As Matt Slauson signed his free-agent contract with Chicago, about all he had guaranteed was roughly one-third of his salary and a place to go.
The rest was up to him.
“They told me right from the get-go that nothing was going to be given to me and that I’d have to earn everything,” said the former Nebraska offensive lineman. “I didn’t mind that challenge at all. It’s what I’ve been dealing with for the last four years, so I don’t shy away from that.”
Slauson already has scratched out more of an NFL career than maybe even he would have imagined as a sixth-round draft pick by the Jets in 2009.
The 6-foot-5, 315-pounder started all 16 games each of the last three seasons and 51 overall in New York, as well as three AFC playoff games. His value was great enough that he had some choices last winter as his contract expired.
Slauson said he’s simply gotten a lot of good breaks. One was Bill Callahan being willing to take a chance on him when the former Husker head coach was the Jets’ assistant head coach and offensive line coach in 2009.
“I feel really blessed,” Slauson said. “I never thought I’d be in this position, and it’s a dream come true for me. I had enough coaches wanting to take a shot on me that it’s kept me in it this long, and I’m very grateful to all of them.”
Slauson and the Bears open the regular season Sunday at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. He won the starting job at left guard and will try to be a steady force for a line that will feature rookie starters at both right guard and right tackle.
He signed a one-year contract in April, with a $100,000 bonus but only $200,000 of his base salary of $715,000 guaranteed.
But even before he puts on a Bears uniform for the first time in a regular-season game at Soldier Field, he’ll have a good feel for what the legendary franchise is all about.
“I’ve been so impressed with the professionalism and the work ethic of this whole organization, top to bottom,” Slauson said. “I think it’s just the culture that’s been built here over time.
“The great thing about this place is everybody recognizes that we’re all here for the same reason. We’re here to win. We’re here to win a lot. We’re not here for ourselves, but here for one thing — and that’s ultimately to be winning championships.”
Slauson grew up in Oregon but “just by happenstance” started following the Bears as a kid. He loved watching Chicago teams go against Green Bay and quarterback Brett Favre.
Some of the blue-collar history associated with the Bears aligns well with his own style and personality, and Slauson said it just felt right as he put on the iconic Chicago jersey and helmet.
“It was great, to be a part of such a storied franchise here, and just to know who’s been in that locker room and on that field,” he said. “A lot of greats, a lot of championships, and now it’s really awesome to be a part of it.”
Chicago will rely on an offense that includes Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. The line will need to do its part to make it go.
“We’ve got some serious weapons and a quarterback that can throw it all over the field,” Slauson said. “So as an offensive line, we have to make sure we’re giving all those guys the opportunity to make all those plays.”
The Bears are seen as the Packers’ biggest threat in the NFC North, instantly thrusting Slauson into a divisional race that he can’t wait to get started. It probably wouldn’t have been the same in New York, where the Jets have bumbled recently instead of challenging New England in the AFC East.
Slauson takes no joy in seeing the decline of the franchise that launched his NFL career, and he actually left open the option of re-signing with the Jets because of the relationships he had formed.
“I got really close with a lot of those guys, and I wish them the best,” he said. “But I’m extremely happy to be with the Bears. We’re heading in a great direction here.”