WESTFIELD, Ind. (WTHR) - The stutter is not pronounced, not really, but it's mildly evident as Colts right guard Matt Slauson speaks. The words come with relative ease, but there are hiccups in the cadence, fleeting moments when the words get caught in his throat. Slauson, who has been a stutterer (or a Person Who Stutters, which is sometimes the more preferred way to describe those who deal with it) since his formative years, is not hesitant to speak, and he's certainly not hesitant to speak about the speech impediment.
"I honestly think I'm better off for it," said Slauson, a free agent who figures to begin the season as the Colts' right guard. "I really believe that. I'm proud of who I am now, and I have the opportunity to inspire kids to show them that everybody's got something, but you can't let it bring you down. Use it as a tool to bring yourself up…When I speak to kids, I tell them, 'Don't be afraid of it, embrace it. It makes you special. It makes you unique'."
It was mortifying, though, as a child. And it wasn't just the stutter. Slauson, who is now 6-5 and 315 pounds, was extremely big for his age. He was bullied unmercifully, often sent running home from his Oregon elementary school in tears. "I was the perfect target," he said the other day after training camp.
It's difficult enough for "normal" kids to get through their formative years emotionally unscathed but add in the fact he stuttered and was the biggest kid in the school, Slauson had almost no chance. His self-image diminished. He was lonely. Everybody has or her cross to bear but imagine being present in the world but somewhat or even completely incapable of communication. Imagine the frustration, the anger, the mental fatigue and even the self-loathing that comes with the impediment. Communication is a primal need; the difficulty communicating is a daunting challenge for those who stutter. "I wasn't even able to say my own name," he said. "It was rough."
But the worst was yet to come.
When he was 10 years old, a teacher took special interest in Slauson and soon was shocked to learn that he couldn't read. All that time in school, and he just slipped through the cracks unnoticed, a ghost who slid to the back of the class and remained mum. He just got moved on from grade to grade, his academic needs unmet. Until that one, special teacher, a woman named Jane Neufeldt, took the time to know and understand this particular student. Suddenly, the big, dumb kid with the stutter sprouted wings. He learned to read, and he caught up to the rest of his class quickly.
"All that time, I just thought I was a stupid kid," Slauson said. "But learning how to read, that connected everything else for me – math, science, music, everything."
One thing Slauson does want to emphasize is this: He had it tough – like most kids have it tough at a certain age – but it could have been a lot more challenging. See, Slauson has a brother, Nick, who has special needs, but has gone on to become a Special Olympian and to live independently. When Matt would feel like his world was caving in, he would turn to his brother, Nick, for inspiration on how to overcome.
"Look, growing up large as I did and growing up with a speech impediment, I'm not going to say things weren't tough," he said. "I don't want to say this because of the importance of bullying in society, but part of it is just growing up and being a kid. Because that's how kids are. They'll find something. There were a lot of miserable days but you fight through it. I don't mean physical fighting – although that happened quite a bit – but you fight through it and become a better person."
As Slauson caught up academically, he also accidentally happened upon something that would become his passion and vocation. In sixth grade, he went to watch a football practice with a buddy. The football team was populated with a lot of the players – "the jocks" – who tortured him all these years, and he had an epiphany – You mean, if I play football, I can hit these guys, knock them silly?
He once told the Chicago Tribune, "I'm looking around at all the kids and I'm like, that [jerk] and that [jerk] and that [jerk], I know all these kids.' And my buddy is out there striking all of them, and I said, 'Wait a minute, if I join the team, I can hit them? That's allowed?' When I finally discovered football, that was my chance to unleash hell. Tyler Emmert, he was our quarterback. I don't know if he ever knew, but I hated him, and when I had a couple of opportunities to lay the wood to him, I did."
Suddenly, the big, dumb kid with the disfluency problem belonged. But there were still challenges to come.
His freshman year at Nebraska, he had a decision to make. He earned a starting spot late in the season on the Huskers' offensive line, the first freshman to do that since the 1970's. It was a big story in Lincoln, where Nebraska football is king, and now the media wanted to speak to this young Slauson character.
"That was my first experience [with the media] and I had to make a decision really fast: Am I going to run and hide or just throw it out there for everybody to see and make it a non-issue?" Slauson said. "That was the route I decided to take, in part because I'd be able to reach more kids. It's like I tell kids, I know times are hard, but just weather the storm because things are going to get better."
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Most stuttering is genetic (it was in Slauson's case) and some stems from a traumatic situation that eventually lends itself to disfluency. According to Jeff Fett, a member of the National Stuttering Association, roughly one percent of the population deals with a stutter. And there's an unhealthy portion of those who deal with social estrangement, low self-esteem, depression and isolation.
Toward that end, Slauson has done a lot of works with the NSA (National Stuttering Association) and SAY, the Stuttering Association for the Young. He has worked at Camp Our Time, which caters to children who stutter. He has risen above his impediment and helped children, many of whom remind him of himself as a younger age.
"It's always good to see those kids because so many of them have a fear to speak," Slauson said. "Even all the way in the league, I was getting e-mails from speech pathologists saying, 'We can help you with your problem.' There is no problem. I want to show these kids, don't be afraid of it, embrace it. It makes you different, it makes you special."
Roughly one percent of the population identify as people who stutter. That doesn't seem like a huge number, but for those who find basic communication difficult, if not impossible, that number looms even larger. Jeff Fett, who works with the NSA, told me how in college, he was told to change his major out of graphic design because of his stutter. He didn't listen. He's spent more than 30 years in the business.
"Basic human networking is about communication, so when you feel you can't communicate, you hold back from trying to ask that girl for a date," Fett said slowly, sounding out every word with precision. "You basically defeat yourself even before you go into a job interview. You look at job listings, the one common thing is, 'He needs good communication skills.' How do you think that feels to a person who stutters?
"School is the toughest time. It can get very bad. I was bullied for most of my young life and it usually stems from the fact you are seen as different or weird. It can deflate your sense of self-worth. Those who do succeed in spite of their stutter, you find that to prove yourself, you have to work harder and smarter than everybody else. When I was in school, we'd have oral presentations. I had teachers who said, 'Oh, you can just write it.' And I'd tell them, 'No. If my classmates are doing it, so am I.' So I'd force myself. I just had to make it clear, this may take me a little longer but if you're patient, I'll get the message out there.''
Listening to Slauson, it should be noted, is not much of a challenge. Like I said, it is almost imperceptible, to the point where if you didn't know he stuttered, you might not notice. But it is an elemental part of who he is, how he eventually became one of the most highly respected veterans in the league. Once he found his calling and his voice, he has been relentless, just like his special-needs brother who has overcome so much and done so much with his life.
With Slauson, the message is clear and inspiring: There will be tough times, especially in school, where kids tend to seize upon anything they deem to be unusual. But there will be better, much better, times ahead. Slauson, a big grizzly of a man with an empathetic heart, is proof of that.