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Matt Slauson (68, kissing baby) is the Bears nominee for the USAA’s “Salute to Service” award. Former teammates Jared Allen (2014) and Charles Tillman (2012) are former winners of the award. (Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times media)

Matt Slauson’s Salute to Service: ‘They make it all possible’

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SHARE Matt Slauson’s Salute to Service: ‘They make it all possible’

When Matt Slauson stands at attention and honors the military personnel at Bears games, it’s personal. That could have been him.

Slauson was on a military track toward the Air Force before a career in football intervened when he was in high school. An Oregon native, he moved to Colorado Springs, Colo. when his father got a job as a high school principal in town and his brother Chris attended the Air Force Academy. Matt attended Air Force Academy High School as a senior and then Air Force Academy Prep School in Colorado Springs.

He went through basic training and was exposed to a military lifestyle, which appealed to him. He initially committed to Air Force over Oregon, with the idea of following his brother into the Air Force Academy and ultimately the Air Force, where his brother, Maj. Chris Slauson, pilots C-17 cargo planes and has served three tours of duty in the Middle East.

“I chose Air Force because I wasn’t sure if football could be a reality for me,” said Slauson, who played basketball and was a state champion in the shot put in high school. “So I was looking at it like, ‘the Air Force Academy gives you opportunities that set you up for life. Having a degree from there is just like having a degree from Stanford or Harvard or Yale. And you’re guaranteed work.”

That career path was altered when played against college-level players at the Air Force Prep School in Colorado Springs. “It kind of gave me the confidence to believe in myself that I could play football on a bigger scale,” Slauson said. “I got to see that, ‘Wow, I think I can actually play at this level.’ Now my dreams started to shift. Now I wanted to play in the NFL.

“But in today’s world, you can’t do that from a military academy like you could in the ‘80s and ‘90s. They don’t suspend your service like that did. They [used to say], ‘You’ll serve after you’re done with the NFL or we’ll count your NFL [career] as your service because of the exposure the military gets just from you playing in the NFL.

“They don’t do that any more. So let’s say I was to be a stud at Air Force Academy and get drafted from there. The Air Force would go, ‘Hey, that’s great. Congrats. But you’ve got to serve five years first and then go [to the NFL].”

Slauson ended up going to Nebraska, where he was a first-team all-Big 12 guard in 2008. The Jets selected him in the sixth round of the 2009 NFL draft. He became a starter in 2010 and after five years with the Jets, signed with the Bears as a free agent in 2013.

Slauson, 29, still has a strong connection to the military and participates in several team initiatives to honor military personnel – including visiting children of military families at Great Lakes Naval Base in Lake County. He is the Bears’ nominee for the Salute to Service Award, which is presented by the USAA to honor an NFL player who makes exceptional efforts to honor and support U.S. service members. Jared Allen won the award last year. Charles Tillman won it in 2012.

Though he chose the NFL path, Slauson still thinks about what might have been.

“The service members mean the world to me,” Slauson said. “Because nobody in our country would be able to do what we do without them. They make it all possible. The sacrifices they go through so that we can just live and have success — that is huge.

“I think about that all the time — and how cool it would be to be in that spot. Because they’re doing something huge. And I think that’s great.”

But he acknowledged that, at 6-5, 315, it might have been difficult to precisely follow his brother’s path as an Air Force pilot.

“I wouldn’t be able to fit in a plane very well,” Slauson said. “But I could fly the hell out of a desk.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash

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