ATLANTA -- Jack Easterby will have a final message for the Patriots before Super Bowl LIII. It'll be the culmination of a season's worth of messages he's provided the team, messages that have come in many forms, messages that players feel as though have been crucial to them in their journey to Sunday's kickoff.
"I think it's important as men that you have something that grounds you, something that's bigger than the game of football," Matthew Slater said this week. "And for many of the men in this locker room, Jack's opened eyes to things that are greater. Obviously, for many of us that's faith in Jesus Christ. But he has really caused guys to think about things differently.
"I think that perspective has brought our group closer together, has built the character of our locker room, and I certainly don't think we're here without him."
Easterby has been a publicly quiet presence on the Patriots staff en route to four Super Bowl appearances in his six years in New England. As the character coach, director of team development and team chaplain, he is a versatile member of Bill Belichick's roster of employees, but is rarely made available to reporters.
Media Night, which took place Monday, was one of those rare occasions. It was there that Easterby explained the fascinating juxtaposition that is his job: He works for a team that is hyper-focused on the here-and-now, a team that is singularly obsessed with winning football games, yet his successes can't be found in the standings and they'll be judged in what he calls "wider windows."
Easterby will tell you he's thrilled the Patriots have made another Super Bowl. He rides the highs and lows of a roller coaster season along with the players and coaches he's befriended, counseled and with whom he's prayed.
But reaching the Super Bowl is not his priority at the outset of the season. The wins, for him, are different.
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"They're a lot different," he said. "And they'll be judged in much wider windows than an NFL season. I think you have to be OK with that. It won't be in the microwave. It's in the crockpot. That's what I like to tell our guys. It won't be a switch where I can measure it on the scoreboard . . .
"I don't know if you have a scoreboard. But I think in the wide windows it comes back to personal progress, relationship stability, and people having stable lives, then hurdles that people didn't know that they could get over. Hopefully with encouragement and accountability and goal-setting and all that they can get over it. It's not easily measurable, but it's a wide window."
The NFL, of course, is a results-driven business. So why would the Patriots go out of their way to hire someone who doesn't measure his performance by wins and losses? Why do those "wider windows" matter?
Stability and personal progress are valid pursuits regardless of one's profession. But do they lead to results for a football team?
The Patriots are believers.
'HE BROUGHT A SENSE OF CALM'
Easterby worked in a variety of roles in the sports realm before arriving in New England. He had a brief run with the Jaguars' football operations department, then he worked as the University of South Carolina's character coach following his studies at Erskine and Liberty Theological Seminaries.
Over the years, he quickly became a leading figure in the sports management and sports leadership worlds. He's consulted for Team USA, Clemson and the SEC. He's helped with college head-coaching searches.
In 2011 he was hired by the Chiefs. The next year, Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend and then took his own life in the team parking lot. Easterby's efforts to make sense of things during that turbulent time were well-documented by ESPN.
The Patriots hired Easterby before the 2013 season, and less than a year after the tragedy in Kansas City, Aaron Hernandez was arrested.
"He came in at a time when we were going through a difficult transition, kind of a traumatic time in our organization," Slater said. "I think he brought a sense of calm, a sense of understanding, a greater sense of purpose to a lot of men's lives."
Since his arrival, since helping players deal with the difficulties associated with that time, Slater said, "Jack's really changed the culture here."
'THERE'S NEVER A PUSH'
Part of Easterby's duties are to organize team chapels and Bible study sessions on Mondays. On game days, he's at the forefront of different portions of the day for players looking for prayer to be present in their routine. He's been a part of postgame prayers on the field, and his pregame chapel is a valued part of the process for a great deal of Patriots players.
Patriots defensive lineman Lawrence Guy said he'll ask Easterby to give him a more customized prayer at his locker before games.
"It's one of those things, he don't have to that," Guy said. "For him to take time out to do it, it's a blessing. And anyone who asks him, he'll do it, and it's your own unique prayer. He gets to know you personally and he customizes the prayer just for you. That's what I like to do. I like to get a prayer before every game. It's just me and him. If there's something new or something old that's happened, he makes sure to study the context and understands what's going on on and off the field with you so he can keep your spirits up."
