Matt Slauson retired from football Wednesday. And, of course, I thought about stuttering. My stutter.
I’ve followed Slauson’s career since he left Nebraska in 2008, was drafted by the New York Jets in 2009 and continued a 10-year career at guard with the Bears, Chargers and the Colts. He’s always been one of my favorites, and it had less to do with his blocking ability and more to do with our relationship and the incredible debt I’ll always owe him.
We’re both stutterers. At least Matt was — I haven’t spoken to him in a while, and he may have kicked its tail just like all those defensive linemen. If he didn’t, no big deal. That was a big deal to me.
I have some bad memories of stuttering — stuff from childhood — laughing, awkwardness, shyness, all that. I should say I had bad memories. Finally, somebody put me at ease with the thing. But it wasn’t all those speech teachers I had. It was a big guy named Matt Slauson.
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Stuttering always had an impact on my life, whether I wanted to admit it. I would try to take shortcuts when I spoke, cut out words I knew would be like high hurdles to jump. As I got older, I stuttered less, but there were still moments, serious enough that I would never ask questions at Nebraska press conferences in front of the whole group.
The pinnacle of my stuttering life came in December 2000 at the ESPN College Football Awards show. I was president of the Football Writers Association of America, and it was my job to introduce the Outland Trophy winner live on ESPN.
To say I was nervous was an understatement. I mentioned to one of the producers that I stuttered and he said, “Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.” Yeah, right.
They had a lengthy script for me to read off a teleprompter before I said the winner’s name. We had a walk-through rehearsal earlier in the day, and it took awhile for me to get through the script. That afternoon, I came up with a plan: I would call an audible and condense the script to a sentence I could read, then say the winner’s name and hope I didn’t pass out.
I felt like I had chickened out, but the relief at doing my shortcut and avoiding a scene wiped out any regrets.
It wasn’t until eight years later I felt that regret.
It was after the Nebraska-Colorado game in 2008,
the Alex Henery game-winner and Ndamukong Suh interception in Bo Pelini’s first season. They brought seniors up front to talk. One of them was Slauson, who had never been up front before.
Slauson was a good quote — it just took awhile to get the quotes out. Who cares? Not him.
Big Matt must have spent about 15 minutes answering all the questions and taking his sweet time with the answers, stuttering and sputtering. His face would twist a bit, as we do. But he kept on going, like he didn’t care, like nobody in the room cared. And if they did, he didn’t care that they cared.
I winced during some of his moments and looked around the room at the media — the writers, TV reporters and camera guys — and the NU officials in the back of the room. Some of his teammates were hanging around, too. I thought for sure some would laugh or smirk or carry on like school kids.
None did. Not one.
It was as if they were talking with Suh or Henery or Joe Ganz. There was total professionalism in the air, but more than that, there was an atmosphere of complete normalcy. Everyone was at ease.
So why wasn’t I?
It was then I realized I was the worst culprit in the room. But guilt soon transformed into joy. I didn’t have to worry about what others think.
I mean, you always said that it didn’t matter. But here was a giant interview room of proof. Nobody was focused on the stuttering, they were focused on the message.
That moment was an awakening for me, and to this day I still feel it like it was yesterday. I’ve taken a whole new approach ever since. To say it changed my life is an understatement.
It’s funny, because earlier in that week I interviewed Slauson, and we talked about stuttering and growing up with it. It made for a good column. But then I felt a different connection with Slauson after his press conference.
We kept in touch after that. A few months later, I asked if he could speak to a group of middle- schoolers with speech impediments I was mentoring in Omaha. Slauson agreed, and you could see on the kids’ faces what a difference the big man made on their lives.
I’ve never told Matt my story about his press conference, though. I never really thanked him. I don’t know what Slauson will do now, but I know he will do some good, he’ll have an impact. If he ever comes back to Nebraska, I’m going to thank him.
And I promise, no shortcuts.