When it comes to the eight Patriots players named to the AFC Pro Bowl squad tonight, it was the last name on the list that stood out most here -- Matthew Slater, who was named to his first Pro Bowl.
What a great story.
When thinking of how far Slater has progressed in his football career, the game that comes to mind was in 2008, a late November clash against the Steelers at Gillette Stadium. It was rainy and cold that day and Slater muffed a kickoff in the third quarter -- the ball bouncing off his facemask for a costly mistake that helped the Steelers expand a 13-10 lead to 20-10 en route to a blowout win.
Slater was a rookie that year and after the game reporters gathered around his locker, waiting to hear his explanation as he stared straight into his locker. Veteran running back Heath Evans walked by at the time and said, "You don't have to answer any of those questions."
But Slater took them all.
He talked about how bad he felt letting the team down. Really, he didn't have to say anything, because anyone around his locker that day could see the hurt on his face.
Slater never emerged as a return man but he's decisively carved out his niche as one of the best coverage players in the NFL, a Larry Izzo-type presence in the kicking game. He also was named a team captain in 2011.
Part of his success comes from how he's responded to adversity, like that rainy day against the Steelers. It only seemed to make him stronger.
I remember when the Patriots selected Slater in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, and he wasn't in any of the scouting books. The Patriots had traded up, giving up fifth- and seventh-round selections, and a lot of the reporters were wondering why the team would be so aggressive for a player who didn't seem to be on the draftniks' radar.
Then there were the times when reporters would make their roster predictions in training camp, and Slater was deemed by some to be on the bubble in 2010, a preseason in which he missed time with injury.
I'm not a big fan of the Pro Bowl or the process, but when it comes to stories like Slater's, I most definitely am.
A few other quick-hit thoughts as all eight Pro Bowl selections, when including Slater, were named starters:
1. Disappointment for Hernandez. Rob Gronkowski (first selection) was a slam dunk for one tight end spot, and the feeling here was that Aaron Hernandez should have had the other. It went to Antonio Gates. Maybe I'm influenced by seeing Gates struggle in a Week 2 loss to the Patriots. I didn't see Gates play much this season, so it's tough to feel real strongly about it, but Hernandez seemed worthy.
2. Strong bounceback for Welker. When receiver Wes Welker (fourth selection) was named to the Pro Bowl last season, he said he'd take it even though it wasn't his best season (he had double-digit drops). There was no doubt this year. Welker has been immense.
3. Belichick's free-agent class. Patriots coach Bill Belichick's personnel evaluation has come under scrutiny in some corners, but he nailed it with defensive end Andre Carter (first selection) and guard Brian Waters (sixth selection). While some national reporters might debate the Pro Bowl selections of Carter and Waters, the fact they were in the discussion reflects highly on Belichick. It was Carter's first Pro Bowl berth in his 11-year career (he won't play because of injury but he still gets credit for the berth).
4. Voters see beyond stats with Wilfork. This season has seen defensive lineman Vince Wilfork's playing time spike considerably and I was curious if he'd be rewarded for the expanded role and top-level performance. The honor, his fourth selection, was well deserved as voters had to see beyond the stats to realize that.
5. Not his best, but Mankins still elite. Logan Mankins (fourth selection) leads the Patriots with eight penalties, and this hasn't seemed like his best season, but the AFC field at guard wasn't considered strong. So even in a year when some might say it wasn't vintage Mankins, he still stands atop the heap.
6. Gronkowski, Brady slam dunks. The signs that Gronkowski was playing at an elite level came early. This was a no-brainer, right there with Tom Brady (seventh selection).