Before he cut out for Indianapolis, Eric Dickerson, presumably, cleaned out his closet, his locker and packed his belongings--everything he would need for his new career.
Except for one thing. He forgot to take his right tackle.
Jackie Slater probably wouldn't fit underneath the seat in front of him or in the overhead rack. Jackie goes 6 feet 4 inches and 275 pounds. He is built along the general lines of the battleship Missouri. He looks like something that just arrived escorted by tugboat.
But, if Eric Dickerson misses Jackie Slater--and you can bet he does--there's no evidence Jackie Slater misses Dickerson. I mean, Jackie Slater just knocks down the man in front of him--usually the toughest, meanest thug the opposition has in the lineup--and he creates the holes. What the guy with the ball does is up to him.
You wouldn't be surprised, one of these Sundays, to see Jackie, after plowing a hole through three or more defensemen, look at the ballcarrier in some puzzlement and say: "Wait a minute! Who are you? What happened to that fancy fellow--No. 29--the one with the funny glasses and the loping style? He hurt or something?"
Jackie Slater, you see, is like a master mechanic. He just shows up at the ballpark, drops his tool kit--wrappings, bandages, nose drops for his head cold, a pair of tape cutters, a book to read on the trip home--and he wanders out to the field to see what the job calls for this day.
He looks over the guy he's meant to work on that day--it's usually someone he's been trading nosebleeds and shoulder bruises with for a decade--and decides what the day's work is going to involve, a trap block here, a stunt there, a straight-ahead block here. He's like a plumber sizing up a leak, a sandhog trying to figure out where to put the dynamite.
It doesn't matter to Jackie who's back there with the ball. If he does his job, a girl in a hobble skirt could make a first down.
It's interesting that the people behind Jackie usually become All-Pro, All-American, all-everything. Jackie just becomes, "And what is it you do for a living, Mr. Slater?"
Consider that Walter Payton, no less, used to follow Mr. Slater's massive blocks in college. Walter became Mr. Chicago, the Bears' first-round draft pick. Jackie just waited around while the Rams took their sweet time drafting him--60th or so, third round.
There was no rush. The pros thought Payton just ad-libbed all those college touchdowns.
At the Rams, Jackie could hardly keep track of the guys back there that he had to keep from getting dismembered.
There were quarterbacks such as Shack Harris, who needed too much time to throw; Pat Haden, who had to throw under instead of over people; and Vince Ferragamo, who was as unpredictable as a Tokyo cabbie. And then there were guys such as Bert Jones and Steve Bartkowski and Dieter Brock. Even Joe Namath was back there for a while. Him, Jackie knew.
There were runners such as Lawrence McCutcheon, Wendell Tyler, John Cappelletti, Barry Redden. Some of them hit the holes faster than others. But the holes were always there.
The psychological profile of an offensive lineman in pro football shows that he is 1) protective, 2) stubborn, 3) persistent, 4) loyal, 5) patient, 6) disciplined. He is slow to anger, methodical, painstaking. He is low on ego but cannot be pushed around, the type of man who will be home taking care of the family while the more adventurous types are out there running around, looking for trouble and usually finding it.
An offensive lineman is like a fine watchmaker. He takes pride in his work. If it goes wrong, it reflects on him.
That may be why Jackie Slater, a man of monumental control, came out of character and tried to flatten New York's flamboyant pass rusher Mark Gastineau a few years ago when the Jet ace went into his sack dance over a fallen Ram.
Offensive tackles are usually felt and not heard. But that day, Jackie Slater was both as he went after Gastineau and touched off a bench-clearing brawl in Shea Stadium, scaring half of New York, including Mark Gastineau, into thinking a creature that might eat New York had suddenly come to life.
"It was something I regretted," Slater was saying the other day after an afternoon of impersonal knockdowns of football players from the Atlanta Falcons. "I usually have more control than that."
It was thought that the Indianapolis Colts had made off with the heart of the Rams when they lured Eric Dickerson east last month.
The heart of the Rams is still ticking. Jackie Ray Slater doesn't even turn around to see who's back there to carry the ball. It doesn't really matter whether it's Red Grange or Red Buttons. His function is to knock down Richard Dent or Bruce Clark or Dexter Manley or some other menace to navigation.
That's his job. And Jackie does his job whether it's Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Charlie White or a one-legged man in a black mask playing back there. His job is to turn the line of scrimmage into the fast lane of the Santa Monica freeway on every play.
He does that so well, you can bet the Rams don't miss Dickerson half as much as Dickerson misses Jackie Slater.