(RNS) — Matthew Slater, a wide receiver who was picked 158th in the National Football League’s 2008 draft but went on to win three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, announced his retirement Tuesday (Feb. 20). In typical fashion, he led his announcement with an acknowledgment of his faith.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” Slater said in his retirement announcement, quoting from the New Testament’s Second Letter of Paul to Timothy.

The 38-year-old Slater, whom longtime Patriots coach Bill Belichick once referred to as a “perfect player,” spent 16 seasons with the team, earning the respect of teammates and opponents alike for his excellence on special teams, doing the sometimes anonymous work of covering punts and kickoffs.

His excellence on the field led to predictions that he could one day join his father, Jackie Slater, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Off the field, the younger Slater was praised by teammates, coaches and fans alike for his work as a good citizen in the locker room and in the community.

“I don’t want to make this about me,” he told teammates after his last game. “I just want to say thank you.”

Slater told Religion News Service that he learned as much from losing the Super Bowl in 2011 as from winning the big game three times.

“Our league and our culture put so much into winning and losing and being a champion,” said Slater, who grew up in a nondenominational church and now attends a Reformed-leaning evangelical church. “If you cling to things that are going to fade away ultimately, you’re going to be very, very disappointed. Losing that Super Bowl, yes, it was disappointing. But it allowed me to refocus myself on the things that matter in life.”

Slater, who hopes to attend seminary in the future, spoke to RNS in early February about his career, his faith and his plans for the future. At the time he had not yet announced his retirement. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the ways that faith affected your approach to football? And on the flip side, how did football affect your faith?

Faith is the lens through which I see my life, the world, the relationships I’ve had, my profession. That is something that was rooted in me as a young person and something that I accepted and grew in as I got older. I always saw myself as a Christian who just happened to play football. I always tried to keep in front of me the principles of the gospel: love, peace, forgiveness and kindness.

The Bible tells us to do everything as unto the Lord, so I always worked as hard as I could play in football and anything else in life.

New England Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater speaks with reporters during an NFL football news conference, Tuesday, July 25, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

New England Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater speaks with reporters during an NFL news conference, July 25, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

In terms of how football has impacted my faith — I think football is a great life teacher. You experience the power of teamwork, the power of discipline, the power of relationships, the power of hard work. One of the greatest things I learned was how to deal with adversity. The Bible tells us that life will be filled with adversity. Football was a training ground for that for me.

A few years ago, a writer described you as someone who found glory by doing “inglorious” things and convincing others to join you — referring to your role on special teams, which is not the most glamorous part of the game. Is that accurate?

Being a Christian has taught me that you can find meaning and purpose in the mundane. If you have the right perspective, no matter what you’re doing, you can find joy and you can experience all that life has to offer you. The Bible talks about us being members of the body and everybody has their role. That was something that Coach Bill had preached: Hey, we just need guys to be stars in their role.

That doesn’t mean you don’t work hard and pursue a bigger role on the team, but you can be happy where you are. You can find fulfillment in it, if you have the right perspective. 

 We are in a time where public conversation about religion can be controversial. You’re in a more secular part of the country, yet you have achieved respect in the public eye while still being open about your faith. What do you attribute that to?

The only thing that I’ve tried to do is be authentic. I try to extend people the love of Christ, the grace of Christ. The mercy of Christ. Sometimes we have forgotten how much grace all of us need and receive on a daily basis. When you keep that in the forefront of your mind, it’s hard not to extend the same grace to the people around you.

You have talked about going to seminary when you are done with football. Is there a theological topic that catches your interest?

One thing that I marvel at daily is the grace of God in our lives. When you stop to think about our existence on this earth, it can all be boiled down to the grace of God. 

Teammates and coaches have referred to you as a leader. How does faith affect your leadership style?

The greatest leader who’s ever lived on Earth is Jesus Christ. We write all these books about leadership and run these seminars about leadership. Many of them missed the mark entirely, in my opinion. Leadership is not about ‘Look at me.’ It’s about servanthood. It’s about humility. It’s about learning from people. It’s about doing life with them, getting down in the muck, in the mire with them, and hopefully, on the other side of it, helping them become the best version of themselves.

You have said that football is what you do, but not who you are. What do mean by that?

My vocation has been football, but it doesn’t define who I am. It doesn’t carry the weight of my soul. Only Jesus can do that.

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