FOXBORO -- When Matthew Slater walked into the Bible study meeting held every Monday at the Patriots facilities, and he was pleasantly surprised to see about 60 people present, including coaches, a camera crew, and vice president of media relations Stacey James.
"Man, we're about to have a good Bible study," Slater thought to himself. "This is going to be good! . . . I don't know if we're doing like a Bible study playoff edition for the fans. This is great!"
Slater then made sure to let team chaplain Jack Easterby know that he better be on his game with such a large crowd in attendance.
When Easterby's phone rang in the middle of the session, Slater was surprised.
"Jack, you gotta tighten up," Slater thought. "We got all these people!"
It was a set-up. The phone was for Slater, and it was Bart Starr's wife, Cherry, on the other end. Slater had been selected by his peers around the NFL as this year's Athletes in Action Bart Starr Award winner, given annually to the player who exemplifies character and leadership on and off the field.
Slater was told that he and his father -- Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jackie Slater, who won the same award in 1996 -- were the first father-son combination to ever earn the honor.
"They had the cameras in there," Slater said, "and my allergies started acting up a little bit."
"It was was really emotional for me," Slater acknowledged Wednesday. "I think you guys know well enough by covering me that 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 that I have in God and the way that I was raised by my parents.
"I'm a man who's far from perfect, but I really feel like the Lord has done a lot of great things in my life. He's working on me as a man, as a husband, as a father. But I've always tried to keep in perspective that I'm no different from anyone else because I play football. It's just a job. But at the end of the day, the connection you make with people, the way you treat people, the things that you try to stand for and believe in . . . To win this award that my dad won . . . it's hard to put into words. It really is."
Slater has been a Patriots captain since 2011 and has been named to the Pro Bowl six times.
Respected as Slater is for his approach to his craft, how he handles his responsibilities inside the team facility and away from it has left his teammates in awe.
"Honestly, it's been an honor to play with him as a teammate and learn from him," said safety Devin McCourty, who was named a captain for the first time back in 2011 as well. "To see how he prepares at a professional level, what he does to take care of his body . . . trying to do little things to get ahead.
"But for me the biggest thing is being a friend. The opportunity to call him a friend and get to know him, his wife, his son, has really blown me away. The amount I've learned from Slate, you can't even explain or write it down on one sheet of paper. He's been a tremedous leader, role model for everybody in the locker room. I think now in his ninth year, you could have said the same thing about him in year four or five. Older guys that were vets came in here, you looked at Slate, you looked to see what he did. Obviously because he's a great player, but [also] because of his character. I think who he is as a person is what always will stick out about him.
"I think for the guys to be a part of him receiving an award, and seeing it, and seeing what it meant for him, it was really cool. Proud of him and happy he got the acknowledgement he's deserved throughout his NFL career and really his whole life. It didn't just start now. [It's an] honor just to play with him and call him a friend."
Slater is a regular when it comes to working with the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation, and he volunteers in various children's ministries throughout the year. In 2013, Slater earned the Ron Burton Community Service Award for his dedication to the community, and back in October he hosted a fundraiser called "Matthew vs. Matthew" to help those impacted by Hurricane Matthew.
Slater will receive the award at the Athletes in Action Super Bowl Breakfast in Houston on Feb. 4, the morning before Super Bowl LI.