What comes to mind when you hear the name Jack Easterby?
You'd be forgiven if "Jack Who…?" is the first thing, because even the most ardent Patriots fan might not recognize him.
Pose that same question to anyone directly involved with Patriots football operations and you'll render them momentarily speechless as well, though not because they're unfamiliar with him. Quite the opposite, actually. They know Jack so well and he means so much to them – does so much for them – that they know not where to begin.
Right away, faces light up. Moods soften. Any tension or formality quickly evaporates at the mention of Jack Easterby.
"He's one of the most genuine people I've ever met. He's been a great friend to me," center and co-captain David Andrews proclaims.
"There are so many amazing things about Jack," declares tight end Jacob Hollister.
"He's just energetic… Always smiling, always in a good mood," says wide receiver Chris Hogan, "always asking how you're doing, how's the family, other stuff outside of football. He just cares a lot about the guys in here."
He's not a player, yet spends as much time with them as any teammate. He's not a coach, at least not the Xs and Os kind, yet wherever the coaching staff is, he seems to be, too – including at practice. He's related to none of them, yet regarded as family by all of them.
You don't have to search long to find Easterby. He might actually find you first. He's in the locker room, the weight room, the meeting room. He's on the team plane, on the road whenever the team travels, and on almost every Patriot's Favorite-Person-They've-Ever-Met List.
"What makes Jack so special," punter Ryan Allen observes, "is the way he is able to connect and communicate with a large array of different people."
"Man," longtime special teams co-captain Matthew Slater exclaims, "I can only hope and pray to be half the man that [Jack]'s been and impact lives the way he has."
Just what does Jack Easterby do for the Patriots?
"Lots of things… Teacher, listener, someone you can lean on," right tackle Marcus Cannon explains. "He's just that guy, when you're going through something – every day you see him happy, ready to help anybody. That's just the type of guy he is. He likes everybody as a person."
Perhaps the more appropriate questions should be, 1) What doesn't he do, and 2) How exactly did this tall, ebullient, basketball-loving South Carolinian find his way to Foxborough to become such an indispensable component of a championship organization famous for military-style discipline and austere, football-first focus?
According to Easterby, he set off on this path several years ago, after receiving an unsolicited, entirely unexpected phone call from a most unlikely source.
"I love Microsoft Excel, but not that much."
To an outsider, they would seem an odd couple – the phlegmatic Bill Belichick and the effervescent Easterby. Yet ever since their initial conversation in 2013, when Belichick phoned Easterby out of the blue, they hit it off.
At the time, Easterby served as team chaplain for the Kansas City Chiefs, where he worked alongside people with New England ties to Belichick: Romeo Crennel, Scott Pioli, Brian Daboll, to name a handful. Though he'd heard plenty of stories about Belichick, Easterby had never met or spoken to him until the phone rang that day.
"He told me how important it was to him to grow people in the building," Easterby recalls. "Every time I've ever talked with Coach, he's been authentic, honest, straightforward, encouraging to me. He backs what we do, our subprogram within the big [football] program. He's been awesome. Coach is so committed to growing people. He grows us all every day in so many ways. I feel I serve him by making [the players] the best people we can make them."
At Newberry College in South Carolina, Easterby captained the basketball and golf teams while majoring in sports management. Upon graduation in 2005, he landed a job with Jacksonville Jaguars football operations. Working mainly on salary cap matters, he quickly realized it didn't suit him. So, he enrolled at Erskine and Liberty Theological Seminaries.
"Just really wanted to learn more about Scripture and how to apply things more specifically to everyday life," he explains. "I love people. I love Microsoft Excel, but not that much. I felt like I was called to go back and build relationships."
In 2006, he returned to The Palmetto State in the malleable role of character coach for the University of South Carolina's athletic department. He continued to refine this position until 2011, whereupon the Chiefs brought him on board to tailor it further for their organizational needs.
On the verge of Easterby's third season with Kansas City, Belichick reached out, perhaps because of Easterby's experience in dealing with a team tragedy months earlier in December 2012.
Jovan Belcher, a 25-year-old Chiefs linebacker, fatally shot his girlfriend at their home before driving to team headquarters, where Belcher then took his own life. Easterby subsequently helped the Chiefs pick up the emotional pieces. By early summer 2013, New England found itself in a similarly surreal situation with then-tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Coincidental timing or not, something intangible evidently was missing within the walls of Gillette Stadium. Belichick seemed to understand that his unquestionably successful management approach might work even better with a counterweight. Could Easterby provide that?
