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Before he was the starting left guard of the Chicago Bears, Matt Slauson was an overweight kid in elementary school, which “made for an obvious target.” There was also something else that made him an obvious target for bullies, something that would make him run home from school crying.
He was always aware of his stuttering, even from an early age. Slauson was picked on and bullied growing up – “everyone knows that kids are ruthless” – and as a large kid with a speech impediment he said bullies seemed to naturally find him. There were times he'd come home in tears to his mother's arms, asking her, “Why am I fat? Why am I dumb?”
One autumn day in fifth grade, he walked by one of the town fields in Sweet Home, Ore. when he was stopped by the head coach of the local team. He was asked by the coach if, based solely on his size, if he'd be willing to play football. The thought instantly appealed to him.
“I definitely used it to my advantage to get a little revenge on a lot of those kids – a lot of those kids were the jocks, the athletes," Slauson told Yahoo Sports. "The majority of them played football. The reason I went out for football and I was never pushed into football at all was when I had the coach come up to me and say, 'We should have you out there, you're a big kid. You can help us.' At the time I wasn't really sure. Then I found out who was on the team, I knew I was going out to play football. I was going to get a chance to finally hit those kids who made fun of me.
“The bullying stopped pretty quick after I started playing football. It made everything right, it made everything OK. The kids who were picking on me, they became my teammates. Then they became my friends.”
The effect of football went far beyond the social setting for Slauson, who had other struggles beyond being picked on and bullied.
Growing up with a speech impediment, he said his development in the classroom was stunted. Teachers growing up would get frustrated with him when trying to teach him how to read. He'd get told “go sit in the corner and read this book.” He spent the first few years of school unable to read.
But in fifth grade, at the same time he started playing football, a teacher started to spend some extra time with him.
“That's when it all began," said Slauson, who has started 64 consecutive games over the last four years and signed a four-year, $12.8 million deal with Chicago last year. "When I was really young in school, I found a way to fake it. I kept quiet and kind of hid in the back. On tests and multiple choice, I'd circle things. I didn't know what the words were. But in fifth grade when I started playing football and that teacher found out I couldn't read, it all came together.”
The causes of stuttering are unknown. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, it is believed that the trait is passed down genetically but as for what creates stuttering, that is unknown to researchers at this time.
In the NFL, Slauson isn't alone.
Cornerback Ellis Lankster had the locker next to Slauson last year when they were teammates with the New York Jets, and he stutters as well. He remembers hearing Slauson do an interview and noticing the stuttering. After the reporters went away, he went over to the offensive lineman and held out his hand and simply said, “I heard you stutter. I stutter too.”
But in a practice or a game setting, it would seem that stuttering could be a liability. In an NFL setting, often in a hostile environment with crowd noise, communication is a key. For a player like Slauson, that means calling out his checks and pointing out potential blitzes and coverage schemes. Lankster has to make sure he communicates effectively from one end of the field to the other sideline, all with the opposing crowd making noise to disrupt the offense.
One misstep, one word that doesn't come out right, and it could be a broken play and potentially six points on the board for the other team.
“I've never had one issue with it. Not in practice, not in games,” Lankster said. “Not once. It happens so fast, we use hand signals and yell. It happens so quickly, you can't even stop to think if you're stuttering. It just happens.”
Lankster continues to take lessons to work on his stuttering, including work and drills on his own time. As for Slauson, those lessons ended once he was in college.
“It was sort of an epiphany that I had in college when I had to get up in front of the media for the first time,” Slauson said. “And that's when I decided that this is who I am. I don't really work on it anymore. As long as I can do the things I need to do for my job, then there is really no reason for me to fix it. It's been a part of me for so long.”
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Kristian R. Dyer covers the Jets for Metro New York and also contributes to Yahoo Sports. He can be followed for news and random tweetings on Twitter @KristianRDyer