Slater excelled as Rams’ lineman

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 4, 2003

“It helped me develop quite a bit. I had two hall of famers on that defensive line,” Slater said of the Rams’ practices. “In Merlin’s 15th year, he wasn’t himself but he was still competitive. He was a still a guy you could learn from … It wasn’t like you were going to practice and walking through it.”

Slater became a full-time starter in 1979, and was one of only two linemen to start every game that season. Despite the injuries, the Rams’ line allowed only 29 sacks and helped the team lead the league in offense.

The Rams won the NFC West with a 9-7 record and beat Dallas and Tampa Bay to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.

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In Super Bowl XIV, the Rams faced the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Steelers and actually led in the fourth quarter. A late rally by Pittsburgh ended Los Angeles’ upset dreams, however, as the Steelers won 31-19.

“The Super Bowl was a great thrill,” Slater said. “It was a struggle getting there, and to play the Steelers and have the lead with 11 minutes left only to have it slip away was disappointing.”

Given the Rams’ run of success, as well as the addition of hall of fame running back Eric Dickerson in the early 1980s who Slater said was the best pro running back he ever blocked for Slater thought Super Bowl XIV would be the first of many chances at football’s biggest prize.

Instead, it was the first in a string of disappointing endings for Slater and the Rams.

Throughout the 1980s, Slater piled up individual honors. He was selected to seven Pro Bowls and a slew of All-NFC and All-NFL teams. He also helped Dickerson set the single-season rushing yardage record in 1984.

All the while, the Rams were one of the strongest teams in the NFL. They reached the playoffs six times from 1983-89, and advanced to the NFC title game twice. Both times, though, they ran into some of the best teams in NFL history.

In 1985, the Rams beat Dallas to move into the championship game against Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears. The Bears had arguably the best defense in NFL history, and shut out the Rams 24-0 on a cold, snowy day at Soldier Field.

“We felt like we matched up with them well. We didn’t see anything about the Bears that was impenetrable,” Slater said. “As it turned out, (quarterback) Dieter Brock wasn’t able to get the ball up the field and we couldn’t move the ball … It was a big disappointment for all of us.”

In 1989, Slater had the best game of his career in a first-round playoff win over Philadelphia. He shut down Eagles’ defensive lineman Reggie White as the Rams rolled to a 21-7 win.

“It was probably the one game I remember most. I was playing against probably the most dominating defensive player in the last century, it was on national TV, and it was being documented play-by-play by a guy who knows offensive linemen better than anybody, John Madden,” Slater said.

The Rams beat the Giants 19-13 in overtime the next week to move into the NFC Championship game for the second time in five years. The run ended there, though, as the San Francisco 49ers pummeled Los Angeles 30-3 to reach Super Bowl XXIV.

The game marked the end of an era for the Rams, and the beginning of the end for Slater.

Age and injuries began to take their toll on the Rams, and they wouldn’t make the playoffs again in Los Angeles. The team moved to St. Louis in 1995, and had some of the worst seasons in its history during the 1990s. Not until quarterback Kurt Warner led the team to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000 did the Rams return to the glory of the 1970s and 80s.

“After we lost to the 49ers, our football team kind of disintegrated,” Slater said. “It’s like now, when you see a team that puts everything into one year to try to win it all.”

Slater, meanwhile, began to suffer injuries of his own. He set the NFL record for games played as an offensive lineman in 1993, but missed eight weeks of that season with a torn pectoral muscle.

More injuries followed in 1994 as Slater moved up the NFL’s career list for games played, and in 1995 he started against Carolina to become the first player in NFL history to play 20 seasons with one team.

The first season for the Rams in St. Louis was Slater’s last with the team. He retired at the end of the season and went into broadcasting, leaving behind an astounding 20-year career in which he played in 259 games fourth on the all-time list and protected 23 different quarterbacks and 37 different running backs. Seven of those running backs posted 1,000-yard seasons. Five years later, he was selected for enshrinement in Canton alongside his former practice partner, Youngblood.

It wasn’t until late in his career, and then at the podium in Canton, that Slater let himself believe he had made his mark in the NFL.

“I knew I was playing solid football, but I never thought I had arrived,'” Slater said. “I never saw myself as a very special guy, just a guy who had equipped himself with all the tools necessary to do my job on the field.”