ATLANTA — Jack Easterby smiles when he talks. His forehead wrinkles, and his green eyes practically bulge out of his bald head.
This is a man who clearly loves what he does — one who refers to his job as his “passion.”
Easterby is a member of the New England Patriots organization, but he isn’t a player, coach or scout. Well, technically, he is a coach, but not in the traditional X’s and O’s sense.
His official job title with the Patriots is “character coach/team development,” a position few NFL teams have on staff. In a rare meeting with the media Monday during Super Bowl Opening Night, Easterby explained exactly what that job entails.
“My job is to serve anybody and everybody in the building, to help them however I can, to help us be prepared on and off the football field, to be prepared as men, as people, and hopefully stay out of the way,” Easterby said. “And then also to be the glue for our team. We have a lot of issues that come up throughout the year, as you can imagine. It’s a roller coaster — a six-month roller coaster that we go through as a team.”
Easterby’s road to New England was a winding one.
After graduating from tiny Newberry College in his home state of South Carolina in 2005, he initially landed an entry-level job in salary cap administration with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The numbers-centric gig wasn’t really his speed — above all, Easterby is a people person — but as a young kid fresh out of school, he wasn’t about to turn down a paycheck from an NFL team.
After a year in Jacksonville, Easterby returned home to Columbia, S.C., to help care for his ailing grandparents, both of whom were suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. While there, he coordinated with then-University of South Carolina men’s basketball coach Dave Odom to launch a “character program” that covered all of the Gamecocks’ various athletic teams.
Easterby spent 7 1/2 years at South Carolina and also did work with Team USA before being hired by former Patriots top executive Scott Pioli in 2011 to serve as the Kansas City Chiefs’ team chaplain. While there, he helped the Chiefs process the tragic murder-suicide involving linebacker Jovan Belcher — an experience that shapes his worldview to this day.
“I have a memo pad that I read all the time that has notes that I took during that weekend that we went through,” Easterby said. “My heart and my mind were conditioned through that moment. It was an incredible lesson learned, and I think it’s prepared me for a lot of things that I don’t even know it prepared me for, if that makes any sense.”
On a recommendation from Pioli, the Patriots brought Easterby aboard the following year to navigate the aftermath of Aaron Hernandez’s arrest for murder in the summer of 2013. He called his work over those difficult few months “a privilege.”
“When you lead people, you need to be with them at all points,” he said. “And to me, one of the biggest things is you come in as a servant no matter if you’re winning and you’ve won Super Bowls — which we’ve been blessed to do — or if you are going through challenges, like we did when I first got here. You have to serve. You have to take the kid gloves off. You’ve got to get dirty and serve and work through any and every issue that’s thrown your way.”
Special teams captain Matthew Slater said Easterby was an invaluable resource for the team following Hernandez’s departure and continues to be one today.
“It’s really hard to put (Easterby’s impact) into words,” Slater said. “What he’s really done here is shift our culture. We were in a tough spot when he got here. We were going through a lot of things off the football field, and he really brought a sense of comfort and stability to our locker room. He brought our brotherhood closer together through his faith and the principles that he believed in.
“I honestly don’t think we’re here where we are sitting here today without his influence on the team.”
Easterby’s role has evolved over his six seasons in New England, his responsibilities shifting based on what he called the “tremendous vision” of head coach Bill Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft.
Earlier this season, Easterby was practically attached to the hip of wide receiver Josh Gordon, who had been suspended multiple times for violations of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy before being traded to New England. Gordon played in 11 games for the Patriots before being suspended again, this time indefinitely.
Easterby declined to discuss the Gordon situation in detail, offering only general comments about the “highs and lows” each season brings.
“I think we would not be telling the truth if I didn’t say these are emotional roller coasters,” he said. “Each year is its own journey, and this year, we definitely had plenty. But we’ve had them every year.”
Easterby’s No. 1 job is giving his players the tools to ride that roller coaster, and he judges his success on the number of “authentic relationships” he can build and maintain — relationships that don’t expire when he and his players no longer share the same facility.
During his media scrum Monday, Easterby said he spoke just last week with South Carolina women’s hoops coach Dawn Staley. Minutes later, he paused to greet former Patriots edge rusher Rob Ninkovich, who retired before the 2017 season and is covering Super Bowl week as an analyst.
“We all have things that we need to be maintenanced,” Easterby said. “We need to be loved. We need to be given purpose. And I think that sports give us that, but also, we need to make sure we take care of the people that are involved in sports. …
“Sports is a team. It’s relationships. It’s loving people. … It’s all about relationships, and relationships have gotten me here.”
Thumbnail photo via Zack Cox/NESN.com