ATLANTA – The meeting represents the sport’s ultimate, almost comic-book confrontation of separate allegiances, the name of the game even including the word “Super.”
And there might not be a more intimately embedded spectator Sunday than Jackie Slater, who has given the Los Angeles Rams his heart and the New England Patriots even more: his DNA.
Slater is so close to Super Bowl LIII, in fact, that unlike everyone else involved, he can’t lose.
“It’s going to be emotional for me, sure,” he said. “But I’m not going to say I’m conflicted because I look at the game a little differently. It’s a win-win situation.”
On one side of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Slater will find the Rams, with whom he spent his entire 20-year career and became a Hall of Famer.
On the other, he’ll find his son, Matthew, who is in his 11th season with New England and still calls his father “my hero.”
One will win Sunday and the other will lose, and Jackie Slater will be comfortably caught in the middle.
“I hope he plays well and does his job,” Slater said of his son. “And I hope the Rams do well. It’s going to be pretty matter-of-fact for me. I’m not really going to sweat it. I’m just going to enjoy it.”
So, it turns out, blood and water can be equally thick, especially when the water is spiked with two decades of sweat and everything that means.
Slater came close to leaving the Rams once, near the end of his career, when he went so far down the road of free agency with Atlanta that he took a physical and received a contract offer.
Having grown up in Mississippi, he said the allure of returning to the South to conclude his time in the NFL was powerful. The Falcons wanted Slater to sign before he boarded his flight back to Southern California.
“I felt there was still work to be done in Los Angeles for the Rams,” he said. “I always felt obligated to do everything I could to get us back to winning.”
Slater’s attachment to the organization is so strong that he moved with the team to St. Louis for his final season, which lasted only one series for him because of an elbow injury.
After Slater’s farewell appearance, his teammates carried him off the field.
Now, 24 years later, he still talks about the pride he felt wearing that blue and gold, still recalls the effort he poured into his offseason training while his young son shadowed him in the gym, the kid’s wrists wrapped in athletic tape, just like dad.
“The man I looked up to and I still look up to the most in my life spent 20 years with that organization,” Matthew said. “Through that organization’s generosity and loyalty to my father, I was afforded a lot of opportunities.
”I was able to get an education. My dad was able to provide for our family in a unique way. So I’ll always be thankful to that organization for what they’ve done for my family. But I’ll always be more thankful to this organization.“
He is a Patriots receiver by roster designation only, with only one reception, and that came in 2011. He hasn’t even been targeted since 2016.
But he is considered to be one of the league’s all-time finest special-teams players, his seven Pro Bowl selections matching the number of times his father was similarly recognized.
He has been a captain for the last eight seasons, the respect among his New England teammates such that longtime receiver Julian Edelman called Matthew ”probably the best teammate I’ve ever had.“
Only quarterback Tom Brady and kicker Stephen Gostkowski have been with the Patriots longer, a notable achievement for a player who, coming out of UCLA as the 153rd selection in the 2008 draft, hoped to somehow last long enough to cash his signing bonus.
Like his dad, Matthew also has received the NFL’s Bart Starr Award, given annually to the player who exemplifies character and leadership on and off the field.
”It was more special for me when he won than when I did,“ said Slater, 64, who just finished his eighth season as an assistant at Azusa Pacific. ”It was humbling. I think it’s a testament to how much my wife (Annie) put into him over the years.“
Matthew joked that the Rams better not make his father an honorary captain Sunday, saying such a thing ”would be too much.“ It happened in 2012, when the Patriots played St. Louis in London.
Before the game, Slater told Matthew he was going to shake the hands of New England’s other captains but hug him. Matthew warned him not to.
Then, when everyone gathered at midfield for the coin toss, Matthew shook the hands of the Rams’ other captains and hugged his dad.
”There’s been no man in my life, no person in my life, who’s had more influence or impact on me and my development,“ Matthew said. ”He was a Ram. I was a Ram fan. But not now.
“Look, I don’t care who we’re playing. I didn’t play for the Rams; my dad did. He better choose wisely when it comes to who he cheers for on Super Bowl Sunday.”
For Jackie, that’s the easy part. There’s no choice to be made.
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