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“We knew it was gonna happen”: Rashawn Slater’s journey from Sugar Land to the top of the Big Ten

Even being a member of a mediocre program long eluded Northwestern’s star left tackle. Now, he’s at the core of a winning one.

Rashawn Slater spent his high school career overachieving.

On a Northwestern team full of Texas natives, many of whom led some of the state’s most accomplished and respected programs on remarkable playoff runs and to unforgettable championship games, Slater is an anomaly.

Paddy Fisher and Travis Whillock anchored a stifling Katy High School defense that had ten shutouts en route to the program’s 16-0 undefeated state title season in 2015.

Meanwhile, at nearby Stratford High School, Alex Miller and Samdup Miller led the Spartans to back-to-back Texas 5A district titles in 2014 and 2015.

Three hours up the road, just outside of Dallas, Earnest Brown IV helped the Denton Ryan Raiders make consecutive deep playoff runs, finishing his junior and senior season with a combined 27-2 overall record.

And down in the southwestern suburbs of Houston, Rashawn Slater and the Clements High School Rangers won just three total games in his three years of varsity football.

As those astounding numbers indicate, team success hasn’t always come easy for Northwestern’s star left tackle. His journey to becoming a member of the defending BIG Ten West division champs and one of the best tackles in the conference, drawing NFL buzz after just two seasons, begins with a young high school student who persevered through three years of ugly football.

Slater is primed to be one of the most important players on this 2019 Northwestern team, and, despite his status, perhaps one of the most under-appreciated. With Northwestern graduating three key offensive starters on the line from last year, he and fifth-year center Jared Thomas will be tasked with anchoring and bringing along a relatively inexperienced offensive line. It will be a tall task for the junior tackle, but based on his past, it’s certainly nothing he can’t handle.

To get to where he is today, Slater has faced no shortage of challenges. This is the story of how he has survived them.

Rashawn Slater’s journey to Big Ten success begins in Sugar Land.

The city of just under 90,000 is, in many ways, the epitome of suburban life in the Lone Star State. Sugar Land lies 20-30 minutes southwest of downtown Houston, and centers around the intersection of two highways, a massive strip mall, and, of course, a high school football stadium.

Slater attended William P. Clements High School, where he played varsity football and competed in track-and-field as a member of the Rangers.

“The lure of Texas high school football is alive and well in this district,” Bobby Darnell, one of Slater’s high school head coaches, told Inside NU. “You’re going up against the Oklahoma commits, Texas commits, [Texas] A&M commits week-in and week-out. It definitely is all that it’s cracked up and rumored to be.”

In the center of Texas’ rampant Friday Night Lights culture, Clements is what one might call an aberration when it comes to high school football.

At first glance, the school checks all the boxes of a traditional high school powerhouse. Clements is situated directly in the middle of Texas high school football country and has an enrollment of well over 2000 students. The school has produced multiple big name college and professional players.

“In the hallways you come into the [Clements] fieldhouse and it’s got pictures of the kids that went to college and a couple that made it to the NFL,” said former Clements coach Keith Knowles, who helped lead Slater through his sophomore and junior seasons. “Derek Carr played quarterback here back in 2007. The kids know that there are people that come through here that have made it to the top.”

Clements is designated as a 6A athletic program based on total school size, meaning it plays in the highest division of Texas public high school football. But as their abysmal record indicates, Slater and his teammates were never able to replicate the success of neighboring suburbs and his future Northwestern teammates.

“It was just never really a football school when I was there,” he told Inside NU.

“Clements is a very Northwestern or Rice type environment,” Darnell said. “A lot of high performing academic kids. We are a 6A school, but sometimes athletic-wise we are at a 4A number-wise. A lot of our population is not interested in football.”

“We struggled,” said Knowles. “We definitely struggled.”

That might be a bit of an understatement.

