BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — A Patriots media relations staffer finished counting and happily proclaimed, “Every one’s here. Perfect attendance.”
It was Wednesday’s media session, four days before New England confronts the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. Perfect attendance was good news.
Receiving it was Jack Easterby, whose official title — character coach/team development – is as surprising to see in an NFL front office as his role has become indispensable for the longest-running dynasty in NFL history.
A review of the media guides of the 31 other NFL franchises revealed New England is the only one to employ a character coach.
“I always make sure everybody’s here,” Easterby told USA TODAY Sports. “If someone wasn’t on time, or was taking too long in the bathroom, or skipping, I need to know. I like to get ahead on any issues.”
Easterby won’t be considered for any head coaching jobs and goes mostly unnoticed by those on the outside, but he may be the most crucial member not named Bill Belichick on the coaching staff.
“Character and the kind of people you hire is something that our country is in desperate need to get back to evaluating,” Easterby said. “Unfortunately, sometimes it matters most when we count it the least. And when we evaluate it the least, it matters most. It’s tough, but we have seen a lot of businesses and industries fall because of a lack of character.
“One of the things we’ve seen come up in our culture lately — from the (Harvey) Weinstein case and so many others – we’ve seen that choices matter.”
Easterby was hired in 2013 to help the team manage the fallout after tight end Aaron Hernandez was charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd, a member of the organization told USA TODAY Sports. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment on the matter.
One described the locker room then as reeling, something not unfamiliar to Easterby.
He served as the team chaplain of the Kansas City Chiefs from 2011-12. On Dec. 1, 2012, linebacker Jovan Belcher, 25, fatally shot his girlfriend at their home before he drove to the Chiefs facility and committed suicide.
Easterby’s first role in the NFL was as the assistant director of football operations with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2005, consulting on salary cap issues. The following year, he headed home to Columbia to act as the University of South Carolina athletic department’s character coach from 2006-11.
“I was just figuring it out,” he said, “but I quickly realized we can’t just talk about problems; we need to work toward solutions.”
Easterby has an office with “an unbending open-door policy.” Walk-ins and appointments are welcomed. Discussed are issues big and small. If Easterby thinks a certain book will help a player, he’ll drop it off at his locker. He writes personal letters and provides motivational quotes and posters. He often shares scripture and holds Bible study. Though he tries not to get too involved in personnel decisions, Easterby has been involved when Belichick has sought his opinion.
“Jack has been huge in my life,” left tackle Nate Solder, who was treated for testicular cancer in 2014 and whose son is currently being treated for a rare form of kidney cancer, told USA TODAY Sports. “He’s one of my close friends. I call him about everything. I really, really appreciate his friendship.”
“I had a problem at home,” safety Duron Harmon told USA TODAY Sports. “I didn’t know how to leave work behind so that when I came home, I was just Dad, not the football player no more. Meeting with him, he helped me find peace to let me know how to deal with it.”
As fullback James Develin told USA TODAY Sports: “Before every game – and I mean every game – he comes up to each of us and tells us he appreciates us.”
Easterby joins the squad at practice. He’s not limited, however, to the sidelines. He has led drills – “throwing passes to fat, defensive guys” — and has even played scout-team quarterback in a pinch.
Easterby was a guest at safety Devin McCourty’s wedding. He invites players to breakfast, lunch, and dinner – often at his home with his family. He has hosted Wiffle ball games in his backyard. He opens up about his past, doles out high-fives, fist bumps, and hugs.
“Around other teams, you have people like that, but from what I’ve seen, they’re all pretenders,” defensive end Ricky Jean Francois, who joined the Patriots in November, told USA TODAY Sports. “Just because they want to be around football players and get things. This guy here, every day, he walks up to us and feeds us positivity. Every single day. This dude is not pretending.”
And it’s not only players whom Easterby counsels.
“Sometimes it’s actually working with a guy who wants to be a head coach and talking about leadership and growth,” Easterby said, before he paused, looked, and pointed in the direction of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who is expected to be named head coach of the Detroit Lions after the Super Bowl. “It doesn’t really matter who it is.”
Easterby speaks in short, sequential sentences. He lists examples to prove his points. He’s tall, balding and lanky. He wields a syrupy Southern drawl and brims with seemingly endless positive energy.
But he’s a white character coach in a league with a majority of players who are black.
Yet, based on numerous interviews with white and black players, none said it prevented them from sharing personal matters. Each said his authenticity made it easy to relate to him.
“We’ve been through some things recently — things that have gone on in our country and things that have gone on in the league,” Easterby said of the political climate and social activism in the NFL. “I just think that love wins. Communication with others wins. Servanthood wins. That’s why when we went through some of the stuff we went through earlier this year, it was a conversation, not a judgment."
By Wednesday night, back at New England’s team hotel, Easterby was gathering a group of players for a Bible study. His background is religious, but Easterby is careful not to force it on anyone. He sometimes swaps out “sin” in conversation with “mistakes” in an attempt to appeal to all.
NFL locker rooms are complex. Personal issues and problems abound, and there’s no manual for how to best navigate sensitive topics. Complicating matters further, what works for one may not help another.
“My role is to simply serve,” Easterby said. “To help them create healthier relationships, healthier viewpoints, so that they can become the kind of people they want. Doing that would make them more sustainable in just about everything.”