(Listen to the ‘3 Guys Before the Game’ podcast)
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The backfield trio of Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt and Pat White earned legendary status at WVU for their three-year run from 2005-2007. The Mountaineers won eleven games in each season, winning Sugar, Gator and Fiesta Bowl games. All three players were selected in the NFL Draft.
Slaton left Morgantown after his junior season and was a third round pick of the Houston Texas. He played three full seasons there before being waived a month into his fourth season. After playing three games with the Miami Dolphins in 2011, Slaton’s NFL career came to an end.
“You spend so much time training in the weight room with the guys to get to a certain task or a certain level,” Slaton said. “That’s the only thing that consumes you. When you don’t do it anymore, it is kind of one of those things that where, what is next to put all that energy into? I miss it. But I know right now I couldn’t compete.”
The average career length of an NFL running back is 3.3 years so Slaton essentially outlasted the normal tenure of perhaps the game’s most physically demanding position.
In his rookie season of 2008, Slaton excelled. He ended the year with 1,282 rushing yards, the most among rookie running backs and sixth in the NFL. His second season however was ended by neck surgery and Slaton was never able to regain the form of his rookie campaign.
“I didn’t end my career on my terms. It was ended for me. Having neck surgery, that was the first time that an injury was too big to come back from. After that, I couldn’t come back from it.”
“It was definitely a blessing. When you play a sport and have some success, your reach and your end goal is to be a professional athlete and win a championship ring. Every game and every workout, my goal was to be a professional athlete.”
Maryland’s loss was West Virginia’s gain
While verbal commitments to colleges are non-binding, Slaton announced he accepted a scholarship offer from Maryland to be a member of their 2005 recruiting class.
“I remember like it was yesterday. In my recruiting process, a lot of people were trying to change my position and I was set on being a running back. I went to a one-day camp and had a good camp. James Franklin, who is the head coach at Penn State now, he was my recruiter. He promised me I was going to be a running back. I committed early.”
Despite Slaton’s commitment to the Terps, WVU defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich kept in close contact. His persistence paid off when Maryland’s interest in Slaton cooled.
“I felt like of everybody I talked to (Kirelawich) was still the most honest. It must have been like six months later and a reporter called me and said, ‘Is it true you don’t have a scholarship?’ I was like, ‘Uh, no’.
So I called James Franklin up and he was ducking and dodging me for a long period of time. I think I called him from a different number and he finally picked up. He said, ‘Oh yeah, signing day is coming up but we don’t have another scholarship. But if we have one left over we will give it to you’. I was just pissed.”
With his recruitment now open, Slaton quickly pivoted to the opportunity to play his preferred position at West Virginia.
“Going back into the recruiting process was tough but Bill Kirelawich was still calling me every week. He promised me that I would be a running back. I talked with other schools and they said if you switched to corner, we will offer you.”
Slaton signed with the Mountaineers but never had the chance to play against Franklin — he left Maryland after the 2004 season.
“I mention James (Franklin) as much as I can. I want to let him know because I am pretty sure it is an afterthought and he doesn’t remember. But I want him to know he missed out on one.”
Becoming a freshman phenom
West Virginia’s running back position was crowded in Slaton’s freshman season of 2005. Five-star recruit Jason Gwaltney, incumbent starter Jason Colson and Pernell Williams all battled for reps in preseason camp. Despite not being ticketed for a redshirt, Slaton appeared in just one of West Virginia’s four September games. He gained 43 yards on 8 carries against Wofford.
“I felt like I was wasting my college career because I am not playing.
“I am suited up and ready to go, nobody is calling me in. Once you get the opportunity, you have to make the best of it. Finally getting to play, I had to give them a reason not to take me off the field.”
When the calendar flipped to October, Slaton became more of a focal point in the Mountaineer offense. He gained 90 yards on 10 carries against Virginia Tech. A week later, he rushed for 139 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries against Rutgers.
Six-pack of TDs in comeback for the ages
And then came the Louisville game. West Virginia trailed the 19th-ranked Cardinals 24-7 with nine minutes to play and many fans were heading to the exits. Many of those same fans quickly tried to return as the Mountaineers came from behind to defeat Louisville 46-44 in triple overtime. Slaton had five rushing touchdowns and one more receiving.
“That’s where my confidence came in because I scored every touchdown.
“I knew then, this is your job and you are not going to lose it.”
Slaton scored nine more touchdowns over the next four games as the Mountaineers capped a 10-1 regular season by winning the Big East title.
Sweet win in the Georgia Dome
As a double-digit underdog in the Sugar Bowl in Atlanta, West Virginia shocked the Georgia Bulldogs by jumping out to a 21-0 first quarter lead. The Mountaineers held on to win 38-35 as Slaton rushed for a season-high 204 yards with three touchdowns.
“Jahmile Addae and I were having a conversation before the game and he said, ‘This is the stage. This is the time for you to show the world’.”
“Thank God for (Mike) Barwis, I think we were just more conditioned athletes than they were. We worked harder than everybody.”
Slaton and the Mountaineers continued to have success in 2006 and 2007. Slaton rushed for 1,744 yards and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore as WVU won 11 games, including the Gator Bowl against Georgia Tech.
A year later, Slaton posted his third consecutive thousand-yard season (1,051 yards, 17 TDs).
The Backyard Brawl
One of the best wins in program history was preceded by the most crushing of defeats. The Mountaineers won the Fiesta Bowl to cap their 2007 season with eleven wins but a month earlier, West Virginia entered the regular season finale against Pittsburgh as a four-touchdown favorite. A win would secure a spot in the BCS National Championship game. The Panthers prevailed 13-9. Slaton was held to just eleven yards on nine carries.
“I wasn’t vocal about getting the ball. I always thought as a player, you talk to the guys, not the coaches.
“I wish I would have been more vocal in that game.”
With his WVU career complete, Slaton entered the NFL Draft. He name remains etched several times in the WVU record books. His fifty rushing touchdowns remain a program-best and he stands fifth in rushing yards (3,923) and rushing attempts.
After his retirement from professional football, Slaton was inducted into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame in 2018. He and his wife Kimberly live in Houston with their three children.
Slaton enrolled in culinary school and has developed a passion for cooking.
“Cooking has been something that is a big part of my life for a long time. I cooked even in college for my roommates. My parents also used to own a catering company.
“I felt like that was a true test if I can cook or not — if my kids will eat it. They love my food. They’ll complain just to complain but they’ll eat it.”