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Slater Still Leading the Way for Rams’ Backs

Times Staff Writer

Jackie Slater has opened so many holes for so many good backs for so many years that you begin to wonder whether he has been blocking for them all this time or they’ve been running for him.

One thing seems clear: where Slater leads, great tailbacks seem to follow. It started back in college at Jackson State, where the young Jackie Ray Slater threw some of the first lead blocks for Walter Payton, who would enjoy some success later.

Then it was on the Rams in 1976, where Slater began clearing acreage for Lawrence McCutcheon. The beat went on--Wendell Tyler, Eric Dickerson, Charles White and now even Greg Bell, who just put together the first back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances of his career.

Coincidence? Maybe.

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Throughout, Slater has remained in the backdrop of every picture, a man as quiet as he is imposing. Years ago, he realized his football life would be lived out vicariously. Yet he knows, deep down, that if you cut open any yard Dickerson ever gained for the Rams, you’d find a piece of a right tackle inside.

“I can look back and say, I remember when a guy carried the ball for 248 yards in a playoff game,” Slater said, recalling Dickerson’s great day against the Dallas Cowboys in 1985. “And we won. And I was blocking for him. Stuff like that is real rewarding. No one can take that away from me.

“The anonymity of my job is always there. I’ve always been able to deal with that. I’ve always been able to stand in the background, watching the stars rise to the top. I don’t have any problem with that at all.”

For Slater, the rewards are subtle and few, but enough to satisfy an ego that is squashed more often than fed.

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“You realize you’re going to do a job and no one’s going to jump up and down about what you do,” Slater said. “But if you don’t do it well, people are going to jump up and down on you .”

So it is quietly that he shares in every rushing title Dickerson won, every mountain Charles White climbed, and every inch of the 109 yards Greg Bell gained last Sunday.

It was so easy for his offensive line to get lost in the passion of Dickerson, who always made it look so easy. And it took his leaving to reaffirm the sense that while Dickerson was great, so too was the line, coached by Hudson Houck, with the system implemented by Coach John Robinson.

The Rams’ line proved it last year when they swept Charles White to the rushing title. This year they’ve done it again with Bell, who was an enigma behind one line in Buffalo, a star behind another in Anaheim. The pleasure for Slater comes when others suggest that a good back in the Rams’ system should always gain 1,000 yards.

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Slater knows how much he is needed.

“It’s real rewarding when a guy comes over and looks you dead in the eye and asks you how you’re doing, because he’s really concerned about how you’re doing,” Slater said. “I feel great having been part of a line that has blocked for these guys. In my own way, I know I made a contribution to certain records that were made.”

If this sounds like Slater’s obituary, it’s not. Yes, he’s 34 years old and yes, believe it or not, he’s the last remaining starter from Rams’ Super Bowl team in 1979. But Slater hasn’t slowed noticeably in recent years. In fact, he been named to the Pro Bowl 4 of the last 5 seasons.

Naturally, most of Slater’s dance partners have changed over the years. His team has literally transformed around him. You think it’s easy being 12 years older than tailback Gaston Green?

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Slater misses Dennis Harrah, who guarded his left flank at right guard for years before retiring last season.

“The toughest thing about the game is watching people come and go,” Slater said. “It’s eventually going to happen to me, and maybe somebody will miss me like I miss a lot of the guys that have played with me.”

Slater returns year after year and never seems to change. If he dressed the way he played, he’d wear the same shirt every day.

“If Jackie was a golfer,” LeRoy Irvin says, “he’d come in under par every time.”

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Slater is a constant. He makes his name by keeping out of the headlines. If his name is mentioned during a game, it’s almost always bad news.

Hold on, Jackie, hold on.

But what other lineman can say he threw blocks for perhaps the two greatest backs ever, Payton and Dickerson?

“And a lot of good backs in between,” he said.

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Here’s how they looked through the legs of one mammoth right tackle:

YESTERDAY

Walter Payton (Jackson State, 1976): “Walter, in my opinion, slowed down some once he got in the pros, though the record book wouldn’t indicate it because he basically rewrote it,” Slater said. “But at the practices where we went to school, they were live. Backs were tackled, even quarterbacks were sacked in certain drills. One year, Walter had a calcium deposit on his elbow and had to have 30cc of fluid drained every week. He was a tough guy. He trained hard in off-season. He was a true professional in that he always built on the talent he had.”

Lawrence McCutcheon (Rams, 1972-79): “He was an elusive sort of guy,” Slater said. “He was not known to possess a great amount of speed, but he was a great Pro Bowl back for years and years and he ran from tackle to tackle as well as anyone playing today with the exception of maybe Curt Warner. Lawrence was the prototype inside runner of his day.”

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Wendell Tyler (1977-82): “Great breakaway speed and good toughness, which enabled him to run from tackle to tackle,” Slater said. “He was generally a guy who ran hard--worked hard for every yard--and usually backs like that have problems fumbling the ball. But Wendell, in my opinion, was one of the toughest backs I’ve been around.”

Eric Dickerson (1983-87): “He is the most talented running back I’ve ever been around,” Slater said, “as far as shear speed, total body power, and a mental confidence that transcends most running backs. I’d like to think he’s one of the greatest in his own right. I’d just like to see him develop a little more and continue to work hard. Sometimes things come so easy he has a tendency to say, ‘I can get it done.’ He works in the off-season, but the intensity is not there because it comes so easy for him.”

TODAY

Charles White (1985--): “Charlie is a very tough, aggressive hard-nosed football player,” Slater said. “For the talent he has, he does everything well. The guy uses his talent he has to the maximum. He has to get the most out of himself.”

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Greg Bell (1987--): “The guy has the potential to be a very, very, good back. He’s proven to us he’s a well-above-average back right now. He runs inside the tackles well and outside real hard. He jumps over people and has a head for the hole. I call it good anticipation for the hole. He seems to read defenses very well on the run and it’s helping him blend in quickly with us.”

TOMORROW

Gaston Green (1988--): “He’s a talented young man. I think they’re bringing him on gradually. It sort of reminds me of the way they worked with Jim Everett. They brought Everett along slowly. . . . The way Robinson’s nurturing Gaston along, he going to be ripe pretty soon and be a real big contributor to our football team.”


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