Monday, September 09, 2019

Several players, including Matthew Slater, replace character coach Jack Easterby

Jack Easterby, who was the Patriots character coach, greets players during a workout last season. (New England Patriots, Journal file/ Eric Adler)
Mark Daniels

FOXBORO — There’s an office inside Gillette Stadium that once served as a safe space. It was here that players and coaches were able to pour their hearts out, solve problems and try to become better men on and off the football field.
For six years, this is where Jack Easterby did his work. Today, the office is vacant and has been since the Patriots former character coach left in the offseason to join the Houston Texans.
From 2013-2018, Easterby served as a calming influence over players in Foxboro. His sudden departure left players scrambling. There was a brief sense of panic among some of his closest Patriots supporters.
“I was concerned initially about how we were going to attack it,” Matthew Slater said. “I had some good conversations with a coach about it. I sent out a super, super long group text to some of the core guys that I knew valued Jack’s role and were impacted by it. I think we got creative about how we wanted to approach it.”
The departure hit Slater the hardest. Prior to Easterby’s arrival, he led Bible study and organized chapel services. When the character coach came to Foxboro, it alleviated some of Slater’s responsibilities. Naturally, Slater, who’s a married father of three, felt some pressure to step up again.
“I told Slater all offseason long, ‘You can’t go be Jack. It won’t be fair to you, your family. You just can’t be a player and do the extra things that Jack did,’ ” Devin McCourty said. “We just all got to chip in and do it together as a group.”
The team didn’t make a hire to replace Easterby. That’s why a group of veterans banded together to tackle the challenge for themselves. Led by Slater, players like the McCourty twins, Rex Burkhead, Duron Harmon, David Andrews, Ben Watson and Stephen Gostkowski have divvied up responsibilities to help replace the team’s character coach.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Inside Gillette Stadium, it’s taking a village to replace Jack Easterby.
Banding together
Easterby was hired in 2013 following the arrest of Aaron Hernandez. He was recommended to Bill Belichick by Scott Pioli. Easterby worked with Pioli as the Kansas City Chiefs’ chaplain when linebacker Jovan Belcher took his own life in the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot.
Prior to Super Bowl LIII, Easterby described his role as the “glue” of the Patriots. The character coach did a laundry list of things for the team, among them was leading the Bible study, helping rookies integrate to the NFL and acting as a counselor.
Players today also have resources inside the building that aren’t player driven. They have access to local therapists, counselors and pastors.
“Obviously nobody can come in and do his role,” Harmon said. “People are kind of divvying up the roles. The thing about this team, we’ve got great leaders. ... That kind of helps, too, for losing Jack. It’s going to be a process. It’ll be something we obviously have to work through and continue to try to figure out what’s the best way you fill that role.”
Easterby was also viewed as the Patriots problem-solver. When players had an issue, he was the person to see. Part of his job was to get ahead of issues before they blew up in the locker room. Prior to Super Bowl LIII, Slater credited Easterby with helping the Patriots stay together.
That’s why Slater drafted and sent out his long group text message back in March. The captain wanted to create a plan to help the team get over this loss prior to the start of offseason workout program. Slater challenged his teammates to step up and out of their comfort zone.
“I really thought we needed to be intentional about it,” Slater said. “I don’t think you sit back and say, well, hopefully that falls into place. Hopefully, we can get something going. There’s a core group of guys on this team that I feel like, ‘all right, you’ve been a student for the last five-to-six years now. It’s time to step up and lead.’ They’ve definitely answered the call.”
New (and old) roles
A few years ago, Easterby had a strange request for the chef at SkipJack’s, a seafood restaurant in Patriot Place. He asked for jars of peanut butter and jelly for a special clinic he was running for the team’s incoming rookie class.
Easterby had the rookies team up in pairs of two and compete to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while using only one instruction at a time. For example, “take the lid off the jar.” Next, “pick up the knife.” The goal was to improve their communication skills.
Every year, Easterby helped the Patriots rookie class integrate to their new lives as professional athletes. This year, that role belongs to Burkhead. The running back is one of several veterans with new responsibilities this season.
“I’m helping some of the rookies along,” Burkhead said. “Whether that’s outside of (the building) or inside. Playbook stuff. Really making sure they’re locked in or having a good understanding of what the NFL life is. Really not just coming in and guessing every single day, looking around. Make sure they have a plan of action for each day they come in.”
For several of Easterby’s disciples, the work they’re currently doing comes naturally.
McCourty now helps with pre-game prayers and chapel services. Slater is back to organizing and running the team’s Bible studies. He seeks guidance from a Foxboro-based preacher to help him in this area. Slater’s goal is to help players see themselves as not just football players, but fathers, friends and husbands. He’s aiming to help his teammates better themselves.
“It’s been big for our team,” Slater said. “The culture on our team has shifted quite a bit as a result of it. I think we have to try to continue with that structure.”
“I think it’s kind of been second nature to us,” McCourty added. “In our minds, we already do this whether it’s each week or whatever day we do something. For us, it’s what we do. We just try to keep that going.”
Inside help
The Patriots have an advantage when it comes to replacing Easterby. It’s Slater.
There’s not a single person in the Patriots locker room who would be shocked if Slater one day took a similar path as the team’s former character coach. The 33-year-old hopes to become a preacher when his playing days are over. It was only natural he would grow close to Easterby, who is also a preacher. Slater is a seven-time Pro Bowler and special-teams captain since 2011, but has a hard time viewing himself as just a pro athlete.
“I’ve always felt that’s why I’ve been here,” Slater said. “Masquerading around as a football player so I can tell people about the Lord, hopefully point them to Christ, build relationships, connect with people and football will always, in my mind, be second to that.”
McCourty still tries to take the pressure off Slater. He wants him to remain as “one of the guys,” but admits Slater’s openness and honesty make him one of the easiest people to talk with in Gillette. Burkhead said Slater influences his life both on and off the field and provides a great example as a husband and father.
It’s similar with Harmon, who calls Slater the most positive person in his life.
“Having Matt is like an older brother who’s challenged me in my faith, challenged me as not only a football player but as a man,” Harmon said. “To be a better man each and every day to the people who love me the most, like my family, my wife, my kids and having him there, is kind of like already having a pastor. I know he doesn’t have the actual title, but how he carries himself and how he mentors and how he leads; it’s amazing.”
With the start of the 2019 regular season on Sunday, the Patriots will press forward without the glue that’s held them together. There’s some uncertainty in how this will all unfold without Easterby, but thanks to players like Slater, the team is keeping the faith that they will figure it out together.
“It’s tough. Jack Easterby is one of a kind,” Slater said. “No one is going to be able to do what Jack did, obviously. Everyone can hopefully try to find their niche and go from there.”

Popular Posts