CHICAGO – In a circle of chairs in an upstairs classroom at Foreman High School, Matt Slauson sat back and listened to minority teens go around and share about their struggles in life, his displacement becoming all the more clear.
The 29-year-old bearded Bears offensive lineman had just stepped out of a black truck on monster tires to join a high school therapy session on the city’s North Side. He told them early on how different this felt from home, which he calls a farm in Nebraska, or his hometown, a place in Oregon called Sweet Home that didn’t have a stop light.
Here was a 6-foot-5, 320-pound white football player on a $12.8 million contract, and the kids wanted to know: When have you struggled in your life?
He cleared his throat.
“I have a stu-stutter,” he said, stammering through the word.
And then he told the story.
“I couldn’t even say my own name. When I got to school, obviously, kids picked on me a lot. But that was just normal, I thought. … It’s part of school. But when you’re in it, you feel like nobody else is going through it. You feel like your situation is the hardest.”
Twenty years ago, he sat at the back of a classroom like this, trying to hide. Nobody
likes to be the one called on by the teacher, but Slauson’s agony was furthered by his inability to read by age 11, which extended to a struggle to solve math problems, which spilled over into everything else. Every answer gave kids more ammunition. He wasn’t sure he could do anything, and he was afraid of what would happen when he tried.
And so when a friend asked whether he wanted to join him
at football tryouts, Slauson immediately shook his head no. Eventually, he agreed to watch from the stands.
There, Slauson saw the kids he’d faced at school for years, the ones who called him fat and made fun of his stutter. They were out there running around, playing a game he was afraid to, a game where the objective is to hit people really hard.
“I’m going, ‘Wait, if I try out for this football team, I can get some serious payback,’ ” he recalled to the laughter of the kids. “... All of a sudden, I had a whole lot of friends.”
Slauson shared a quote by Bears coach John Fox on adversity: “Events plus reaction equals outcome.” Adversity happens to everyone, he explained, but your positive or negative response will then decide your positive or negative outcome.
Years ago, his reaction involved football and a fear of not being academically eligible to play it, which led to hours with a teacher, playing catchup on all he’d lost. The outcome was an A-minus average in high school, a scholarship to Nebraska and an NFL career now in its seventh season.
By the time his story finished, the room broke into applause. He’d connected, in a circle where that’s the very goal. The boys were there as a group called “B.A.M.,” which stands for “Becoming a Man.”
It’s an extension of Chicago’s Youth Guidance program, and kids join through referrals by teachers who recognize in them some type of struggle, which can be academic, behavioral, emotional or financial. In a school where 95 percent of students live below the poverty line and combine for an average ACT score five points below the state average, spotting struggle isn’t hard.
Talking about it in a group can be.
“You talk about something like stuttering or something they struggle with, that’s pretty cool for a big, tough football player who these high school boys look up to and worship,” B.A.M. counselor T.J. Jordan said. “… It really reinforces everything we’re teaching the boys.”
Slauson didn’t just talk to the boys. After B.A.M. had its 40-minute circle with him, in came W.O.W., which stands for Working on Womanhood. Between the two groups, the questions ranged from serious to quirky, from how he decides on the right method of leadership to whether he’d choose to stay with the Bears, who are now 0-3, or to leave for another team.
That one drew a pause.
“Well, there’s a lot of things to take into consideration there: First and foremost, I’ve got to make a decision based on what’s best for my family. My wife is actually from around this area, though, so she’s a huge Bears fan. I’m also a huge Bears fan,” said Slauson, who is in the second year of a four-year deal.
“But there may be a situation where I’ve got an opportunity somewhere else and I’d be better set up for my family, so I’d have to consider that, but it would be really hard for me to leave the Bears.”
After that answer, the discussion ended, and the students asked for autographs and selfies, and he gave in to every one. Here was the kid who once couldn’t say his own name, now back in a classroom and doing everything not to hide.