Made in Cola Town: Jack Easterby

Jack Easterby plays on the mission field of pro football

Jack Easterby has never played football but is touted as a game-changer in the National Football League. He can be boisterous, but he shuns attention. His energy level never seems to wane in a job that can make a man grow weary. His persona is larger than life, even as he exhorts young athletes to embrace humility. 

“Humility,” Jack told a group of local high school baseball players at a Forest Acres event in 2016, “is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.”

The 35-year-old Columbia native, now the full-time character coach in charge of team development for the New England Patriots, tells young people never to give up on their dreams. He admits to having once wanted to be a professional athlete. But today, he is satisfied with the role he has been given. “Yes, it would be awesome to be one of very few elite athletes, who win the Masters or play on the PGA tour, or play in the NFL or NBA. But the Lord has something in store for all of us, and every story is important, and every person is sitting somewhere, dreaming of what they’re going to be. Understand that your story is not less important than someone else’s. It’s your story, and God has an amazing plan for that.”

Jack never imagined that his own story would take him to the NFL. “All of athletics and all of life is mostly predicated on relationships,” Jack says. His friendship with former University of South Carolina kicker Ryan Succop led to his being called to serve as chaplain for the Kansas City Chiefs, which, in turn, led him to move to Foxboro, Massachusetts, to work for the Patriots. Jack rose to unexpected fame when Seth Wickersham’s 2015 article for ESPN, “The Pats and the Pastor: Love in the Time of Deflategate,” went viral. Lauded for his counsel of players and staff following a tragic murder-suicide among the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, and also as a key cog in the 2014 and 2016 Patriot Super Bowl championship runs, Jack received much more media attention in the years that followed. Countless athletes and coaches described the young chaplain as providing encouragement, leadership, vision, and unconditional love.

Initially Jack commuted weekly to Foxboro while Holly, his wife, and their two daughters, Houston and Harriet, now ages 8 and 5, stayed in Columbia, where Holly and Jack married. Now the family lives just a couple of miles away from the Patriots’ stadium in Foxboro.

Jack lettered in both basketball and golf at A.C. Flora High School and Newberry College, where he earned a degree in sports management. He subsequently took seminary classes at Erskine College and Liberty University. In his early years, the late Don Bell, who coached him in high school, had a significant impact on his life, as did David Conrady, his basketball coach at Newberry, and George Bryan, III, his golf swing coach.

“David Conrady taught me that ministry is a profession that’s noble, and serving others can be something that you can do for a living and provide for your family. George Bryan taught me that you have to fight for what you want, and life is not going to hand you anything. You’ve got to be tough enough, smart enough, and dependable enough that people want to believe in you and follow you wherever you go,” Jack recalls George telling him.

Jack also credits former University of South Carolina basketball coach Dave Odom with influencing his personal development. After working for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars in 2005, Jack returned to Columbia to serve as an academic and leadership mentor to USC athletes. Football chaplain Adrian Depres recommended Jack to Coach Odom, who welcomed Jack as the men’s basketball team’s character coach and camp director, which then led to his working with several USC teams until 2012.

Jack gleaned as much knowledge as he could from his grandfather, the late Jack Easterby, with whom he lived for a year and a half upon his return to Columbia until he married Holly Hopple in 2006. From his time with Coach Odom, he learned the finer points of leadership, such as dressing for the occasion, the importance of eye contact, and the art of public speaking. Coach Odom even took Jack along regularly on his speaking engagements, asking him to do research and to review his performance.

“I think the skills I learned from my grandfather and then from Dave in that three-year window, combined with my parents, developed a bank of skills I draw from often.”

Jack remains extremely close to his parents, Betsy and Jimmy Easterby, and to his sister, Katherine, and brother-in-law, Stephen Parrish, who also live in Columbia with their two small children. He likes to bring his own family home as often as possible and still loves the Carolinas.

“Aside from Christ himself, no one has influenced me as much as my parents,” Jack says. “My dad is in my estimation the perfect picture of what a Christ-centered dad should look like in the way he loves my mom first, the way he loved Katherine and me unconditionally, and the way he kept at the forefront of our spiritual development as children.”

