CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Starting when he was 12, Matt Slauson taped five index cards to the wall behind his bed. He wrote a specific athletic goal on each one, targets for weight lifting and running. When he hit the number, he replaced the card.
"I can't tell you how many times I heard, 'Dad, we need to make a new card,'" Slauson's father, Rob, recalled.
It was a nonstop cycle of bigger, stronger, faster. Matt Slauson was one of those do-everything kids, but there was one thing he couldn't bench press or outrun. As a young boy, he was diagnosed with a pronounced disfluency -- a fancy term for a severe stuttering problem.
Even now, as the front-runner for the left guard position on the New York Jets, Slauson still stutters. He's OK with that, and the reason is because, a long time ago, he learned to look beyond the index cards. His true inspiration, he figured out, was on the other side of the wall, in the next bedroom.
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On Oct. 3, 1981, Nancy Slauson gave birth to identical twins, Chris and Nick. Chris would go on to become a rocket scientist (quite literally), earning a degree in astronautical engineering from the Air Force Academy. He's an Air Force captain, a C-17 jet pilot who has flown three tours in the Middle East.
Nick suffered a prenatal brain injury. His oxygen was cut off, the placenta calcified and his brain was underdeveloped. One womb, two dramatically different outcomes. But are they really that different?
Overcoming struggles that would defeat many, Nick leads a productive life in Lincoln, Neb. He has a driver's license, a full-time job, a wedding date next month and an indomitable spirit that has galvanized the Slauson family, which also overcame a difficult period 15 years ago when Nancy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. (The disease is in remission.) Nick also happens to be a decorated athlete, the proud owner of 16 state high school swimming titles
"He's the most successful person I've ever met," Matt said during a break at Jets training camp. "He's had a rough go. He's had so many obstacles in his path, but every single day he wakes up with a clean slate. He wants to attack the world and be as successful as he can."
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One brother plays for the Jets, another flies them. Matt and Chris have realized their dreams, and if Matt can nail down a starting job in his second season on arguably the best offensive line in the NFL, he'll be flying above the clouds, just like his older brother.
Matt is a "big, mean dude," according to coach Rex Ryan, and he plays the role well. He's 6-foot-5, 315 pounds of rock, with a shaved head, a bushy beard, tattoos across his upper body and an intense look on his face. Give him some black leather, and he'd look perfect on a Harley. But beneath the tough-guy image is a sense of vulnerability, apparent whenever he speaks.
At times, it's difficult for Slauson. Always has been. Even though he was always the biggest kid in school, he was teased because of his stuttering. His grandfather also stuttered, but he became a judge and it never was an issue once he put on his robes and stepped into a courtroom. Likewise, Slauson doesn't struggle around teammates, but it surfaces in unfamiliar settings, such as when he's talking to the media.
"There are days when it's tough," he said. "It's been real frustrating. Sometimes I can't even say anything, stumbling and stammering. It just sucks. But I look at my brother and see what he has to deal with every day, and how successful he is. He doesn't even worry about it. I'm not going to hide it. I just go about my business and be like him."
Nick struggled in school, especially with computation and writing. He speaks clearly, but maybe a hint slower than normal. As a child, he tried to play team sports, but it was hard for him to understand the various strategies.
"I could hear some people snickering," said his father, a school principal in Lincoln.
Nick was playing water polo as a freshman when the swimming coach noticed his smooth, powerful stroke. Actually, he learned to swim before he could walk, thanks to his mother, a competitive swimmer and a sprinter who once was invited to the U.S. Olympic trials. So Nick tried out for the swim team, the coach promising his parents he'd take care of him.
Turns out Nick took care of the team. He became a star, dominating the state championships in Oregon (the family's home before Lincoln). He captured 16 titles over four years, teaming up with Chris to shatter state records in relay events.
"All his special-education teachers said he'd never play sports with regular kids," Matt said. "They said things would be too intense for him, too fast."
The only thing too fast was Nick.
"It was very hard for me at times but I think I've done amazing things," said Nick, displaying an athlete's swagger -- the kind of 'tude that would fit in nicely on his little brother's team.
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Nick overachieved in everything, not just swimming. His teachers said he'd never be able to get a driver's license. Undaunted, he passed the test for a learner's permit. That's awesome, his parents told him.
Three months later, Nick came home with his license, taking the driving test without telling his parents.
Awesome, they said again, never wanting to discourage him.
Naturally, they figured the whole driving thing would end there, but Nick bought a used car on his own and started tooling around town. Currently, he's driving for a moving company in Lincoln.
You see, Nick had his own goals, not on index cards, but in his heart. On Sept. 3, he will be married in the Nebraska state capitol, another milestone in a remarkable journey.
"He's kicking fanny and taking names," said Rob Slauson, who could've easily been talking about his football-playing son.
Matt, who started for three-plus years on the Nebraska offensive line, will make his first professional appearance Monday night against the New York Giants. He was supposed to be a stopgap at left guard, holding the spot until second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse is ready, but Slauson isn't conceding to anyone.
That's not in his DNA. That's not how Nick would do it. Matt Slauson is trying to keep pace with, as he put it, the most successful person he's ever met. Told his little brother described him that way, Nick replied, "That makes me feel awesome. It definitely brings a tear to my eye."
Those eyes will be in front of the TV on Monday night, glued to No. 68 on the offensive line. Nick will make a DVD of the game and add it to his collection. He owns a DVD of every game in Matt's career, dating to junior high school. He adds music to each one, making it feel like a highlight video.
Nick Slauson has a way of making everything -- and everyone -- better.