When the New England Patriots celebrated their sixth Super Bowl with a ring ceremony in June 2019, coach Bill Belichick pointed to a trip to Fenway Park a year earlier that helped them put their Super Bowl LII loss behind them.
The trip, organized by Patriots development director Jack Easterby, was designed as a team-building activity. According to Houston Texans cornerback Keion Crossen, who was a rookie with the Patriots that season, that day at Fenway "was the spark we needed" and eventually helped propel New England to a Super Bowl victory.
It all started when Easterby challenged the Patriots to be the "team of teams," Crossen recalled Belichick saying at the ceremony.
It was that impact -- and ability to build camaraderie -- that Houston Texans chairman/CEO Cal McNair and then-head coach Bill O'Brien wanted to bring to Houston in 2019.
Now, almost three years after arriving in Houston, Easterby finds himself in charge of football operations after O'Brien was fired in October following an 0-4 start to the 2020 season. It's an unprecedented role for someone who was a team chaplain a decade ago.
The Texans face a pivotal offseason, with McNair in charge of hiring a general manager and head coach, and the expectation from McNair is that Easterby will continue to influence the organization in a leadership role, charged with establishing a positive culture within the Texans organization.
"Let me reiterate what I have said before as there seems to be some confusion -- Jack will not be our general manager," McNair said. "But he will have a significant role in helping shape our future here within the Texans. He is going to be an incredibly valuable part of our franchise moving forward as he works with our next general manager and next head coach."
In the week leading up to the Texans hosting the Patriots on Sunday, Belichick was asked if he ever thought Easterby would pursue a career on the football personnel side.
"Jack's not a personnel person, no," Belichick said.
That comment was not meant to put down Easterby, but it does show the mistake McNair made in giving O'Brien so much power: Because O'Brien hired people to work for him and not with him, there was no natural replacement in place on the personnel side when he was fired.
Entering the 2020 season, the Texans' front office was a simple operation: O'Brien was calling the shots with Easterby as his right-hand man. After O'Brien's dismissal, Easterby was the person in the building that McNair trusted to lead Houston through the transition. After the season, McNair said, Easterby "will switch back to the job he had before, which is in football ops."
"When I made the decision to move on from Bill, there was a void in our organization and we needed someone who could run the football operations," McNair told ESPN. "We needed [interim head coach] Romeo Crennel to focus on coaching the team. Jack Easterby is a great person, a great leader and a consensus builder, so he is who I chose to serve as our interim GM."
But if Easterby isn't a "personnel person," who is he, and how did he get here?
"His genius is not specific to football. It's specific to leadership," said Texas A&M basketball coach Buzz Williams, who got to know Easterby when Williams was coaching at Marquette. "And I think leadership applies no matter the industry that you're in."
How Easterby's career took off
Easterby's NFL journey began in 2011 when then-Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli asked kicker Ryan Succop why there weren't many players involved in the team's Bible study or other off-the-field groups within the organization. Succop told Pioli he thought it was because they didn't have a chaplain or leader.
Did Succop know one? He immediately thought of Easterby, the South Carolina character coach who he met while he was playing for the Gamecocks.
"Once Jack came out one time, people were around him and ... when you're around a guy like Jack, you know he's a special guy," Succop said. "...You want to hear what he has to say. I think he was able to really make a big impact as soon as he got there. Our general manager saw that and they wanted him more involved, and obviously that just led to more and more things and more opportunities for Jack."
When he started working for the Chiefs, Easterby's week usually started at 4 a.m. on Thursday mornings. Easterby drove to Charlotte and took a flight to Kansas City, leaving his wife, Holly, and two daughters. He would stay with the Chiefs until Monday before flying back to South Carolina and working with the Gamecocks on Tuesday and Wednesday. And that went on until the end of football season.
Perhaps the most pivotal moment of Easterby's time in Kansas City came in 2012, after linebacker Jovan Belcher fatally shot his girlfriend and then drove to the team facility and killed himself in front of Pioli and Crennel, who was then the Chiefs' head coach.
"I've always thought that in really hard situations, you kind of find out what people are about," Succop said. "Jack showed exactly who he is through that time."
On to New England
After that season, Easterby was hired by the Patriots as their character coach, helping the organization through a time during which tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged with murder. In New England, Easterby was involved in many parts of the organization and learned from Belichick.
"Jack did a great job for us," Belichick said. "His role was a varied one. He worked with a lot of different aspects of the organization -- players, coaches, support people, so forth. He was a person who could connect well with everybody, from the owner of the team to the equipment manager or equipment guy that picks up towels and all the people in between. He was a very valuable person in this organization in the time he was here."
