Love in the Time of Deflategate

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ON THE NIGHT of Dec. 1, 2012, a man named Jack Easterby -- a lanky and balding former college basketball player and golfer with a thick Southern accent and a demeanor so relentlessly positive that it approaches goofy -- stood before the Kansas City Chiefs and tried to make sense of death. Not just death: a murder-suicide.

That morning, shortly after killing his girlfriend with 10 shots, Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher arrived at the team parking lot with a handgun. He was distraught, crazed, panicked. A few team officials surrounded him, pleading with him to surrender his weapon and to not do any more damage. From down the road a police siren grew louder. Belcher decided it was over. "You know that I've been having some major problems at home and with my girlfriend," he said. "I have hurt my girl already, and I can't go back now." Belcher knelt behind his car, made the sign of a cross on his chest and shot himself in the head.

Easterby, the Chiefs' chaplain, was in the team building preparing a Saturday service when the gun went off. Just hours later, players and coaches were waiting for consoling words from a man who, if the team hadn't drafted punter Ryan Succop out of South Carolina with the very last pick in 2009, they never would have known. Easterby had been the chaplain at South Carolina. Early in his second season, Succop asked Easterby to lead Bible study for the Chiefs, and Easterby demonstrated such an innate ability to connect with players -- listening rather than talking, investing more in their lives than their games, assigning homework rather than uttering empty maxims -- that Chiefs GM Scott Pioli came to personally pay for his flights from Columbia, South Carolina, to Kansas City.

That night, while players wondered what they could have done to prevent tragedy, Easterby felt prepared for his talk as if he had been born for it. "There is hope beyond these moments," he began. "There's something bigger going on." He told them that if they prepared for death and for the life that continued after it, today's devastation would linger less. He hugged a lot of guys. He gave everyone in the room a list of notes from his speech. He told them they could call him at any time. He combated crisis with love, plain and simple. "Men left encouraged," former Chiefs linebacker Andy Studebaker remembers. "And they left in tears."

Eight months later, in July 2013, the Patriots opened training camp with many wondering whether they had lost their way. The arrest of Aaron Hernandez on murder charges rattled many on the team. The post-Spygate years had seen them lose two Super Bowls, which gave license for some to question the validity of the three they had won. Some players privately struggled with the ruthless reality of life in the NFL, where the machine and the pressure can become too much. Something bigger than football seemed to be at stake. The team needed someone. Strange as it sounds, special-teams star Matt Slater says, they needed someone who would "offer love with no strings attached."

They hired Jack Easterby.

"TONIGHT, MY GOAL is that you'll never be the same."

Easterby says that often in his devotionals, with the swagger of a hitter calling his shot. It's an invitation, and dozens of athletes and coaches -- from Tom Brady to Brady Quinn, from Bill Belichick to South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley -- have accepted it. They don't always buy into Easterby's gospel, but they buy into Easterby himself. His job is to be trustworthy, and it doesn't help him earn trust if he's out there talking about it, which is why he politely declined to speak for this story. "He's just a great person and friend," Brady says. "You feel a special connection with him and with his genuine caring for all the people in his life."

The Patriots, since his hire, say they are not the same, no matter what happens in Super Bowl XLIX and no matter the result of Ted Wells' investigation into whether the team illegally deflated footballs in the AFC championship game. Owner Robert Kraft calls Easterby a "wonderful individual," and Brady has told friends Easterby is one of the main reasons for the Patriots' success this past year. Safety Devin McCourty calls him "a godsend to this team" who has "helped create better men."

Easterby's presence in New England has been as welcome as it is strange. A man known for being a "big hugger, a loud hugger," as Pioli says, now roams the halls of a building where men are so lost in thought they often neglect to say hello as they beeline to their offices. An organization that proudly suffers wins as hard as it does losses -- once, after the Pats missed a fourth-and-inches in a blowout win, Belichick griped to the players, "Fourth and the size of my d--- and we can't get the first down?" -- now relies on an eternal optimist who, rather than referring to the Ten Commandments as "Thou Shalt Nots" calls them "the list of God's dos."