Rookie defensive back Keion Crossen said that in part because of what he's learned from Easterby this year, he has plans for late April at the Chapel Grove Baptist Church in his hometown of Garysburg, North Carolina.
"He's helped me stay on track, avoid distractions," Crossen said. "He's helped me enhance my knowledge of the Bible to the point that I can go back home and perform my first service, preach my first service."
But when Easterby refers to his "curriculum" for the team, it goes beyond prayer.
He organizes team-building activities, like basketball competitions at the facility, trips off-site, or games between teams of Patriots teammates.
Easterby's door is open and his phone is on for players to have his ear whenever they feel as though they need it.
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"He's very intentional," Slater said. "He's very intentional about building relationships, about spending time and investing in our men. We do things daily . . . He's intentional about meeting with couples, meeting with single guys. He actually did pre-marital counseling for my wife and I. He does it all. He wears a lot of hats. But he's very intentional about every interaction. He's very genuine. I don't think I've met a more genuine person in my mind."
Then there are what are known as "Fellowship Fridays."
Fridays at Gillette Stadium often are referred to as "Fat Fridays" because the Patriots will deviate from the norm and provide players with meals that give them a little caloric bump at the end of the week. Think Popeyes or Five Guys.
Fellowship Fridays are an informal meet up that mesh nicely with Fat Fridays, giving players and Easterby a chance to eat together and talk in a relaxed atmosphere.
"We have our special food on Friday that we have catered in," Jason McCourty said. "It's probably about a group of 10 of us that all sit at one table and it's like round-table. It's all guys sitting around, discussing NFL, NBA, current events. Nothing's off limits.
"We just sit there and talk, unwind from the week as we get ready for whatever opponent is coming up . . . Jack will tell us, 'Fellowship Friday! Get your talk ready!' So a lot of trash talk goes on, but it's those things I feel like when you come back 10 years later, and you're around guys from the team, you'll talk about Fellowship Friday, what guys discuss and the laughs that we shared."
For Easterby, his curriculum goes beyond religion because on a team of 53 players -- not including practice squad members or those on injured reserve -- coaches and front office people, he's not looking to push anything on anyone.
"Every Bible study we do is optional," Easterby said. "It's optional. There's never a push. Everybody's raised differently. Some people it's really important to them. Some people have other faiths.
"I think as it relates to character and trying to grow people, there are some common truths. You want to tell the truth. You want to love. You want to communicate effectively. There are some common truths that we need, just for life. That would kind of go more under the 'life skills' portion for guys that may not be Christian. You want to have a good marriage. You want to have a good life. You want to be successful. Just try to dig into those if it's not a particular Bible study conversation. Everything's optional. I don't force anything on anybody. They'd tell you that. I just try to love them where they are. Everybody's on a different journey. Everybody's got a story. Yours isn't better than mine. Mine isn't better than yours. It's just different. I just try to love each person and make each person as I interact with them better than I found 'em."
'ALL IN ON EVERYBODY'
Easterby seems to have an ability to cultivate relationships with anyone and everyone interested in seeking him out. It requires a great deal of effort, and he credited his wife Holly for helping him deal with whatever weight may come with having that number of friendships to track in an industry where turnover is a year-to-year (and week-to-week) reality.
"As someone who isn't religious, I wasn't expecting to have as much of a relationship with Jack as some of the other guys," backup offensive lineman James Ferentz said. "But it's really been quite the opposite. Jack is just really more of a friend than anything. He's someone we can all kind of go to advice on anything regardless of the stage of life we're at. I just had a second kid and one of the first guys in the building to ask how's everybody doing, how's mom, etc. was Jack . . .
"I guess if you were to label it, I'm a minority in that sense [as someone who isn't religious], but I don't feel like it. I don't think Jack treats me any differently. I don't think anyone on the team treats me any differently. But that's an aspect of life I don't engage in as much as other guys. But that's what makes Jack really good at his job. He knows how to handle a guy like me in the same ways as a guy who does go to Bible study every day."
