Game Changer

by Joe Reinsch

Widely regarded in football circles as one of the greatest offensive linemen in history, Jackie Slater, M.A. ’14, saw his 20-year professional career culminate in his election to the National Football League (NFL) Hall of Fame.

Following retirement from the NFL, Slater tried various new roles, looking for meaningful work as a broadcaster, offensive line coach for the Oakland Raiders, offensive line coach for his son’s team at Saddleback College, and even local high school coach. But none fully satisfied Slater’s drive to find a place where his vast knowledge and experience could make its greatest impact.

Then Victor Santa Cruz called. The Azusa Pacific head football coach needed a new offensive line coach and reached out to Slater, a family friend of former Cougar running back and current assistant coach Ben Buys. Finally, this felt like the right fit. “Once I made the decision to work with college athletes, it invigorated me,” said Slater. “I know what it takes for an offensive lineman to be a problem solver. I teach these guys a skill set to help them realize their dreams.”

The return to coaching came with an added bonus—APU’s Master of Arts in Leadership program. At a time when brain injuries and concussions in football garner intense media scrutiny, Slater sought to sharpen his mental focus. “This program was a perfect fit for me because it challenged me intellectually and kept my brain engaged, making me a more productive coach,” said Slater.

The program also reshaped Slater’s view of Christian leadership and his approach to coaching. “We talk about building warrior men, and Jackie’s the perfect example. The way he applies himself raises everybody around him to a new level,” said Santa Cruz. “He’s developed a deep friendship with our coaching staff; I can’t imagine him not being here. Working with him, I’m a better man, and it encourages me to see what a mature man of God looks like.”

Slater made an immediate impact on APU’s football program. In his first year, the offensive line led the way for APU’s most productive single season of rushing offense, leading to a 9-3 campaign and its first playoff victory since 2004. Slater’s protégé, 6’ 9”, 322-pound offensive tackle Luke Marquardt ’13, who garnered the attention of NFL scouts in spring 2013 after rebounding from injury, wasn’t alone in reaping the benefits of his tutelage.

Slater’s expertise paid off after he lost Marquardt to a training camp injury and his left tackle replacement to a season-ending injury in the first game. For a position group that functions best with continuity and familiarity, those gaps could have crippled an already-challenging adjustment to a full NCAA Division II schedule. Instead, it opened the door for established veterans like Tim Taylor ’13 and Robby Palacios ’13, who flourished under Slater and helped the Cougars rally to a strong finish with a four-game winning streak. Palacios earned all-conference first-team recognition, becoming the first Azusa Pacific lineman to earn that distinction. The NFL legend relishes the opportunity to impact young players like Palacios and Marquardt, who signed a free-agent contract with the San Francisco 49ers last spring.

Slater’s passion not only develops exceptional players, but it also contributes to his academic success. Professors and colleagues point to his humility and eagerness to learn from others. “Jackie is one of a kind,” said Anita Henck, Ph.D., dean of the School of Education, who taught one of Slater’s first courses in the program, Foundations of Christian Leadership. “He became an important presence in the classroom. The depth of his thinking was evident as he reframed some of his prior professional experiences with a new understanding. He made an imprint on other students and faculty.”

Slater sees it the other way around. “I will remain forever grateful for the opportunities APU provided me. Through the master’s program in organizational leadership, one of my most rewarding and wonderful experiences, I learned firsthand about how the foundational principles of leadership truly center on Christ,” Slater said.

Regardless of how the game changes—player to coach, teacher to student—Slater remains the ultimate game changer, developing world-class athletes, elevating the standard of leadership, and transforming the game of football by mentoring Christian warrior men who will impact the world through their faith, on and off the field.

Originally published in the Winter '13 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.