By Mike Lowe
HOUSTON — Matthew Slater grew up in a football home in southern California. His father, Jackie Slater, was an All-Pro offensive lineman for the Los Angeles Rams and is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But this was also a house of great spiritual faith, led by both Jackie and his wife, Annie.
Matthew Slater has followed his father's path, both professionally and spiritually.
Slater is the special teams captain for the New England Patriots, his six consecutive Pro Bowl selections (including this year) an indication of how respected he is in the NFL.
He is also the spiritual leader of the Patriots, who will play the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at NRG Stadium.
"Slate's faith, that drives not only him but the team as well," said second-year offensive guard Shaq Mason. "That's definitely a key part of a lot of the guys for our team success. Faith is very important."
It's more than just important to Slater.
"My faith is the core pillar in my life. It comes before anything," said Slater. "It's something from a very young age that has given me direction and purpose beyond what I do professionally. It's helped me lead in the home and it's helped me lead on the job."
Slater was honored with the 2017 Bart Starr Award, voted on by his peers and given annually to a player who exemplifies character and leadership on and off the field. His father also won the award in 1996. Matthew Slater will be presented the award Saturday morning at the Athletes in Action Super Bowl breakfast.
He has a very simple explanation of his faith. It's about relationships.
"I think everything I do, I do for an audience of one," Slater said, referring to God. "And I know I'm blessed to have the opportunity I have and I feel that I'm in debt and I feel I have to maximize that opportunity.
"Obviously as I work and prepare to play football, I'm always going to give everything I have. But I think on the back end, where you get off the football field, the relationships with people you build, especially in the locker room and the community and in your home, that's very important."
Slater is not one to force his faith on any teammate. What he wants them to know is that he will always be there for them. And they do.
"Matthew Slater is probably the best teammate I've ever had," said wide receiver Julian Edelman, who roomed with Slater for four years. "He's the ultimate guy where you can talk to him about anything and he can help you. He comes from a strong family ... He's a great role model for guys in the locker room, not only just kids but the way he lives his life."
Slater truly believes that football – with its violence and mayhem – can coexist with faith.
"Look I understand how the game of football and the violent nature of football can kind of contrast the Christian lifestyle," he said. "But there is a way to compete fairly, with integrity and within the rules of the game ... At the end of the game you can go and shake the hand of the man you played and have respect for him."
There are others on the Patriots who share Slater's faith: tackle Nate Solder, safety Devin McCourty and defensive back Jordan Richards among them.
"Matt has a tremendously genuine faith," said Solder. "And I am fortunate I have him on the team and we have become good friends."
The Patriots have a team chaplain, Jack Easterby, and hold a Bible study every Monday. Solder said about 10 to 12 players regularly attend. The team also holds a prayer service before games. After games, members of both the Patriots and their opponent will gather at midfield to pray.
"Faith is an important aspect of a lot of men's lives in a lot of different ways in the NFL," said Slater. "And that's a tradition long-standing."
Slater's reach extends far beyond the Patriots. He is active in Professional Athletes Outreach, a fellowship and spiritual ministry that has existed since 1971, according to communications manager Ken Hughes. Slater has told his faith story on a video on TheIncrease.com, a website where professional athletes share their faith-based stories. He has also been involved with Football Sunday, a 30-minute film that is available to churches to show on Super Bowl Sunday.
Christianity hasn't always been an easy path for Slater. His faith was tested and then reaffirmed in his freshman year at UCLA.
"When I got to college I really had to personalize my faith and there were some tough decisions that needed to be made," he said. "And I hadn't made all the right ones. I remember coming home and my dad really challenged me. He said, 'Hey this is the time for you to become a man. When you say you want to be this kind of man and you profess that, well it's time to start acting on it.'
"There was that time when I had to trigger my faith. Some of that has continued to develop and will continue to develop."
Slater was asked if he has a dark side, if he cheats at board games or swears.
"I don't cheat on board games because I usually throw the board into the air if I'm losing," he said, laughing. "Ask my dad."
"I try to eliminate those from my vocabulary but I'm not perfect," he said. "Not even close."
His teammates might disagree.