If Dorrell had gotten his way, Slater would have been a Dolphin. After a 6-6 season in 2007, he was fired by his alma mater and wound up in Miami as receivers coach.
“He can do so many different things, and his effort and how he did things was really unmatched compared to what most people would do,” Dorrell said. “I was trying to get [the Dolphins] to draft him because I felt that strongly about his ability.”
But Miami didn’t draft Slater. A surprise team, one that he’d had little to no contact with in the previous weeks, chose him in the fifth round: the New England Patriots.
“When you look back on it, it was a perfect fit because they appreciated guys like me around here and they still do,” Slater said. “They view things a little bit differently in regards to special teams. So it was a perfect fit with the way my college career went for me to end up here.”
His rookie season of 2008 is not one Slater remembers fondly. He struggled on the field, averaging just 14.1 yards on 11 kickoff returns, and off the field, the transition from college student to professional — far from his family and his familiar Southern California surroundings — was difficult as well.
And then came Scott O’Brien, the mustachioed, frenetic special teams coach the Patriots hired after Slater’s rookie year, the yin to Slater’s quiet yang.
O’Brien rebuilt Slater’s confidence, believing in the young speedster, making him believe he could be a great player.
Appreciating the grind
Jackie Slater believed that his son liked the grandeur of the game, that he enjoyed sitting in the stands with his mother and brother and seeing the Rams welcome different teams to Anaheim Stadium.
That was not the case.
“What I much later found out, the thing that had the biggest impact on him was, he’d watch me go through the grind, and I think the biggest thing that happened out of all that to him was he just learned to appreciate the underside of it, the mundane side of it, when nobody’s watching and you just have to go to work and get yourself ready,” said Jackie Slater.
“Those are some unique times, when we actually spent quite a bit of time together, when I was trying to retard the aging process and he saw that. He got up close and personal with the grind of the game, the hard work and everything that goes into it, the respect that you have to pay the game on a daily basis, the practices — that’s the thing that he seemed to have remembered the most.”
Matthew believes “95 percent of what I’ve learned as far as being a professional and how to work as a pro, and how to respect the game of football” came from his father.
“If there’s one thing I remember about my dad, it was his work ethic,” said Matthew. “As a little kid, going to Rams Park with him and watching him work out, and I didn’t understand why he was doing so much and why he put so much time into it, but as I got older, I began to realize why he was doing that and he always — even now — is talking to me about being a professional, what it means to be a pro, what it means to respect this game.
“This game owes none of us anything; we’re very privileged to be playing this game and we have to give it its just due in the way we prepare on the field and off the field so we’ll have no regrets at the end of the day. I got a lot of that from my dad.”
‘This is my craft’
For most players, special teams is a means to an end: It’s a way to get on the field as a young player, with the hope of getting more snaps at your preferred position later in the season.
Though he practiced as a defensive back and receiver in his first years with the Patriots, Matthew Slater, now 6 feet and 198 pounds, at some point realized that special teams was his position, and he set his mind to excelling at his position.
“I can’t tell you how much I love this game of football,” he said. “This game has been really good to me and my family, and once I got on the field and was able to play, I really saw that hey, this is fun. I like doing this.
“I’m very competitive by nature. I want to be great at whatever it is I’m doing, it doesn’t matter if we’re playing tic-tac-toe.
“In college, when I would see guys not take special teams seriously, I would feel like they were slighting the game, like they weren’t respecting the game.
“This is a huge part of the game. It’s not a job, it’s my craft, and I want to be a master at my craft. It’s not just me coming in punching a clock, going from 9 to 5 and doing the bare minimum.
“This is my craft, I want to perfect it.”
Working on his own, working with O’Brien, Slater improved. He draws double-teams when he’s on the field, opponents doing whatever they can to keep him from making a tackle on punt coverage or kickoff coverage.Continued...