Easterby has a gift for making others feel better about themselves. Players say it's hard to overstate how precious that is, working for a fiercely bottom-line team and in a league they believe targets them unfairly. When Easterby talks to players or coaches, he pulls them in for an embrace, raising their handshake to his heart. He fixes his eyes to theirs so long without blinking that it's both awkward and somehow liberating. He is 31 years old, young enough to relate but old enough to have some scars. He tells them football is temporary, to never forget how blessed they are and to focus on their gifts -- their beautiful wives or girlfriends or children, their ability to earn a living playing sports. He always closes by reminding them he's a quick judge of character, and he can tell by the look in their eyes they are men of integrity. It's not something Patriots players and coaches have heard much since 2007, and certainly not a term used to describe them during the deflated footballs controversy in the run-up to Super Bowl XLIX.

THE TYPICAL TEAM chaplain is a pastor at a local church who volunteers to host Saturday chapel for 10 or so players who attend and is compensated with cash in a collection plate. In New England, Easterby has an office -- and it's near Belichick's. He is a classic Belichick hire: The more he can do, the more he does. He 
hosts Bible study, works coaches' hours in his office counseling players and their wives, throws passes in practice to Darrelle Revis and sometimes even jumps in on scout-team drills. When he's not listening, he's texting. When he's not texting, he's writing players and coaches individual notes, recapping their personal goals and reminding them of how thankful he is to know them. He prefers to be called a character coach, not a chaplain, because he doesn't push religion on anyone. "He just wants to love you," Slater says. "He just wants to be your friend. How can you not love a guy like that?"

Love doesn't come up often in football, but when guys speak of Easterby they use the word all the time. His first job after graduating with a degree in sports management from Newberry College in South Carolina, his home state, was in the ticket office of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Easterby later told friends it felt empty. After he had devoted his life to Christ as a freshman in college, he envisioned a career in helping people: part father, part brother, part friend. In 2005, he got a job as the academic adviser for the Gamecocks men's basketball team. He began hosting Bible study for all of USC's athletes and coaches, and he learned how to bond with all kinds of young men -- fatherless, fathers themselves, black, white, rich, poor -- by focusing like a laser on what they needed, not what he wanted. "Jack cut across all religious beliefs," says then-coach Dave Odom.

Like Belichick and Brady, Easterby is obsessed with process -- only his process is self-actualization. He challenges those he counsels to be better people the way coaches challenge them to be better players. He speaks to them in language they're familiar with, with occasional cuss words and the drive of a former athlete. He's written a devotion called the Competitor's Creed. I am a Competitor now and forever. I am made to strive, to strain, to stretch and to succeed in the arena of competition. ... My attitude on and off the field is above reproach, my conduct beyond criticism. Whether I am preparing, practicing or playing, I submit to God's authority and those He has put over me. I respect my coaches, officials, teammates and competitors out of respect for the Lord.

Once in a note to a coach, Easterby quoted Teddy Roosevelt's speech about being the "man in the arena" who was daring to be great, and he signed it:
Aiming to be the man in the arena,

Professional football players are drawn to type-A personalities like Easterby, who years ago as the officiant of Brady Quinn's wedding wrestled the schedule away from the wedding planner and streamlined the process to make it easier for the bride and groom. Players can relate to a deep-seated desire to be great. Easterby is not the only character coach in the NFL, but he might be the most ambitious one. He leaves his wife, Holly, and two young daughters in South Carolina and spends Thursday to Monday in Foxborough, arriving at 5 a.m. most mornings. "He makes personal sacrifices, and guys recognize that," Pioli says. And when your ambition is to give, it tends to bring out the best in those around you. Says Odom, "He is so good at helping players understand the opportunity 
they have to give to others; 'I care and give -- now you go care and give.'"

