Watch Greg Garber's TV feature on Matthew Slater on "Sunday NFL Countdown" from 1-3 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Matthew Slater, son of a stoic Hall of Fame offensive tackle, had the pedigree to become an NFL player but, early on, had few of the extraordinary gifts required.
He was always small for his age, had dreadful eyesight and suffered debilitating bouts of asthma. Flip through the impressively detailed family photo albums, witness the scrawny, bow-tied 6-year-old with those blousy glasses and you wonder how it ever happened.
Fact is, Jackie and Annie pushed him headlong into soccer, basketball, baseball and track -- anything but football. They didn't want to see him get hurt. The closest Matthew got was flag football at his parochial grammar school in Orange County, California.
"He did real well running and catching people," Jackie conceded earlier this week in Los Angeles. "When he was growing up, he was running and I had to go catch him. At least 100 times as a kid, it was just who he was, he'd say, 'I've got to go catch him.' He has the ability to do that."
Still does. He's played wide receiver, defensive back and returned kicks. But today he's the New England Patriots' gunner on the punt team, the guy who defeats a blocker or two -- or, last week against the Kansas City Chiefs, sometimes three -- sprints down the field with 4.4 speed and blows up the returner.
That's precisely what he'll do in Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Denver.
"It's funny how things work out," Matthew said. "I never would have thought I'd be doing what I do for a living. But you're exactly right, that's kind of the job description: You run, get the guy with the ball."
For five seasons, 6-foot, 198-pound Matthew has been the Patriots' special teams' captain, and, in each of those seasons, he was the AFC's sole non-kicking special teams player named to the Pro Bowl. Only the Buffalo Bills' Steve Tasker has more consecutive special teams appearances (six) from 1990-95.
As a public service, we offer this trivia tidbit, which might win you a few beers when you're watching Super Bowl 50 and the Pro Bowl.
Q: Which father-son teams have earned the most combined Pro Bowl berths?
Yes, the Slaters are firmly entrenched among the elitist of NFL families. Who knew?
"That doesn't even sound right, saying it," said Matthew, of history's Pro Bowl hierarchy. "The kid with the glasses and the asthma, who was told that he could never do this, never do that. The guy from Jackson, Mississippi, who grew up with nothing.
"It's pretty crazy, isn't it?"
The perfect Patriot
Bill Belichick's system -- one of the most successful in the history of the NFL -- requires a certain selflessness from its role players, guys who famously do their job on every play.
When the Patriots actually traded up to get Matthew in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, Belichick, an old special teams assistant, told Matthew they weren't sure what position he'd be playing, but saw him helping out in the kicking game. As usual, Belichick saw the future.
"Coach appreciates guys that are going to work hard and try to put the team first," Matthew explained. "I've tried to put my ego aside and just buy into what we're doing here as a team. I'm so thankful that Coach took a chance on a kid that not a lot of coaches would have."
Matthew is smart (he verbally committed to Dartmouth before deciding on UCLA because it was closer to home), tough and versatile. For many reasons, beginning with Jackie himself, Matthew just might be the Perfect Patriot.
"I suppose you could say that," said Jackie, smiling, not without enormous pride. "Do your job. His mother and I have always, always told him, 'You can only control what you control.' More than anything else, special teams is a rank-and-file kind of position. You don't toot the trumpets and say, 'OK, here come the special team guys.'
"But yet, for Matthew to find significance in the mundane, to find significance in what is deemed to be not so important and then elevate that. Yeah, I think that's the kind of thing that drives him."
Finding significance in the mundane. In the galaxy of fantasy statistics, that would be the definition of special teams. Matthew typically leads the Patriots in special teams tackles and this season is no exception; he has 16 unassisted tackles, six more than Brandon King, who plays gunner on the other side and operates against fewer blockers.
"I can just go out there and I feel free on Sundays," Matthew explained. "Special teams is perfect for a guy that's wired the way I am. It's only fitting that an offensive lineman's son would find joy in a role that's overlooked, underappreciated.