In Slater’s three varsity seasons as a two-way lineman for the Rangers, the team finished with a 3-27 overall record. But that statistic alone doesn’t even begin to tell the story of the diverse spectrum of agonizing results he and his teammates had to battle through on the field.

In his sophomore season, the team lost three games by just a single point. And after going winless in his junior campaign, with the bottoming-out accompanied by a changing of the guard at head coach, the program improved to 1-9 for his final year, finishing with a 36-point average margin of defeat over the course of the season.

As a lineman trying to get recruited, Slater knew the performance he could produce on tape would be what made or broke his chances of playing in college, as opposed to the final score of the team’s games.

“A lot of guys on the team didn’t really care about winning or losing, so that was hard,” he told Inside NU. “I always had eyes on the future. I knew if I could put something out on film it would work out for me.”

When asked about his son’s win-loss record with the Rangers, Reggie Slater put it rather lightly.

“He’s certainly seen his list of challenges, like any kid growing up has,” opined the big man’s father.

What the elder Slater has to say about sports should be taken rather seriously. After all, he’s got quite the athletic pedigree himself.

Reggie played in eight seasons with multiple teams in the NBA, racking up a total of 1450 points in 259 career games in the league. Like his son, the power forward grew up in the greater Houston area, but ended up continuing his basketball career at the University of Wyoming.

Rashawn’s ability to remain hopeful and focused on the long-term results of his hard work in the face of constant high school losses starts with his dad, who went through plenty of adversity across his own athletic career.

At 6-foot-7, 255 pounds, it’s hard to say Reggie Slater was undersized. But for a player trying to pursue an NBA career as a big, he certainly was. Slater went undrafted in 1992, thus having to begin his professional career overseas before landing a contract with the Denver Nuggets a year later. Slater would end up having stints with seven different NBA teams, and despite his journeyman status, the underdog made his mark on the league.

Over the course of his 11-year professional basketball career, he bounced around between 17 total professional teams before retiring in 2003.

“He was always a fantastic role model,” Rashawn said. “He knew a lot about overcoming adversity, so he was always in my ear after tough losses. Always telling me to continue forward and trust the process.”

So that’s what the younger Slater did.

On a squad that was severely outmatched in nearly every game, the Rangers’ star busted his tail on and off the field, playing every single live ball snap of every single game. He played offense, he played defense. He played guard, he played tackle. There wasn’t a single position he couldn’t play on the line.

“And there wasn’t any place where he couldn’t be dominant,” Darnell finished.

On a team that rarely saw the final scoreboard tilt their way, Slater made it a point to consistently win the individual battles waged in the trenches. His high school coaches said he did so without ever wavering or hesitating, never making excuses.

“He couldn’t always focus on winning but just doing his job,” Darnell said. “He couldn’t control the depth. He couldn’t control that a center and guard got hurt and now we’re playing with two backups that shouldn’t be playing football at all.”

To an outsider, going winless in your age-16 season seems like it would bring along with it some inevitable discouragement and second thoughts about continuing with football. But the Slaters swear that was never the case. Of course Rashawn wanted to do everything he could to win, but bigger goals always kept him motivated beyond the game-to-game standings. Demoralization simply doesn’t exist in the Slaters’ world.

“Being demoralized suggests that you’re letting an outside source dictate who you are. No other team, score, or outside entity can demoralize you,” Reggie Slater said. “A loss is a loss whether it’s one point or 100. Doesn’t make a difference. You focus more on your future than you focus on the past. You focus more on the positive than you focus on the negative.”

With that attitude, Slater was able to power through despite the disappointing final score lines. On a team that went into nearly every game as an underdog, Slater simply believed. He believed in himself. He believed in the process. And perhaps most importantly, he believed in his teammates.

“There wasn’t any time when Rashawn was coming in and he wasn’t bringing someone with him or he wasn’t helping someone get through a work out,” Knowles said. “He wasn’t just telling people what to do, he was showing them. He was encouraging them. It was never about what he was doing, it’s about what he could get his teammates to do.”

