FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots’ loss to the New York Jets on Sunday ended their season, but even then there was some added importance for New England captain Matthew Slater.

It likely marked the end of the 38-year-old’s career.

Slater hasn’t officially announced his retirement, but it hasn’t exactly been kept a secret that he’s leaning toward hanging ’em up. The Patriots honored him Sunday, with nearly every member of the roster and staff wearing sweatshirts that read, “The Patriot” on the front and “CAPTAIN” on the back above the veteran’s No. 18.

It should be no surprise, then, that Slater was one of the final players to leave the field at Gillette Stadium following the game. He worked his way through a crowd of opposing players and coaches, shaking hands with them for what likely is the final time.

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Jets special teamer Justin Hardee was in that group, and shared a long embrace with the 10-time Pro Bowl selection — thanking him for what he meant to the unsung heroes of the NFL.

“It was just special,” Hardee told following the game. “I just wanted to tell him how much I admire him.

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Hardee entered the NFL in 2017, and though he didn’t exactly light the world on fire as a collegiate wide receiver, he’d caught the attention of the Texans as a special teams prospect. It didn’t work out in Houston, but the 29-year-old caught on with the New Orleans Saints and would eventually earn a Pro Bowl nod with the Jets in 2022.

He’s now one of the very best in the NFL, and has Slater (along with another special teamer with Patriots ties) to thank for it.

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“I sat in Larry Izzo’s office in 2017 and asked him, ‘Can you show me the example of what you’re looking for?'” Hardee said. “He cut on Matthew Slater film for me when I was an undrafted rookie, in the summer, in OTA’s, and just seeing that and mimicking him — that film stayed with me my whole career.

“I’ve been able to play him multiple times and get in touch with him, get advice and build a relationship with him. I’m so thankful, and for him to potentially have his last game against me, it was a special moment. I’ve got nothing but respect for Matthew Slater.”

Izzo and Slater overlapped in New England for one season, with the former serving as the wily veteran during the latter’s rookie campaign. It was in that 2008 season that Izzo saw something in Slater, just like Tedy Bruschi, who handed down a long-time Patriots tradition to the young special teamer — who eventually molded it into something players look forward to experiencing once they come to New England.

Slater, who likely has put on the uniform for the final time, is a once-in-a-generation player, who brings out the best in everyone around him. He’s been doing it since day one, and has influenced others to try and do the same.

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“I’m pretty sure a lot of guys come up to him and tell him how special he is, and how good of an example he sets,” Hardee said. “That’s something that’s starting to happen to me in my career, where guys are acknowledging that I’m playing at a high level. I just wanted to give a lot of credit and respect to him. It was a special moment.”

Featured image via Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports Images