It was during that time in New England, Crennel said, that Easterby's role grew from being team chaplain to learning more about NFL team operations.
"In New England, he began his rise in the business, learning about personnel, learning about operations and all of those things," Crennel said. "That allowed him to work well with O'Brien when he got here."
Easterby was gaining such a positive reputation during his time with the Patriots that his name was standing out to people across all sports. When Williams was coaching at Marquette, he saw Easterby's name mentioned in a story about his role in New England, but "it didn't really mention what he did for the Patriots." That intrigued Williams enough to reach out to Easterby to learn more.
"After getting to know him, it's easy for me to see his ability to run an organization, but that was part of why I chased him down to learn from him," Williams said. "... His spirit, as far as who he is as a person, is incredibly trustworthy, but because of his skill as a leader, he garners respect immediately. Whether it's a good player, whether it's a good coach, whether it's somebody outside the organization ... his spirit as a person and his skill in what he does, it's just very magnetic."
George Mason athletic director Brad Edwards, who met Easterby at South Carolina and briefly worked with him at Newberry College, said he always thought Easterby would have been "an excellent athletic director." Because of this, he has hired Easterby to help him with coaching searches, including while Edwards was at Jacksonville University and George Mason.
Easterby's "knack for looking at the intangibles of people and programs" that helped him to find coaching candidates has translated to Easterby's role in the Texans' front office, Edwards said. South Carolina women's basketball coach Dawn Staley, who worked with Easterby, said that consistency and ability to build trust is the reason Easterby went from the Gamecocks team chaplain to executive vice president of football operations for an NFL team.
"Like, who really goes into the Patriots and has a great relationship with Belichick and with Tom Brady?" Staley said. "Who does that? They're not letting just anybody in. But they let Jack in. Because he's consistent. He's persistent. You know, he's very knowledgeable. He makes things make sense."
After leaving New England after the 2018 season, Easterby got a call from McNair and O'Brien with a job offer. Easterby chose Houston for the next stop in his career in part because he knew the late Bob McNair from South Carolina, and believed the McNair family's values aligned with his.
Bigger things ahead in Houston
Easterby was hired as the Texans vice president of team development in April 2019. He worked for O'Brien, quickly becoming his right-hand man. In June 2019, Brian Gaine was abruptly fired as general manager.
During the time between Gaine's firing and the start of the 2019 season, the Texans hoped to replace him with Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio. The Texans requested to interview Caserio, a request that was denied. Not long after, New England filed tampering charges against Houston and the team ended its pursuit. Although there was speculation Easterby talked to Caserio about the job at a Patriots ring ceremony that took place the day before Gaine was fired, Belichick told reporters the week before the teams played in 2019 that the tampering situation "didn't have anything to do with Jack Easterby."
Without a general manager in the 2019 season, O'Brien's power was unparalleled in the NFL. Even in New England, Belichick had Caserio and a front-office staff around him. Over the years, the Patriots have had multiple front-office personnel hired as general managers across the league. In Houston, it was O'Brien making the big decisions with Easterby helping execute them. Some of that even included negotiating contracts, including the huge extension to keep quarterback Deshaun Watson in Houston through the 2025 season.
"[Jack has] great organizational knowledge of how to structure an organization," O'Brien told the Houston Chronicle in September 2019, "everything from the cafeteria to the weight room to contracts to roster decisions. He has a good knowledge of football, personnel, skill sets, what we're looking for. ... But he has an in-depth knowledge of a lot of different things relative to football. And then he has a great way about him."
Now Easterby is the highest-ranking front-office person in terms of title in the Texans' organization. Director of player personnel Matt Bazirgan is also heavily involved in the day-to-day operations and has strong influence, but Easterby is captaining the ship until there's a full-time general manager hired after the season.
Although Easterby's jump to a leadership role and personnel role might surprise some people around the league, those close to him said that while they might not have guessed he'd ever be running an NFL team, the fact he's in a leadership role isn't a shock at all.
"When he was with us at South Carolina, you just knew he was built for something great," former Gamecocks basketball player Courtney Newton-Gonzalez said.
And taking over for O'Brien after he was fired?
"Jack's a worker," Staley said. "Jack is someone that has an insatiable appetite and a desire to learn and grow. And although he may have been on the operations side, he doesn't have blinders on. I mean, he's seeing the entire picture of what's happening. He's a fixer. So this is kind of right up his alley, to move over and utilize some of the things that he's familiarized himself with while being in the NFL."