FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Six-time New England Patriots Pro Bowl special-teams player Matthew Slater thought he was going to Bible study on Monday. Instead, he found out in front of teammates and coaches that he was voted by his NFL peers to receive the prestigious Athletes in Action/Bart Starr Award.
The award honors the NFL player who "best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community."
Slater's father, Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater, received the Bart Starr Award in 1996. The Slaters are the first father-son combination to be recognized with the award.
"It was really emotional for me," Slater said Wednesday morning. "I really value the human element of football. I really value the relationships I've made with people over the years. All that stems from the faith I have in God and the way I was raised by my parents.
"I've always tried to keep in perspective that I'm no different than anyone else because I play football. It's just a job. At the end of the day, the connection you make with people, the way you treat people, and the things you try to stand for and believe in, although it may not be perfect at times it's something that is very important to me."
Matthew Slater was named Bart Starr Award winner, for exemplifying character & leadership on and off the field. pic.twitter.com/HwsXLJ1TLL
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 4, 2017
The Patriots' widespread respect for Slater was reflected in how they orchestrated events Monday to surprise him with news that he won the award.
Slater, 31, thought he was going to the team's traditional Monday Bible study led by character coach/team development staffer Jack Easterby, as the time of that had been pushed back a bit from the norm. When Slater arrived, he was surprised to see about 60 people in the room, including coaches.
"I said, 'Man, we're about to have a good Bible study now!" Slater recalled with a chuckle, adding that when he saw televisions cameras from Kraft Sports Productions and another team staffer who wouldn't normally be in the room, something seemed different.
"I didn't know if we were doing playoff edition Bible study for the fans, but I was like, 'This is great,'" Slater relayed.
Easterby then began by reading off a sheet, as he normally would during a traditional Bible study, before his phone rang. Slater thought that was odd, and an older woman's voice was on the line who ultimately "asked for Matt."
Slater said he thought it might be in reference to defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, only to learn it was the wife of Bart Starr, Cherry, asking for him.
"She tells me I win the award. They had the cameras in there, and my allergies started acting up a little bit. Seasonal allergies there," Slater said in a lighthearted reference to tears he shed.
"They set me up pretty good. ... I'm just blown away by it. I really am."