An Exit Interview with Matthew Slater, the True Keeper of the Patriot Way

There’s a lot of buzz around the New England Patriots’ dynasty right now, thanks to the new Apple TV documentary that tells the story of their 20 years of dominance. The main figures—Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft—are well-known to football fans. But, another instrumental player was much less heralded, but still critical to the team’s overwhelming success.

Matthew Slater technically played wide receiver for the Patriots, but he hardly ever touched the ball, or even entered the game on offense. Instead, he made his living on special teams. Not only that: he made his living on special teams as a guy who rarely touched the ball even there, making him an even more anonymous member of an already anonymous group. Covering punts and blocking on kick returns is not anyone’s idea of a glamorous job. But Slater was arguably the best of his generation at it, making 10 Pro Bowls, two All-Pro teams, and winning three Super Bowls while doing it. In the process, he earned a reputation as one of the famously curmudgeonly Belichick’s favorite players of all time.

The king of special teams officially announced his retirement in February, joining Brady and Belichick as yet another pillar of the Patriots dynasty that has moved on to other things. Slater sat down with GQ to go through everything he’s seen and done—from getting drafted in the fifth round despite not having a single catch in college, to correctly calling two crucial coin flips in the playoffs—in a career that, fittingly, you could only call special.

Even when you were in college at UCLA, your impact was felt mostly on special teams. As a receiver who didn’t ever catch the ball, did you ever expect to get drafted?

No! Based on how my UCLA career had gone, I didn’t expect to get drafted at all. I was hopeful about maybe being able to get into a camp, but I knew from the start that I was going to have to play special teams if I did get that opportunity. When the Patriots called on draft day, we were surprised just like everybody else.

Were there specific conversations at UCLA about how playing special teams could improve your chances of being drafted, or was that just how your playing time naturally shook out?

It just started for me as a way to get on the field and contribute. I had a couple of coaches—Dino Babers and DeWayne Walker—who I remember saying, “Hey, if you do this well enough, you might have a chance to play in the NFL.” I didn’t really think much of it at the time. Alright, that sounds great, I just want to play now! I couldn’t allow myself to think about the future. Little did I know what would be in store for me. Man, what a strange beginning to a fantastic ride.

Were you lobbying for something, anything? Hey, let’s see if we can get me just one touch per game?

Yes, absolutely! I probably did it in a very annoying way. I was always in the coaches’ offices asking what I needed to do to get on the field. I made a position change in the middle of college. I didn’t play it very much, but my last two years there I was a defensive back. I was just trying anything that I could, because I love football and I wanted to play!

One thing that people always talk about with you is leadership. That can obviously be a very difficult thing to quantify, so I’m wondering: from your perspective, what does that quality look like to you?

That’s a great question. As a man of faith, I think leadership is about servanthood. You want to serve the people around you as best as you can. There’s so many things written about leadership, there’s TikToks, on and on and on. For me, I always try to initiate my leadership style with relationships and meet people where they are. Hear their story, hear their why, and help them along their journey toward becoming the best version of themselves.

I knew that leadership was going to look different for me than it would for Tom Brady or Jerod Mayo or those guys. I had to do it in an authentic way. It takes a lot of intentionality. You know, there is more turnover on special teams, oftentimes within the season. There’s constantly new guys in there. You might be lining up next to someone who’s been there for two days. So, it does take a lot of intentionality to engage with those relationships and let guys know that you care about them. I think guys need to know that before you can ask them to do anything.

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