ANAHEIM — "Jackie Slater is proof that they were playing football in prehistoric days. I've seen the calluses on his feet where he used to have to stop his car like Fred Flintstone." --Ram quarterback Jim Everett Jackie Slater smiles, nods and says he considers those sorts of remarks a form of tribute. The 14-year veteran offensive tackle often calls himself "a dinosaur" and recalls with great pride the time cornerback Darryl Henley showed him his own signature, an autograph Henley got when he was eight years old.
"Old Man River."
"I'm old, but you're ancient."
Slater has heard them all. But don't think for a minute that anybody in a Ram uniform is eagerly awaiting the day when the 36-year-old Slater slips from view into the tar pits of retirement. Especially that tall, good-looking young man who faces the wrath of a legion of antisocial quarterback chasers with the disposition of ax murderers.
During Slater's recent 28-day holdout, Jim Everett kept saying, "We need Jackie here." He really meant, " I need Jackie here."
"You're talking to a quarterback who was minus an All-Pro tackle," Everett said. "It's obvious I'm going to say we need him back, from a personal safety standpoint alone. But there are a lot of intangibles, too.
"He gives us leadership, experience and personality. He brings the stability of a man who's been through a lot. He's still out there fighting and scratching like the rest of us, but there's this aura around Jackie."
Slater says there's nothing all that mystical about it. It's just that he's been watching out for the guys who line up behind him for what seems like a lifetime or two and he's knows what it takes. In college, he was creating holes for Walter Payton. During his first year with the Rams, he was keeping people away from a rookie quarterback named Pat Haden. Now, he's holding off the charge so players such as Everett, Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson can make their weekly appearances on those Sunday evening highlight shows.
Slater's like the tide. There will be highs and lows, but you can depend on him to be there. He might not be the source of any great sensationalism, but that's just the way Everett and Co. like it.
"I've learned that the ups and downs in offensive line play go from one play to the next," Slater said. "You can get excited about one jubilant moment on one play and then the next play can be one of your most embarrassing moments.
"I try to maintain an even keel and not get too excited about the highs and not too down with the lows. I think that mentality is the cornerstone of the emotional outlook of an offensive lineman who's looking for stability."
If you're looking for consistency, then look up Slater. He was named to his sixth Pro Bowl in seven years after last season.
None of this should imply that Slater's job is just a routine that somehow has gotten easier over the years, however. Anyone who's watched a recent NFL game knows something about the size, speed and skill of the current crop of defensive linemen.
Ram Coach John Robinson has seen more than his share of these people in action and, frankly, he's downright impressed with Slater's achievements, given his, uh, advanced age. He says he has as much respect for Slater as he's ever had for an athlete.
"I think you have to look at individual people in terms of their age," Robinson said. "Jackie's a person who defies some of the normal things. About five years ago, he started intensifying workouts and becoming really obsessed with his physical well-being, much like Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) did with the Lakers.
"He might be more vulnerable to age if he were playing in a position where he had to play in space, but he doesn't, so I think offensive linemen have an advantage there. Sometimes, speed just goes and you just can't run anymore and that's what takes a lot of people out of this game. Speed is not not one of the key requirements of his position, though. Balance, savvy, body mass, leg strength to move that body mass in a confined area, those are the key things.
"Age is a factor, of course, but because of his interest in his physical well-being, he's made it less of a factor."
If Slater plays 16 games in each of the next two seasons, he'll finish with 226 appearances. At the moment, he trails only Merlin Olsen (208), Charlie Cowan (206), Jack Youngblood (202) and Joe Scibelli (202) in games played on the Rams' all-time list. In 1991, he would establish a Ram mark for seasons played with 16.
Slater, however, is much more than just an old-time hanger-on with a chance at setting a couple of longevity records. He remains one of the best offensive tackles in the game.
"I feel very fortunate, blessed, to still be playing and competent at my age," he said. "The most gratifying and rewarding thing is to not only still be playing, but to still be making a big contribution to the success of the team."