FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — His approach hasn’t changed over more than a decade’s time.
It’s the same, he says, as it was back in 2008 when he entered the NFL as a wide-eyed rookie fresh out of UCLA, a fifth-round draft choice who had excelled as a kick returner and kick coverage man with the Bruins.
“Every year,” Matthew Slater answered when asked last Wednesday, the day he reported for his 12th training camp with the Patriots. “I just cover kicks. There’s a lot of me’s out there on the streets so I have to fight for my job every year.”
While he may not hold a marquee role, it can be said that Slater is one of a kind.
Slater, after all, is the only player in NFL history to be named to the Pro Bowl seven years in a row (2011-2017). His seven selections match Steve Tasker’s seven with Buffalo (1987 and 1990-1995) for the most special teams Pro Bowl honors in league history.
Slater’s value to his team lies deeper than what he does on the field, though. The fact that he’s been a captain the past eight years (and counting) is a reflection of that.
“He’s a strong leader,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “He obviously has a strong role in the kicking game, but he’s one of the most respected players on the team, as he should be by everyone. (He’s a) high-quality person. He’s been a great part of our team for over a decade.”
“He’s awesome,” said running back James White, who was named a first-time captain last year. “Great veteran leadership, works extremely hard and keeps the locker room together. He makes sure there’s a family atmosphere in this building. There could be some tough days, there could be some easy days, but he’s a guy that kind of keeps everybody locked in, keeps that great camaraderie throughout this team and he’s a great guy to have in that locker room.”
The son of Jackie Slater, the Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive tackle who spent 20 years with the Los Angeles-St. Louis Rams, the 33-year-old was weaned on football.
Now he is an elder statesman in the Patriots’ locker room, his service to the team exceeded only by quarterback Tom Brady’s 20 seasons and placekicker Stephen Gostkowski’s 14. As such, he passes on the same wisdom to today’s younger players that he received when he was breaking into the league.
“I think the No. 1 thing I tell guys is don’t start counting numbers, don’t start looking in your room and say, ‘We have this guy, this guy, this guy is doing that, this guy is going to be there,’” said Slater. “No offense, but don’t read what you guys (in the media) are writing about who’s on the bubble, this guy is projected, roster predictions. I got into that trap as a young player.
“I think you just have to put your head down, try to get better each and every day. Try to take the coaching that you’re receiving each and every day, come out and compete. And be thankful for the opportunity that you have. Enjoy it. I mean look, there are a lot of guys that want to be in our shoes for a chance to compete to be on an NFL roster. So, enjoy the process of competition. Enjoy the process of trying to get better because you never know when that opportunity will no longer be there for you.”
It’s advice, Slater admits, that he did not heed.
“I certainly was told not to read and I read anyway and then I was like ‘Oh, man, I’m going to get cut,’” said Slater. “So, I had to learn to ignore the noise, if you will. I had to learn to enjoy it. I don’t think I enjoyed it enough as a young player because you’re so stressed about what’s going to happen, am I going to be here tomorrow?
“Certainly there’s a lot at stake, but you have to enjoy it. I had great mentors here when I was in the building: Benjamin Watson, Sammy Morris, Tedy Bruschi, I mean so many guys, Larry Izzo, I could list off 30 guys that were really great.”
The way Slater explains it, the approach the Patriots must take coming off their latest Super Bowl championship season — the franchise’s sixth, the third he’s been a part of — mirrors his own.
“What happened last year has no bearing on this season,” said Slater. “I think each and every year you have to find a way to motivate yourself and get yourself ready to go. You’ve got to be working to improve, you’ve got to avoid complacency at all costs, so if anything you emphasize that even more in years you’re coming off a Super Bowl win.
“But I don’t think there’s any difference. What happens in the past, as you know around here, stays in the past and we try to focus on the present and moving forward.”