To many, that’s the mark of a special player.

The type of player who is able to see the long-term benefits of a process that isn’t reaping tangible rewards in the short-term. The type of player who improves those around him by simply being relentlessly present.

Those kinds of intangibles don’t necessarily show up on high school highlight reels or at national recruiting camps and combines. Slater’s work ethic and selflessness on the field didn’t land him offers from the Big 12/SEC powerhouses that kids from opposing high schools were going to.

But in a sense, those traits are what make a player, especially an offensive lineman, invaluable.

The casual viewer doesn’t see Slater’s impact at first when the tailback scampers into the endzone thanks to his blocking, or when the quarterback has an extra second to get off a throw because he helped the offensive line perfectly execute a pre-snap read.

That’s a part of what is necessary to be a great offensive lineman. You must become a guy who is okay living without the glory. A teammate who is able to build and maintain the trust of his fellow linemen and teammates with ease. A player who knows and trusts that his movement and focus on every snap is essential to the success of a team despite never touching the ball.

Rashawn Slater is the type of guy that every program needs.

When Slater committed to Northwestern at the end of his junior season, some friends and teammates were skeptical.

Those who he grew up with in the Houston suburbs began to question why one of the top offensive line prospects in the state of Texas decided to attend a little academic school in the Midwest.

“People thought I settled,” Slater said. “One of the most frustrating things was people in Texas not knowing Northwestern, but I kinda get it. I didn’t even know what Northwestern was when they first contacted me. I thought it was Northwestern State in Louisiana.”

Three-and-a-half years later, it’s safe to say Slater did not settle. He may not have known who Pat Fitzgerald was when he and his staff came calling five years ago, but as of now, things couldn’t be going much better for the Sugar Land product.

Slater has been one of the only consistent members of the NU offense over the roller-coaster ride that was each of the last two seasons, and he displayed that consistency while dependably excelling at his role. Dating back to his true freshman season, the offensive lineman has started 26 consecutive straight games at tackle, picking up numerous accolades along the way. In 2017, he was named Pro Football Focus’ top freshman lineman, and just last year, PFF ranked him as the fourth-best overall tackle in the Big Ten.

“He’s got All-Big Ten potential and All-American potential,” said NU offensive line Coach Kurt Anderson. “But with his work ethic, with his smarts, if he continues to have a few good years here, we’re gonna be watching him on Sundays.”

He has done everything asked of him and more since he first stepped foot on campus, and Slater’s role within this Northwestern team is only going to continue to grow as the ‘Cats begin their 2019 campaign. Despite his long run of success at right tackle, Slater is switching to the left side of the ball this season, tasked with protecting his quarterback’s all-important blind side.

Northwestern v Rutgers Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

Slater is not the only one reaping the rewards of the foundation he built for himself and his teammates even in the midst of his high school losses. According to Darnell and Knowles, the impact that he’s had in terms of changing the school’s football culture has been noticeable.

“He’s definitely our most recent poster child that I’m using all over the place,” said Darnell. “He’s everything we want our kids to be here. Anything that happens fantastic or great for him over these next two years, we knew it. We knew it was gonna happen. Because that’s what he portrayed himself as back then.”

At practice, Slater says his Northwestern teammates Paddy Fisher and Travis Whillock sometimes joke they could’ve won back-to-back state championships at nearby Katy High School had Rashawn decided to transfer from Clements to Katy when he had the chance his sophomore year. But at the end of the day, that idea doesn’t faze him.

Slater says he couldn’t be prouder of where he came from, the place where he proved that relentless focus and selflessness pay off in the long-run no matter what the final score says.

“He knew what he was doing was right, and that’s why he did it,” Knowles said. “He didn’t settle. He never let the struggles at Clements be an excuse. His expectation for himself and from his teammates was to give everything he’s got and that’s what he did.

“I think that’s why he’s in the position he is now.”