The sign in the lot outside the Los Angeles Rams' training
complex in Anaheim read RESERVED PARKING FOR J. SLATER. Neat,
dignified, British style, first initial, last name. Nothing
cute, like "Jackie," with perky quotation marks. Just a reminder
that Slater, a 41-year-old offensive tackle who has worn the
Rams' livery for each of his 19-going-on-20 years in the NFL,
deserves his own slot in the lot.
Time ran out on that particular parking space on June 23, when
16 moving vans and two flatbed trucks laden with football
paraphernalia rolled away toward the Rams' new home in St.
Louis. Time might be running out on J. Slater too. "I sure hope
not," the Rams' pro personnel director, Jack Faulkner, says.
"You should see the hours he puts in. He's been [working out]
four days a week, every week, since the season ended. No one's
been working harder than he has. I'd sure like to see him get
that 20th year in."
Whether he will or not depends on the state of his left arm.
Slater tore the triceps muscle in that arm last October, somehow
finished the season and then had surgery in January. He attended
the Rams' minicamps in April, May and June, but after age 40
rehab is slow. "He'll go at his own pace," says the Rams' new
coach, Rich Brooks. "If we feel he'll be ready at some point in
training camp, then he'll be in our plans."
Forty-one years old. An age reserved for a few kickers and a
creaking quarterback or two, not for players down in the pits
slugging it out. O.K., Cleveland Brown and Minnesota Viking
defensive end Jim Marshall lasted until he was almost 42, but to
this day no one can figure out how he did it. Slater already has
tied Marshall's record for longevity with one club, and next
year he could tie him for NFL longevity among linemen. And the
year after that....
"Whoa, hold on," Slater says. "I take pride in still being able
to perform at a high level, but I'd like to leave the game in
one piece. I'd like to be able to play with my kids. Everything
depends on how soon I get full strength back in my arm."
How has he lasted so long? What's the secret? "I could say it's
all the hours of film I've watched or the thousands of pounds
I've lifted," he replies. "But, in reality, I've been blessed."
One looks for more tangible answers. Obviously, Slater had the
size, strength and speed, as well as the mental agility, to be a
first-rate lineman. But there are plenty of terrific players
with similar attributes who last just five or six years. It's
"My job description is helper," Slater says, "and I've always
accepted the fact that my role would always be supportive." Ask
him what he dislikes most in a player, and he'll say, "Two
things. When a teammate refuses to take responsibility for a
loss and he starts to blame others, and when a player is so
arrogant, so egotistical, that he won't give anyone else credit
for his success."
Gerald Ford was President when Slater was drafted in the third
round out of Jackson State in 1976. Slater has blocked for 23
Ram quarterbacks, among them James Harris, only the second black
man to start at quarterback in NFL history; Joe Namath, who came
from the New York Jets as a savior and lasted four games; Dieter
Brock, who brought a whole bunch of fancy statistics down from
Canada and made it through one season; and Vince Ferragamo and
Pat Haden and Jeff Kemp and Ron Jaworski. Slater has opened
holes for 36 Ram running backs; the big boppers have been Eric
Dickerson and now Jerome Bettis.
Slater has seen the Rams decline from perennial division champs
to doormat, but his commitment has not wavered. He has spent
almost as much time at the Rams' practice facility as the
"His second home," says his wife, Annie.
"Whatever time of year it is, that's where I call when I want to
reach Jackie," Ram line coach Jim Erkenbeck says. "He's not in
Hawaii. He's not in Cancun. He's not in Las Vegas."
Walter Payton, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career with the
Chicago Bears, was one of the first to recognize the work ethic
that lifted Slater from the ranks of the merely big and talented
to a higher level. "I was coming off my freshman year at Jackson
State," Payton says. "All they were talking about was this big
tackle here in town, in Jackson, at Wingfield High--6'4-1/2", 285
pounds, agile, great basketball player. They sent me to his
house to pay a visit. He only lived five minutes away from the
"Of course a lot of my interest was selfish. Nothing better than
recruiting another good offensive lineman. He was not at all
cocky, always seeking information, kind of amazed at everything
that happened. And dedicated. You could tell that right away."
Slater's father, John, worked at a Hertz facility. His mother,
Bessie, stayed home and raised five boys. Jackie was the oldest
and the first member of the Slater family to participate in
"They began busing white kids into our school, Jim Hill High,"
he says. "They had a rough time. Then in my junior year they
bused the black kids over to Wingfield. There were six of us on
the team. My first day at practice I got into two fights, normal
football fights, but they just added to the edginess of the
"Actually the black kids mixed in a lot better on the football
field than they did in school. You always felt the pressure. I
know black kids who were completely driven out of school."
The all-black Southwest Athletic Conference schools fell all
over themselves trying to recruit Slater. Ole Miss and
Mississippi State didn't bother. He chose Jackson State because
it was so close to home.
For a while he thought he'd made a terrible mistake. Basketball
was out; the football coaches had decreed Slater to be a
one-sport athlete. So was defense, which he loved. The coaches
had decided he would be an offensive lineman, following in the
tradition of his teammates Leon Gray and Emanuel Zanders, both
of whom would go on to long, rewarding careers in the NFL.