Ferentz added: "With Jack it's not one foot in, one foot out. He's all in on everybody, whether you're here for a week or however many years. It's a testament to how much effort he puts into his job, and it shows. I think that's why guys buy in and trust and like Jack. He is able to build relationships. He's not saying, 'Oh you're on the team, I'm gonna check the box.' When he asks you, 'How are you doing?' He's wondering how are you doing. He's serious."
Players past and present lauded Easterby for his ability to "bridge the gap" between groups of players, helping a large number of people feel as though they had some common bond while also helping them individually when needed.
Easterby was part of the team to help Josh Gordon's transition to the Patriots, offering the kind of round-the-clock assistance from which Gordon and knew he would benefit after he was traded.
Easterby didn't want to discuss his involvement with Gordon, but said, "I would tell you though, in all the situations -- like here? -- you get crazy excited for the guys you love to experience success. These guys are going through [Media Night], we talked to them today, what to say tonight, how to get the message out. They're excited. They're about to go to the Super Bowl.
"Then when a guy goes through a problem or anything, a personal challenge, your heart sinks, because you want better. You want, hey, let's get it right. I would say the emotions involved in that are natural. This year was like any year, it has roller coasters. Just pulling for continued growth and love and support."
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Easterby counseled Rob Ninkovich as he wrestled with the decision to retire, and a little less than a year later he sat down rookie Duke Dawson to let him know what it meant to be a professional, how to handle yourself, and how to prepare for inevitable bumps in the road.
This past offseason, Easterby also helped put Jason McCourty at ease as he transitioned from a stressful environment in Cleveland to a different type of stress in Foxboro.
"I talked to him about last year, just struggling a little bit with my faith, dealing with family, dealing with the adversities of football, of losing," McCourty said. "He said let's attack it head-on this year. No matter what, he's been there for each and every guy in that locker room. If you go to him, he's never turned anybody away."
Work with coaches is a part of Easterby's role as well. He was deemed so valuable by Josh McDaniels that it was reported had McDaniels taken the Colts job last offseason, Easterby would've gone with him.
"Jack is a special human being," McDaniels said, "and at the end of the day we're all people. The impact he's had on every person in our building beyond football, beyond Xs and Os, beyond meetings and film sessions and practice and all the rest of it is immeasurable. At the end of the day, you got a group of people in our meeting room, you sit down in our squad meeting, and we feel pretty bonded together. We care for one another. We've tried to do the right things in our lives personally and professionally. He's a huge part of that.
"He's impacted as many people as he possibly can on a daily basis. What he's able to do with our young people, our new people, coaches. He's changed my life completely. Through faith and his presence and ability to connect with everybody -- players, coaches of all ages, backgrounds, whatever it is -- he's been able to do it. Because he cares about us as people. He's a unique, unique guy that impacts our building in so many ways it's hard to quantify."
McDaniels acknowledged that he doesn't often talk about his faith, but he pointed to Easterby as the person who helped him understand how important it is in his life.
"When you understand what you believe in and you're connected to it, I just feel like it's a really healthy way to be," McDaniels said. "He's unlocked that in a lot of us. Doesn't try to persuade anybody to think anything. He just tries to help us be the best version of us that we can be, and I think it's a great thing."
Brian Flores, who is expected to be named head coach of the Dolphins soon after the Super Bowl, feels similarly attached to Easterby.
"I talk to Jack every day," Flores said. "I spend a lot of time with him. He's been a great influence to this team and to me personally. I call him a friend. A dear friend. Someone who's impact on the team is immense. It really is . . .
"I do Bible study with Jack so it's an opportunity for me to re-center myself. That's really important to me. He's definitely someone who's encouraging. He talks about humility on a daily basis. We have a very like-minded way of thinking. It's good to have some of the thoughts that I believe in reinforced when he says it. We have a great relationship and we go back and forth and try to make each other better. Iron sharpens iron."
'IT DEFINITELY PAYS DIVIDENDS'
Back in December, Belichick was asked about his team's back-to-back losses to Miami and Pittsburgh. His answer was similar to those he'd given before after losses.
"Look," he said. "It's a bottom-line business. You want to win every week."
So how does Easterby get the Patriots to that end goal when it's very clearly not his target? By focusing on everything but football.
