BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – He hosts Bible study and prayer groups, but he’s not just a team chaplain.
He helps the coaching staff evaluate players they’re looking to add to the roster, but he’s not a front office type.
He’s officially listed in the team media guide as “character coach/team development,” but there’s no real way to describe what Jack Easterby does for the New England Patriots.
“Man, it’s really hard to put into words what he means to so many men on this team,” Patriots team captain Matthew Slater said. “He’s a father figure, he’s an uncle figure, he’s a brother figure, he’s a mentor, he’s an encourager, he does all those things to inspire us to be the best men that we can be, to encourage us to have a relationship with Christ and be there for our families day-in and day-out.”
A South Carolina native who played basketball and golf at Division II Newberry College in his home state, Easterby studied sports management and got his first job post-college with the Jacksonville Jaguars, in a low-level job on the personnel side.
Easterby, however, thought he wanted to be a basketball coach or back in college, at the administration level.
The University of South Carolina hired him as an academic counselor, but Easterby soon realized his purpose at the school went beyond helping student-athletes with studies; in a post he wrote last year for The Increase, he said, “God was burning in my heart the need to walk with these guys. They had the potential to become generational leaders—to set apart their past from their future and make a difference—and I wanted to help them get to that place.”
He was soon hosting Bible study at his home for basketball players, then weekly Bible study for all student-athletes. As some of those he worked with went on to the next level athletically, Easterby was asked to work with professional athletes and Olympians.
He joined the Kansas City Chiefs as chaplain, but New England hired him away in 2013, not long after the arrest of Aaron Hernandez.
Through his positive spirit and loving nature, Easterby has seemingly managed to touch every player on the roster.
“We love Jack. Jack has been awesome for this team,” kicker Stephen Gostkowski said. “In a high-stress environment on a day-to-day basis, a crazy business, he brings so much positivity and light to our team through his chapel and being encouraging and being nice and helpful to anybody.
“It’s kind of like, if you have any problems that aren’t football-related, you know you can go to him and talk to him about it without worrying about offending anybody, and the coaches have too much to worry about than our personal problems. It’s just nice to have someone that you can talk to about something other than football in the stadium and he’s just been such a positive influence on everybody. It’s just really cool to see and have him be around.”
To listen to players and coaches talk about him, one wonders if Easterby sleeps; he seemingly makes time to counsel players, and even their spouses or significant others, on all manner of issues.
Few people in the world, let alone the NFL, have endured what left tackle Nate Solder and his wife, Lexi, have: their son, Hudson, was diagnosed with kidney cancer when he was just 3-months-old; now 2, he’s still being treated for the disease.
In his difficult moments, Solder can turn to Easterby.
“Jack’s been amazing. He’s been amazing for both me and my wife. We’ve been on our knees crying together before, and he’s been there for me in all these situations, from the small things to the big things, he’s been a wonderful friend,” Solder said. “We were friends long before any of this happened, and he’s been there for me every step of the way.”
Slater said Easterby has walked him through all manner of life situations, played a role in counseling he and his wife before they got married, and both before and after he became a father of now two young children.
While Slater has always been very vocal about his faith and the role it plays in his life, not everyone is as strong in their beliefs as he and Easterby. But Easterby has the ability to “meet guys where they are and connect on different levels,” Slater said, noting that his gift of connecting includes being able to bridge racial and background divides.
“You know, we’re asked to be as wise as a serpent or as innocent as a dove,” Solder said. “You can’t always be hitting people over the head with a plank, sometimes you have to use the gloves a little bit, and he does a great job of that. He’s about building relationships; he’s not about pushing his own agenda. He’s about loving guys where they are.”
Cornerback Malcolm Butler noted that during practice, Easterby will play catch with him on the sideline, and that he’s always interested in a locker room debate on who is the best basketball player.
But Butler also remembered early in his rookie season, when he was the undrafted, made-the-roster-after-a-spring-tryout player starting to make noise that Easterby pulled him to the side and was seemingly sizing him up.
“I assume that he was trying to figure me out because they wanted to make sure they had the right person, a good person around the organization,” Butler said.
Linebackers coach Brian Flores said Easterby’s impact on the Patriots has been “immense.”
“He’s done a great job – he’s a leader of men, he knows how to build leaders, he instills confidence in guys, he lifts guys up, I’ve seen a lot of growth in a lot of our players, whether it’s his bible study or his friendship, he’s just been tremendous for a lot of guys on this team, myself included,” Flores said.
“I think he’s helped guys kind of come out of their shell…and there’s some other guys who were rough around the edges who aren’t as rough around the edges now due to Jack’s friendship and his ability to help guys grow into the men we want them to become.”
Football players as full people – it’s a concept whose time has come.
“I tell my guys I love them all the time, and I think it helps; guys need to know,” Flores said. “People want to be loved and people want to be part of something, and you get both of those things in football. And I think Jack’s role in that is huge and it’s helped us grow and develop as a team, and it’s helped us win, to be honest with you. I don’t know if that’s the secret ingredient for us, but I think it’s helped us.”