"I decided I'd foil the coaches' plan by messing up so bad on
offense that they'd have to shift me over to defense," Slater
says. "But then I'd be in the huddle, and Zanders would be
explaining something to me, and he was so intense, so into it,
that I figured I can't let a guy like this down."
Slater stuck for good on offense, went on to earn some
postseason honors after his senior year and attracted the
attention of the Rams. The team was made for him. Its tradition
of formidable offensive linemen was a long and proud one. The
Rams were in the middle of a run of 25 years of sending at
least one offensive lineman, and sometimes as many as four, to
the Pro Bowl. Chuck Knox, in his first go-round as the L.A.
coach, had made a name for himself a decade earlier as the Jets'
young, innovative offensive line coach, teaching the then new
technique of using the hands in pass blocking. Offensive linemen
were his babies, but by 1975 the Rams' front wall had gotten
old. Slater, with his size and speed, was a logical draft pick
for Los Angeles, but he was so raw that it took him four seasons
to become a starter.
"Joe Greene in the 1976 College All-Star Game was my welcome to
the NFL," he says. "I started cutting him, hitting him around
the shins and calves, to take him out of his game. He said,
'Listen, Slater, this is the All-Star Game. Chill it, O.K?' I
figured, I've got him now. So I tried to cut him again, and I
fell flat on my face. Then I felt a tug on my shoulder pad. It
was Joe, helping me up. I got halfway up, and--boom, boom--two
knees to the chest. I didn't cut him anymore.
"I remember facing Harvey Martin when we played the Dallas
Cowboys in an exhibition game my first year. We went for it on
one fourth-and-six play. I took one step out of my stance, and
Harvey was by me and sacking Pat Haden. Chuck Knox came out to
meet me before I even reached the bench, in my face, screaming.
My second year we played the San Diego Chargers in an
exhibition, and Fred Dean hit me so hard I thought he'd broken
"I came in for Doug France in an exhibition in 1977 against the
San Francisco 49ers, and Cedrick Hardman took me to school. I
remember going down to this restaurant in Los Angeles, Fiddlers
Three, with Annie afterward and hearing these guys talking. They
had heavy European accents, and one of them said, 'I cannot
believe the man the Rams put in for France. I cannot remember
his name, but he was nothing but a swinging gate.'"
The gate stopped swinging, and Slater got the starting job, for
keeps, in 1979. The season ended with a heroic individual
performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl.
"I'd faced L.C. Greenwood, with those gold shoes, and I'd played
well," says Slater. He kept the Steeler All-Pro sackless that
day, but the game ended in a disappointing 31-19 loss.
It wasn't until 1983 that Slater earned his first of seven Pro
Bowl trips. And the incident that might have triggered his
selection was the most bizarre Slater ever was involved in on a
football field: Rams vs. Jets, Sept. 25, Shea Stadium. It was
the era of the New York Sack Exchange and Mark Gastineau, who
loved to perform his infamous sack dance after decking the
opposing quarterback. Gastineau got past Slater, leveled
Ferragamo and began to bugaloo.
"I got caught up, I reacted," Slater says. Much has been written
about Slater's retaliation; it has been called everything from a
lethal wallop to a mugging. In reality it was a two-handed push,
that's all. Gastineau regained his balance and resumed his dance
before he realized what had happened. Then he struck a fighting
pose, and a melee ensued. Slater, who was engulfed by several
Jets, got many letters, almost all of them favorable, including
one from Los Angeles Raider tackle Bruce Davis, who told him,
"You struck a blow for all of us."
Now, thousands of blows later, it's winding down, leaving Slater
to ponder other opponents, other confrontations. It got him
thinking about which of the gladiators he would invite to a
party to celebrate this special career.
"Oh, man, how can I name them all?" he says. "You'll make twice
as many enemies among the people you leave off. Reggie White, of
course. He was perhaps the best all-around player I faced. And
Howie Long, the ultimate professional, always looking for an
edge. And our own Sean Gilbert, and George Martin, the old New
York Giants' defensive end. Strictly a class act. And Too Tall
Jones of the Cowboys, always a chess match between us, always a
battle of wits, and Tommy Hart, and the old Detroit Lion, Dave
Pureifory, the Tasmanian Devil, remember him? And here's a guy
you'd never think of ... an old widebody from the Giants, a guy
you just couldn't block out of a play, Curtis McGriff. And
Cedrick Hardman and Fred Dean and my teammate Jack Youngblood.
Oh, hell, there are just too many."
"Put this in about Jackie Slater, O.K?" Payton says. "Of all the
people I played with or against, he'd be one of the first three
I'd pick if I were starting a team."
High praise. For J. Slater it fits.
THE NFL'S SURVIVORS
George Blanda QB 26 340
Bears, Oilers, Raiders 1949-75
Earl Morrall QB 49ers, Steelers, 21 255
Lions, Giants, Colts, Dolphins 1956-76
Jim Marshall DE 20 282
Browns, Vikings 1960-79
Jackie Slater T 19 258
Len Dawson QB 19 211
Steelers, Browns, Texans, Chiefs 1957-75
Jim Hart QB 19 201
Cardinals, Redskins 1966-84
Jan Stenerud K 19 263
Chiefs, Packers, Vikings 1967-85