"It would be naive for us to think that guys go out on the football field and forget about everything," Jerod Mayo said. "Especially during practice, where most of the time games are won and lost on the practice field.
"If guys are having problems at home or problems spiritually, emotionally, whatever, and they're not able to talk to a person, get it out there, have someone that you can work your way through these problems with, then you're out on the practice field thinking about some of these things. Having someone who can, I don't want to say hold your burdens for you, but help you think through a lot of this stuff it definitely pays dividends."
On an individual level, Mayo explained, Easterby's counsel, tending to a player's spiritual needs, could be enough to help him perform at his best. Not only might those meetings serve as a catalyst for personal growth, but if they free-up a player's mind to focus on his job, if they free him of some stress in what can be a stressful place to work, he may become a better teammate on game days.
"It's just that it's all about football with Bill," Mayo said. "And he understands that. 'I'm here to make you the best football player and the best football team that I can. Jack, your job is to make sure that when these guys come to practice and things like that, that they're not worried about certain things, that you're able to help them work through some of life's challenges.'
"Think about the guys coming into the league. These are still young men. They're young men. All of sudden they're thrown into the deep end. A lot of times they're taking advice from an agent or family members who really don't know the challenges these guys are going through. Jack has spanned across elite-level basketball and elite-level football. It's good to have that resource. That frees guys up to go out there and perform well on the field. I definitely think there is some correlation between the two."
On a team level, what Easterby does to develop relationships among players and coaches, to foster a sense of community within the building, can also be beneficial on Sundays, Ninkovich said.
"It's like as if you're building a house," he said. "There's different pieces to the building process. You pour the foundation, you have your wood people come in and build the house up. You pick out the bricks. You get the mortar. You're putting the house together and at the end of the day it's a beautiful house but there's a lot of things that go into it that make it a beautiful house. Jack is a piece of that construction that you're trying to put together.
"He's one of the building blocks. He's the binder. Not just the bricks. He's everything that's keeping it strong. You could say the nails that keep the boards in tight. You could say the mortar for the bricks. You could say the glue for the wood floors. The things that keep it tight."
The tighter things are, players indicated, the easier it is to buy into the team concept, and the easier it is to do more to make sure your teammate is taken care of. Finding players who are open to those concepts can be a challenge, though Easterby has traveled with the team to the NFL Scouting Combine in the past. But if those concepts can be cultivated, it would make sense if they eventually had an impact on performance.
"I would say he makes us better men," said Duron Harmon. "When you have just great men, quality men, it makes the team better. We all talk about how we play for each other and play for the team. But when you have men who are just trying to be better at life and not try to take anything for granted and be good human beings it's easy to sacrifice. I think that's a big key as to why we continue to grow."
"I think it comes down to the men in our locker room," Slater said. "A lot of men that have a lot of character beyond the game of football that are grounded by the right things, that believe in things that are bigger than themselves. I think that character goes a long way. There's no way to really measure that. I think you saw that with everything we've been through, good and bad. We've tried to maintain faith in one another and in our process and in the things we hold dear to us, and here we are."
Before the Patriots take the field Sunday, after a season of messages provided, Easterby had one more.
It didn't focus on the game. That's not his realm.
His focus was to ask players and coaches to focus on others. Not in the same way they've focused on others' words at times, fueling themselves by latching onto an underdog mentality. Instead, Easterby asked the Patriots to focus on others who've helped them get to this point.
"We've talked a lot about being glory deflectors," Easterby said. "A lot of times in our life we tend to soak glory or want glory for ourselves. There's a lot of freedom in being a glory deflector. It's not just about me. It's about our family. It's about our team. It's about our community. It's about those who coached youth football when you were five years old, eight years old. It's about those who gave you rides to practice. It's about that.
"I think my philosophy with that this week is to be a glory deflector. Be a reflector for all those people who invested in you to be able to help their story perpetuate through what you're doing. It's not about us. It's something so much bigger than us. If we don't get soaked up in yourself, and you get over yourself, you really free up to be about something really special. That'll be my message."
And if it helps them once the ball is kicked, so be it.
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