"I saw my dad do what he did for a long time and not get a ton of credit for it."
Model of professionalism
Matthew was 10 when Jackie retired in 1995 after 20 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams. He made the trip to Hawaii several times and can be seen pictured, Where's-Waldo-style, among NFL royalty: standing with Warren Moon and Andre Reed, in the arms of Eric Dickerson -- Hall of Famers all.
Jackie played in a staggering 259 games. He blocked for seven different 1,000-yard rushers. Late in his career, approaching 40, he spent a lot of time working to come back from injuries. Matthew witnessed this, saw the struggle and the perseverance and the professionalism, and went to school.
"The one thing I try to pride myself on is my work ethic," Matthew said. "At the end of the day, that's the one thing that no one can take from you -- how you work, how you prepare. That's something as a player I've taken from him."
Said Jackie, "The last five, seven years I played, those were tough years. He was right there, watching me rehabilitate injuries, pumping iron, doing the running and all of that. I think he related to that more than the actual games themselves."
The offseason effort, Matthew said, is what impressed him most.
"The way he ran and lifted weights at Rams Park in Anaheim," Matthew said. "I just said to myself, 'Man, Dad's working so hard.' And I didn't see any other guys around when he was doing it. It was the preparation that stuck out to me."
A Slater family first
Matthew didn't make varsity at Servite High School until his junior year. At UCLA, he redshirted as a freshman in 2003 because of a toe injury, then played all of three games in 2004 and finally got on the field for two games in 2005 as a wide receiver (zero catches). Eventually he found a role returning and covering kicks.
"There were times in college where my career was going down a path where a lot of people would say, 'This guy's going to be done with football.' There were definitely times that I thought that maybe God had a different plan for my life.
"To be recognized as one of the best at what you do, it was a miraculous turnaround for me and my family to see that."
Before this season, Matthew signed a two-year contract worth $4 million, including a $2 million signing bonus. He's taking home twice as much as Jackie, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, ever made in a single season.
In two decades of trying to get there, Jackie played in only one Super Bowl, XIV, at the end of the 1979 season. The Rams lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-19 in Pasadena, California.
"We had 'em locked up," Jackie remembered. "We just didn't finish it."
Thirty-five years later, the son found himself in the Super Bowl, XLIX, featuring the Patriots against the Seahawks. Matthew's only tackle in that game, instructively, came at the beginning of the fourth quarter, setting up the Patriots' dramatic comeback victory from a 10-point deficit.
"It was a huge sigh of relief," Jackie said. "I was so happy for him because I knew at that moment that he was not going to carry around in his heart what I've been carrying around in my heart since 1979 -- that feeling of getting to the big dance and not winning the game.
"He just started crying, and I felt pretty much the same way. He has overcome a lot of odds."
Matthew remembers watching film of that game against the Steelers with his dad.
"I remember sitting there, going through the plays, analyzing it," Matthew said. "I could see the hurt in his eyes that he never won one. So for me to be able to do that for my dad, it meant a lot.
"It was a very emotional moment for me because we finally could say, after 27 years in this league, the Slaters were Super Bowl champions."
Jackie added, "The things that people have said about a young man who had a father who was very successful. From, 'You don't deserve the scholarship,' all the way to 'Your dad is the reason you're here.' To be a critical part of that team's success, reaching the ultimate goal in football, it was special."
Matthew will tell you that, believe it or not, there was a moment in 2001 that meant more to him.
That was when Jackie was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I don't know if he would say this, but for me, it was bigger than winning the Super Bowl," Matthew said. "To carve out the career that he was able to carve out, to make it to Canton as one of the best football players to ever play? It was a miracle and humbling for my family and I to experience that.
"A lot of times I've always been Jackie Slater's son. He knew that kind of bothered me because I wanted to be my own man. But in hindsight, I'll gladly be Jackie Slater's son."