Matthew Slater bulked up in a big way the moment he entered the NFL.
The New England Patriots handed the former UCLA player not just one Yellow Pages-sized binder but two — one for offense, the other for defense.
“The first day in this building they gave me two playbooks,” Slater said in a phone interview Thursday. “There was no, ‘We’ll give you one, then we’ll give you the other.’ It was, ‘Here’s both.’ I felt like I was in a graduate studies program, making flash cards and everything.”
Safe to say that Slater has graduated with honors. Not only has he stepped in at various times at receiver and safety for the playoff-bound Patriots, but Slater also made his first Pro Bowl this week as the AFC’s special teams player. It was as a special teams player — on returns and on coverage — that Slater made his mark with the Bruins, earning All-Pac-10 honors as a returner in 2007.
Slater’s only NFL catch turned out to be the Patriots’ first big gain of this season, a 46-yard reception in the opener against Miami. Because of injuries in the defensive backfield, he’s also started three of the last four games at safety.
But by far his biggest contribution has been as a coverage specialist on special teams, for which he was voted a team captain before this season.
“It’s kind of the dirty work that goes on,” he said. “As a youngster coming up, you don’t really think, ‘I want to be a great special teams player.’ You want to be a great receiver or safety or whatever it may be. But early on in my career, being around [Pro Bowl special-teamer] Larry Izzo and … just seeing how special teams can change a game, it’s a craft that’s really valued.”
This is, of course, Slater version 2.0. His father is Jackie, a Hall of Fame tackle who made seven Pro Bowls in 20 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams.
Upon learning his Pro Bowl news this week, Matthew’s first call was to his parents.
“Obviously, it meant a lot to my family,” he said. “There was a lot of yelling on the other end, in particular my mother in the background.… You would have thought they’d named my dad to his eighth Pro Bowl. He was very excited, just overwhelmed with emotion.”
That’s partly because the Slaters understand how much their son has been through in his career since the Patriots made him a fifth-round pick in 2008. There were plenty of forks in the road.
The first came in the 12th game of his first season when the Patriots were slugging it out with Pittsburgh at Gillette Stadium. The Steelers scored on their first possession of the second half and took a 13-10 lead, then kicked off to Slater. The rookie muffed the catch, the Steelers recovered the loose ball and quickly converted it into a touchdown. That gave the visitors the momentum they needed on their way to a 33-10 victory.
Even though that was the last game the Patriots lost that season — they finished 11-5 with Matt Cassel filling in for the injured Tom Brady — they still missed the playoffs. Slater couldn’t help but feel some culpability.
“I could have easily gone in the tank,” he said. “It was very difficult for me at that time because I felt like I’d cost my team a chance to win a game, and we were in the mix, in the playoff hunt. I felt like I let a lot of people down.
“But adversity is a part of it. If you play the game long enough, things are going to go well and things are going to go bad. It’s how you respond.”
More challenges were ahead. In the final exhibition game of his second season, he suffered a dislocated elbow, an injury that has sidelined some players for an entire season. It kept Slater out just two weeks, even though it meant his typical week consisted of six days of misery to go along with four quarters of football.
“Just missing two games was a small miracle, no doubt about it,” he said. “Dealing with the pain was the toughest thing that season. I had a huge plastic brace, like a bionic arm, almost the whole season. But it was very difficult even doing everyday tasks — showering, putting on a shirt, things like that were difficult because I couldn’t really move my arm. To get out there on Sunday and play football, that was crazy.”
Often when coaches are making cuts in training camp, special-teams players are among the first to go. Slater has beaten the odds in that sense, augmenting his value by becoming a capable backup on both offense and defense. Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has long coveted those jack-of-all-trades-type talents, using players such as Troy Brown and Julian Edelman on both sides of the ball.
As a young player, Jackie Slater only dabbled in multiple disciplines. He entered Jackson State as a high school defensive lineman but soon became a fixture on the offensive line. Early in his career with the Rams, he was occasionally used on the defensive line in short-yardage situations. For the most part, though, he anchored the right end of the offensive line.
So he marvels at the career his son has carved as a do-everything, Swiss Army knife of a player.
“To be moving even from right tackle to left tackle is a change, and then to be moving from one side of the ball to the other is a much bigger change,” Jackie said. “In my mind, if you asked me to do what Matthew is doing at that age, that would be tough.
“Let me just put it this way: After 20 years of playing experience and another decade or so of exposure to professional football, I never did that.
“He’s treading new ground.”