From gridiron to ministry: Matthew Slater maps out post-football plans

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1a. Patriots special-teams captain and perennial Pro Bowler Matthew Slater enters his 10th NFL season, all spent in New England, and that’s about 10 years more than he ever envisioned playing professional football. He knows he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and when we caught up after his inspiring message to Pine Street Inn graduates, I asked him about his future plans.

“I’ve always had a passion for the ministry. [Those who have] covered me for a while now know how important my faith is to me. That’s something I’ve always wanted to pursue,” he said. “Understanding that football has never been a guarantee for me, it’s something I’ve always been prepared to move on and do. I have a passion for working with people, especially with children. That’s something I still plan on pursuing, whether it’s here, back in California, or wherever we end up as a family.”

These are exciting times for Slater and his wife Shahrzad, as they are expecting their second child.

As for how much longer the soon-to-be-32-year-old Slater plans to play football, he said he’s in a year-to-year mindset at this point.

“Right now, I feel good. The Lord has blessed me with some good health,” Slater said. “I still really enjoy the process of preparation and the competition. And Coach Belichick still has me on his roster. As long as those three things are going, I’ll do it as long as the Lord is going to have me do it, and I know I can leave the game with peace of mind, whenever it is, for the opportunities I’ve had here, the experience I’ve had, the friendships I’ve made. I feel like I’m still living the dream and trying to enjoy it one day at a time.”

Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater has “always had a passion for the ministry.” Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

1b. Slater’s impact on the Patriots extends beyond the field, with one recent example coming in how he has taken undrafted Patriots free-agent receiver Austin Carr (Northwestern) under his wing. Shortly after signing with the team, the 23-year-old Carr had explained how he connected with Slater on and off the field. Carr said Slater’s name had been mentioned in team meetings as a good example to follow, and that Slater then went out of his way to embrace him. “We share the same faith background as well and are part of the Christian community. He’s going to help me and my fiance get embedded with that,” said Carr, who was named the Big Ten’s top receiver in 2016 but faces long odds for a roster spot at a stacked position. However, he appeared to have a promising spring to build on as a developmental prospect.

2. Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore did some media rounds last week promoting his upcoming football camp, and here’s one nugget that stood out to me from an interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Zolak and Bertrand” program. Asked what has been the most eye-opening thing to him about the Patriots, Gilmore talked about the “super-fast” pace in which the team practices. One example of this that showed up in spring practices: The no-huddle was a significant part of the agenda, as the coaching staff harped on players to substitute correctly and be on their toes mentally. When the defense struggled one day, unable to get the right personnel on the field quickly enough, they were sent on “penalty” laps.

3. This is a quiet time on the NFL calendar with most coaches on vacation, but there has been some activity around Gillette Stadium. The Jaguars had some of their football operations staffers in town early last week to get the lay of the land for the highly anticipated joint practices Aug. 7-8, and Patriots rookies were finishing up their orientation program that included a visit to Boston Children’s Hospital. Meanwhile, running back Dion Lewis is one of a handful of players still working out regularly at the stadium, where he had been joined by receiver Malcolm Mitchell and tight end Dwayne Allen, among a few others.

4. Programming note: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will be featured on ESPN’s E:60 on Sunday, July 2 at 9 a.m. ET, as the program followed him on his recent trip to Asia. For those waking up a bit later, ESPN2 will air the show at 10 a.m. ET. On the influence of Eastern culture, Brady says on E:60: “It has been very important to my health, as you know, a very holistic approach to take care of myself. I attribute a lot of my success over the last five or six years to the ability to work and stay healthy.”

5. When former Rams running back Marshall Faulk was listed among the 18 Pro Football Hall of Famers to travel to Israel last month on a trip led by Robert Kraft, it piqued my curiosity on how the two might interact. Faulk has made critical comments about the Patriots in his role as an NFL Network analyst, going back to Super Bowl XXXVI. That background made this video, via Patriots.com, even more powerful to me.

6a. Did you know: As part of ESPN Stats & Information’s countdown to kickoff, they serve up a theme-based reminder that there are 67 days until the Patriots host the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL opener. Running back Marshawn Lynch’s “beast quake” run came on a 67-yard rushing touchdown against the Saints in 2011, which is Lynch’s career-long rush in the playoffs. The Patriots will see Lynch, now with the Raiders, when the teams meet in Mexico City on Nov. 19.

6b. Did you know, part II: Saturday marked 68 days to the opener, and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s 68 receiving touchdowns since 2010 are the highest total in the NFL during that span. Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant’s 67 are right behind.

7. The Patriots announced that single-game tickets will go on sale July 14. They usually sell out in minutes. This will mark the 24th straight season the Patriots have sold out every game prior to the start of the season, which will mean it’s 261 straight games by the end of the 2017 season. The streak began in 1994, Kraft’s first year as owner. That makes me think about times in the 1980s and early 1990s when the Patriots weren’t on television because of local blackout restrictions, but there is a whole generation of fans who don’t even know what that means.

8. Many Patriots fans who share the same passion for the Boston Celtics are keeping close watch on free agency and the possibility of signing Utah’s Gordon Hayward. In addition to Utah, the Celtics have competition from the Heat, who erected a photo of Hayward in front of their arena as part of their recruiting pitch.

The recruitment sparked memories of how the Patriots “courted” safety Rodney Harrison as a free agent in 2003 — they flew him from the West Coast following his meeting with the Raiders on a red-eye and took him out to eat at the no-frills Ground Round. Bill Belichick’s message to Harrison was essentially “We’re not about the glitz, just football. If that’s what you want, sign here.” Harrison was sold, and the rest, as they say, is history.

9. Patriots season-ticket holders were informed this week that there will be no ticketed in-stadium practice during training camp, which had become a fun tradition of sorts. The available dates for the stadium — which hosts many non-football-related events (e.g. soccer, concerts etc.) — didn’t match up with the football specific practice schedule. For example, one of the targeted dates of Aug. 14 could have worked, but the club will be traveling to West Virginia that day for joint practices with the Houston Texans at The Greenbrier.

10. Happy birthday, Patriots running back Rex Burkhead. The now-27-year-old former Cincinnati Bengal, wearing Shane Vereen’s old No. 34, is a wild card of sorts in terms of how much the club plans to use him on offense. Burkhead (5-foot-10, 210) should figure prominently into the special-teams mix and then will vie for playing time with Mike Gillislee, James White, Dion Lewis and (assuming he makes the roster) D.J. Foster. I had one NFL assistant coach familiar with Burkhead compare him to Danny Woodhead in terms of style of play.

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