After one loss during the disastrous 2012 season in Kansas City, Easterby searched the building for Pioli. Easterby's three years with the Chiefs, he later told people, stretched him. He saw a playoff team and he saw a 2-14 season. He saw a murder-suicide. And he learned -- right before he got a call from the Patriots saying, "We heard you're the best in the league at what you do and we want to bring you up here" -- how important simple acts of devotion are in the silent turmoil of an NFL facility. That day, Pioli avoided Easterby because he knew what Jack wanted. He wanted to give him a hug. Pioli didn't want a hug. Well, that wasn't quite true. He did want a hug, but he didn't want to admit he wanted one. For years, he had heard Bill Parcells and Belichick grouse about the lonely life at the top, and now Pioli felt it. Easterby, undeterred, seemed to sense it. When he finally cornered Pioli, the two of them stared at each other like it was a gunfight.

"Jack," Pioli said sternly, "don't do it."

Jack did it, all right. And held it a few seconds long too.

FOR A MOMENT, put aside the report that 11 of 12 Patriots footballs in the AFC championship game were found to be underinflated. Stop wondering what might have happened in the 90 seconds a Patriots ball boy is reported to have spent in the men's room. Now imagine life with no benefit of the doubt. With guilt by association. With people dismissing your life's work as a byproduct of a culture of cheating. And with the presumption that you're shady because your organization's past indiscretion is hanging over your every move as you prepare to play in the biggest game of the year.

It's exhausting. It's dispiriting. And blind anger -- the clichéd us-against-them mentality -- only goes so far. Belichick always tells his players nobody is going to feel sorry for them.

But Jack Easterby does.

"As macho as we are in this locker room, we all want to be loved," Slater says. "As men, sometimes we don't know how to deal with different emotions or ups and downs. We don't grieve the way we should, experience sadness the way we should or express joy the way we should, because we're so focused on the job. Jack has been there to say, 'It's OK to be down. It's OK to have heartache.'"

In 2013, Slater broke his wrist and missed four games. He felt something worse than the dull panic common to injured athletes. He felt self-pity. Easterby indulged the feeling rather than burying it, saw it through rather than trivializing it and softened Slater's anger rather than inflating it. One of Easterby's aims is to help players unearth an inner joy that is more sustaining than having a chip on their shoulder. "If proving yourself becomes your identity," he tells guys, "it's a dangerous way to live." Slater emerged liberated and somehow thinking clearer. "The game of football can be taken away at any time," Easterby said. "Never forget what Jesus has done for you. Don't forget what's important." That, Slater says now, "was freeing to me. I said, 'You know what? The sadness and disappointment is temporary.'" Slater ended the season at the Pro Bowl.

Throughout the Deflategate investigation, Easterby has become something more than a character coach. Like a defense attorney, he serves his clients come what may. If the Pats are exonerated, he'll have helped them weather the storm. If not, he will embrace the chance to help them learn from it. You could see traces of Easterby's language in the language of the Patriots during Super Bowl week. Brady first admitted he "personalized" attacks on his character, a pristine reputation that some seemed so eager to trash. But he soon refocused. "Everyone will say, 'God, it's been a tough week for you,'" he said. "But it's been a great week for me, to really be able to recalibrate the things that are important in my life and understand the people that support me, and love me, and care about me."

It seemed too earnest to be true, but it also seemed to help. And as the team spent 
Super Bowl week deflecting questions about its character, the character coach texted guys to say he was grateful for "another opportunity to serve" and "blessed to have a chance to impact."

IN THE THIRD quarter of the AFC championship game, Easterby stood on the sideline in the rain. That quarter was the decisive moment of the game. The Patriots scored 21 unanswered points, all with legal footballs. The players and the crowd began to smell a Super Bowl trip. At the time, nobody knew that an investigation was looming. Players started to shout, to celebrate and dance.

Team chaplains often say they don't feel part of the team. They are expected to be on call, with little reward beyond the work itself. Sensing this, Slater approached Easterby, jumping and yelling, all but imploring him to join in. But for once, Easterby didn't offer hugs. For once, he seemed overwhelmed by the moment.

"I'm so humbled to be a part of this," he said, and turned back to the game, ready to serve.