, at the Los Angeles Rams practice facility. After his father ran, Matthew ran. When his father was in the weight room, Matthew watched, his wrists taped so he looked the part.
While his father was putting in all the hours necessary to stay on the field, to rehab from injuries, to honor the game he loved, Matthew had a front-row seat.
Jackie Slater, a 6-foot-4-inch offensive lineman, was with the Rams for 20 seasons. A third-round pick out of Jackson State in his native Mississippi in 1976, he didn’t become the starting right tackle until his fourth season. Once he took over the job, however, it was a long time before he surrendered it.
Matthew was born at the start of the 1985 season, midway through what was a Hall of Fame career for his father.
Jackie never intended that the time Matthew spent with him at the Rams facility would be on-the-job training.
“It was a really hard way for me to go, and it was very physical and very demanding, and I was a big guy, I was always a big guy, and I have always felt football is a big man’s game,” Jackie said.
“I saw that he was going to be a little man and there was very little I was going to be able to help him with as a smaller player. I didn’t know enough about the skill positions to teach him and help him and so I just kind of discouraged him away from it.
“To be perfectly honest with you, I just didn’t think that he was going to be cut out to play the sport.”
Matthew was smaller than his father — though, of course, most men are. But he was fast. And he loved the game his father played, in spite of Jackie’s reluctance. He begged his parents to let him take up football.
“My dad did everything in his power when I was young for me not to play,” Matthew said. “I think part of that was he didn’t want me to feel the pressure of living up to being ‘Jackie Slater’s son’ and secondly he didn’t want me to get injured because he understands this is a dangerous game and he wanted his son to be healthy.
“But what he didn’t know is he was the reason I wanted to play. Because even talking to my dad now, you hear him tell the stories of when he played, he still loves the game so much. You can see it in his eyes, and that was kind of contagious for my brother and I — what is this game that’s bringing so much joy and passion in my dad?”
Eventually, the Slaters relented.
From Bruin to Patriot
Annie Slater isn’t sure when Matthew started excelling at football. He was a stellar student at Servite High, the top-notch all-boys Catholic school he attended, and his college choice came down to two schools: UCLA, not far from home, or Dartmouth, an Ivy League college in the East.
He was a standout track athlete, tying for second in the 100 meters at the California Interscholastic Federation state meet in 10.67 seconds, and was part of a state-champion 4 x 100-meter relay team.
On the football field, though, he had modest numbers: 39 receptions for 707 yards as a senior. But he had enough tools that he was appealing to college programs. He settled on UCLA.
Slater was a versatile performer with the Bruins, playing at receiver, in the secondary, and on special teams. He had the most impact as a kickoff returner, obliterating the school’s season record for kickoff-return yards in 2007 with 986 yards on 34 returns (a school-record 29.0 yards per return), with three of those going for touchdowns.
What former UCLA coach Karl Dorrell most remembers, however, is Slater’s work ethic.
“His effort and how he did things, it stuck out like a sore thumb, so to speak,” said Dorrell, now quarterbacks coach for the Houston Texans. “If you go through practice and scan everybody that was practicing, there was always one guy that was just going so much harder and so much faster than everyone else, and that was Matthew Slater.
“He just kind of stuck out that way.”
When his career with the Bruins was over and the draft process began, Slater had no sense of what would happen for him. He had established himself as a special teams player, but he didn’t know whether that would be enough to earn him a shot with an NFL team as a free agent, let alone receive a phone call telling him he’d been drafted.Continued...