Offered the title Character Coach/Team Development, he accepted the challenge to be "the seeds and water of truth, love, and support to grow people and have them be encouragement-oriented."
"For so long," Slater reveals, "many of us around here prayed for someone like Jack that would be able to come alongside and encourage us in many different ways, especially spiritually. I think he was the perfect man for the job. He's just been such an encouragement."
"You're not God's gift to the world."
From years of being treated as demi-gods, professional athletes can easily become spoiled, entitled, conceited. Yet, players often arrive in Foxborough knowing absolutely no one, and that can be unsettling, even humbling.
Easterby makes every effort to befriend players so they don't feel so isolated. Each is different, but Easterby manages to find a way.
"If it's washing a guy's car, meeting him for dinner, playing Wiffle ball in the back yard, my best ability is my availability – 2 o'clock in the morning, 3 in the afternoon. When I do that, I show a little glimpse of who God is. Because God doesn't sleep. God doesn't turn away when your problem's too big. My goal in a small way is to mirror that the best I can."
As Easterby acknowledges, sometimes a player is dealing with more than just a new environment. He might have personal problems that require considerable attention when the work day is done. As player after player will attest, Easterby's promise to be available any time of day isn't hyperbole. He backs it up.
"It's true," Cannon professes. "He'll answer the phone, and you know he was sleeping, but he'll always sound like he's awake. In the profession we're in and how we work, our one-track minds, it's always great to have someone like that. It puts you back in the real world. He's always making sure that everybody's being the man they say they're going to be."
Wide receiver Josh Gordon is an example of a player who, since joining the Patriots in a September trade from Cleveland, has relied regularly on Easterby for moral support.
"Jack's been huge with helping me move in, get acclimated to the city, to the environment," Gordon admits. "He's been hands-on, very hands-on, [which] kind of just made this whole process that much easier for me. [I'm] really appreciative of him."
Among the first people any player meets in the Patriots organization is Easterby, who isn't afraid to speak plainly by offering encouragement with a refreshing dose of reality.
"You're not God's gift to the world," Easterby tells them. "If they're struggling with being too full of themselves, you remind them, 'Hey, man, a third of the world didn't eat today.' You have to get over yourself. When you walk with the Lord, you know what he's done for you, you know you're fallen.
"When someone's struggling with confidence, you say, 'Man, God thinks you're awesome. God is giving you things to help make a difference in those around you by serving them, loving them, caring about them, seeing how they're doing, speaking to them in the hallway, caring about the people that serve us, like the equipment managers or film guys.'"
It is this authenticity that draws players instantly to Easterby.
"Right away," Allen asserts. "I think there are certain people we come across in life that have that effect on people. You know this is a genuine person that you're talking to and you're not getting filler."
"Kind of like I'd known him forever," is how Hogan describes his initial encounter with Easterby. "That's the vibe he gives off. He's such a friendly person. He goes above and beyond to take care of the guys."
Andrews, a Georgia native, also felt an immediate connection with Easterby upon meeting him as an undrafted rookie in 2015.
"Coming from the South, it was kind of funny to hear his South Carolina accent," he remembers. "It's nice to have someone who's not a coach that you can talk to – to an extent, he's kind of an outlet, especially me, being a Christian and [serious about] my faith. There are a lot of challenging days, and his guidance and leadership are amazing, even just his smiling face.
"It's a long, grueling season. Having someone like him to have a laugh with, share a meal with… he encourages you. Anything he says, you can take it to the bank. Anything he can do for us, he'll do."
He'll even marry them.
"That's my deal: life."
It's a Tuesday, the players' traditional day off during the NFL season. Their lone day off, in fact. On a bus with several Patriots, Easterby leads rehearsal of a song they'll perform later at Boston Children's Hospital. He encourages them to give it their best, even though they're not trained singers.
The word "encourage," or some derivative thereof, comes up frequently with Easterby. When Belichick wants to compliment a player, he's fond of saying, "Football is important to him." Meaning, it's a priority over almost everything else.
The encouragement that Belichick hired Easterby to provide is meant to remind them, especially during the exhausting, all-consuming atmosphere of football season, that life is about much more than this.
Easterby reinforces that they are blessed to play professional football, but is quick to add, "Hey, your wife matters. Love your family. Encourage your family. Make good decisions financially. Those things matter. Adding a more well-rounded body of life never hurts a person. That's going to help them be more stable in any environment they enter.
