FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Matthew Slater lost a costly fumble as a rookie. He missed two games with an elbow injury in his second season. And before his third season he wasn’t even sure the Patriots would keep him.
Now, in his fourth season with New England, he’s made the Pro Bowl as the AFC’s special teams player.
“It’s been a long journey,” Slater said Wednesday. “It’s a humbling experience, a humbling honor.”
And, perhaps, just a start.
His father Jackie was chosen for seven Pro Bowls as a tackle in 20 seasons with the Rams and made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So Jackie was thrilled when his son told him that a member of the next Slater generation had been picked for the NFL all-star game.
“Oh, man, you would have thought he made the Pro Bowl the way he was acting,” Matthew said, “but he’s extremely proud and my father is a big reason why I’m here today, why I’ve had the success that I’ve had football-wise, because he’s taught me how to be a professional, taught me to respect this game and taught me how to really work at it and prepare to be a master of your craft. So I owe him a lot.”
There were times when it seemed Slater might not last long with the team that drafted him in 2008 in the fifth round out of UCLA, where his primary contributions were on special teams.
In the 12th game of that season, he fumbled away a kickoff, starting a tie-breaking touchdown drive that sparked the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 33-10 win, which helped keep the Patriots out of the playoffs. The next year a dislocated elbow sustained in the final exhibition game sidelined him for the first two regular-season games.
Then, before a training camp roster cut last year, Slater said it was an unsettling time for him.
“It’s going to be disappointing if things don’t work out the way you want them to, but sometimes things are out of your control,” he said then. “So (if) you come out with the proper attitude and you come out and bust your butt every day, you can leave with you head up either way it goes.”
He hasn’t left yet.
Slater leads the Patriots (12-3) with 17 special-teams tackles but doesn’t get the public recognition of his teammates who made the Pro Bowl on offense — quarterback Tom Brady, wide receiver Wes Welker, tight end Rob Gronkowski and guards Logan Mankins and Brian Waters — or on defense: linemen Vince Wilfork and Andre Carter.
And, he said, playing special teams is not the goal for most kids with outstanding football talent. Who wants to race downfield covering kicks or block for his own team’s returners?
“It’s kind of the dirty work that goes on,” Slater said. “As a youngster coming up, you don’t really think I’m going to be a great special teams player. You want to be a great receiver or a safety or whatever it may be.”
Patriots linebacker Tracy White knows the feeling. It took him a few seasons to accept that he could best contribute on special teams.
“Once you buy into it, you become better and want to be the best,” he said. “I wanted to be the best special teams player I can be on any team I’ve been on. With him (Slater) that’s what he bought into. In the Pro Bowl in just his fourth year? That’s pretty good.”
Brady made it for the seventh time in 12 years.
“It’s a very nice thing for your peers and coaches to name you to the team,” he said. “We have a lot of (Patriots) joining us, so it’s always pretty cool.”
Waters was picked for his sixth Pro Bowl and first since being released by Kansas City and signing as a free agent on Sept. 4.
“I’m honored,” he said. “It wouldn’t have mattered if it were here or anywhere else, but it’s definitely been a fun ride this year and this is just another part of what’s turning out to be a really good year for me.”
Players learned of their selections Tuesday when they were called into coach Bill Belichick’s office.
“I asked real quick if it was good or bad,” Gronkowski said with a smile. “It was all good.”
Slater said he’d never been called into Belichick’s office before, a good thing because that’s where players often learn they’ve been released.
“I was a little worried at first because you don’t want to get called into his office,” Slater said. “He kind of had a little smirk on his face.”
So now the 6-foot, 200-pound Slater, selected Patriots special teams captain before the season, has risen to the top of his craft in the NFL.
“It’s something you strive for,” he said. “I knew that when I got here I had some personal goals for myself that maybe I only discussed with my father. But I enjoy competing and I enjoy going out and doing what I do every Sunday and, obviously, I want to work to be the best at that.”