"When you're talking about life, added perspective is never a disadvantage. That's my deal: life."
Few choices in life are more important than the one you make when you decide to share yours with someone else. Easterby helps ensure that a player's heart and mind are in the right place when he decides to get married.
"He walked through my engagement with my wife and me. He did some of our premarital counseling," says Slater. "He was there the day I married my wife. He's helped me through fatherhood, and most importantly, he's encouraged me as a Christian."
Shortly after 2017 draft choice Derek Rivers walked into Gillette Stadium for the first time, he gravitated to Easterby. In the summer of his rookie year, Rivers proposed to his then-girlfriend, who hails from Charlotte, N.C. The couple, wanting a small, quick wedding, asked Easterby to perform the service here in New England.
"Then we had a bigger one in Charlotte, and he did it there, too," Rivers reveals. "My wife has a great relationship with his wife [Holly] and their kids. So, we just knew he was the guy for us."
As team chaplain, Easterby heads Patriots Bible study sessions, which, for many years prior to his arrival, were player-led. Slater points out that this responsibility was difficult for them.
"To be able to have someone like that to encourage guys spiritually, to build friendships, to build manhood, to build fatherhood, to build marriages, is so important. Those are the things that are going to last well beyond the game of football. You're looking for the right guy to do that. We didn't feel like we were doing a good enough job. There were so many things we were coming up short in. To have Jack come in really filled the gap, really made this whole place better. It's been tremendous."
When injuries inevitably crop up or family strife surfaces, players know Easterby can be entrusted with confidential, personal details of their lives.
Hollister and his twin brother, Cody, for example, made the team as undrafted rookies in 2017 (Cody, a wide receiver, spent last season on the practice squad). This year, Cody went on injured reserve prior to training camp and Jacob has been limited all season with a lingering hamstring issue. The Hollisters are fortunate to have one another to lean on, but often reach out to Easterby as well.
"Yeah, there's definitely times – I think that's the nice thing with Jack, is that he's always going to be that rock for you," Hollister observes. "He's always a guy that you can go to in this building and [what you talk about] is going to stay between you two. He's been amazing in every way to me and Cody, and, really, every guy in the locker room."
As a rookie in 2013, Allen competed with veteran punter Zoltan Mesko. As if that wasn't stressful enough, he also had issues at home, on the other side of the country. He sought out Easterby.
"There was a lot of pressure, anxiety, stress due to competition, different environment, lifestyle, I mean, just about everything under the sun," Allen confesses. "The way he was able to put the pieces together and give me some insight on how to perceive some of that stuff and encouraging me to do the same things that I'm doing to keep my personal family together and on good terms, there was a lot that he could bring to the table. It was very useful to have a resource like Jack to go and talk to."
"He's a great example of how to focus on the good."
Easterby clearly loves being around athletes, perhaps because he still considers himself one. At the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs last November, he couldn't resist picking up a basketball and shooting some hoops during a team tour of the complex. At Patriots practices, he routinely jumps into drills when an extra body is needed.
Sports were Easterby's first love. Without them, he probably wouldn't be where he is today, pursuing his other passion by helping answer universal questions he first started asking himself as a youth.
What does it mean to be a good teammate? What does it mean to be a good person alongside other people in a group?
"It's been fun for me at different levels," Easterby says of his job, which can serve as an oasis of calm in the stressful work environment of the NFL.
"It's been an absolute privilege to walk the road with [the Patriots], to see people grow, to see families grow, to see the things that really matter in life – from marriages, to children being born, in addition to the on-field success – it's just been a privilege for me. I'm humbled to be where I'm at."
So, what exactly does Easterby do for the Patriots? He boils it down to this.
"How can I leave everyone I interact with better than I found them?"
Results may vary from person to person, but on this, there is consensus: Easterby is succeeding.
"He always says, in 10, 20 years, you get to know somebody, and then their name pops up on your phone," Hollister explains. "Something's going to come to mind when you think of that person. So, he asks us, 'What are you doing to make sure that's a positive thing?'"
"What I've learned from him," adds Cannon, "is, yeah, you can have a bad day, but he understands that there are other people looking at you, other people feeding off his energy. That's what we're all trying to understand and replicate ourselves. Because we have bad days, and you come in here and feel bad, but he's a great example of how to push past anything that's going on and just focus on the good.
"Once you start, that's when you find out how hard it actually is. But I try, and it's been working. I'm very thankful for the person he is and having him around. I'm pretty sure a lot of people would tell you that."