Jack aspires to be like his father now, admitting, “When I rebelled and ran from my father’s leadership, he ran faster and loved me more, and he was patient through all of the weaknesses and challenges that I went through late in high school and into early college.

“My mom is the same way with a different personality,” he says. “She has an incredible heart to lead. Her ability to understand and appreciate what others are thinking and to be perceptive to others around her is something that I really learned from her. As a banker, she understands cause and effect very well, so she instilled the importance of relationships. I really love my mom’s heart towards empowering others, and that’s one of the things I’ve tried to remind myself of in my own leadership philosophy.”

A natural storyteller, Jack still returns to South Carolina often to speak at small churches and large sports camps through his foundation, The Greatest Champion, which he started with his father in 2011 to help athletes develop character through the tenets of Christian faith. Jack speaks to groups as small as a local Bible study and as large as the Southern Baptist Convention as well as being an advisor to athletes and coaches all over the United States. His messages are straightforward and inspirational, and, like Dave Odom taught him, they are never exactly the same twice. His favorite catchphrase lately is “glory reflector.”

“If you think about it literally, we are in the world to do one of two things: to be a glory chaser or to be a glory reflector,” Jack says. “So, whether you’re an artist, or whatever you are, you’re either doing those things to glory chase or to reflect glory. And as a Christian, you just want to be a glory reflector.”

The Easterby family constantly tries to ascertain how long they are meant to stay in Foxboro and what comes next for them. For now, Jack is excited to pour love into the 2018 New England Patriots. “We see ourselves as missionaries, so you know there’s fuel in the missions’ tank that God provides. We just need to be faithful to do what we think the Lord has called us to do.”

Sitting down with Jack Easterby:

Q: What’s your favorite restaurant in Columbia?

A: Probably Andy’s Deli.

Q: What is your favorite thing to do with your family when you come home?

A: We play in the backyard. We’ve had some pretty heated wiffle ball games. The trash talk is kind of starting to emerge here.

Q: Do you and your family play wiffle ball in Foxboro?

A: At Thanksgiving, we had 45 people in the backyard playing wiffle ball. We had NFL players literally full sweat, talking trash. It was awesome.

Q: You had 45 people over for Thanksgiving?

A: Yes, we had two families, the coaching staff, and then we had three players who couldn’t go anywhere. We bought some food and let them eat phase-two Thanksgiving later on; we put that food out and just played in the backyard. You would absolutely love the videos. We had people’s parents there, including this one guy who plays defensive end for us; his mom was up for the football game that weekend, and she played full-out first base. It was awesome. I’d never even met her before, and we were drilling wiffle balls off each other.

Q: What’s your favorite movie?

A: Not a big movie guy, but I would say Rudy, because I just love the idea that effort matters…that effort and energy and enthusiasm matter. That’s my whole deal.

Q: Is your work desk messy or neat?

A: Neat. I’m big on cleaning up before I leave.

Q: Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

A: That’s a good question. I think I’m more of an introvert relative to learning and watching people, but I think the Lord at times calls me to be an extrovert.

Q: What was your first job?

A: I worked at Foot Action at the Columbia Mall.

Q: What was your first car?

A: My first car was my mom’s Ford Taurus station wagon. I drove my mom’s Ford Taurus station wagon for about six months to a year before we started saving for another car.

Q: What is your favorite comfort food?

A: Candy, probably something gummy.  Starburst, something like that.

Q: What do you do for fun when you have free time?

A: As a family, we’ve become big-time singers. We make up songs. We do karaoke with each other. We make up our own versions of songs. We write songs. We perform songs with no words. We’re big singers. Love to do it. Love to sing.

Q: What books are on your bedside table?

A: The two that I’ve read most recently are Culture Making by Andy Crouch — I actually got this from the First Pres library in Columbia — and then the other thing I’ve been reading is Knowing God. It’s almost emotional because a good friend of mine recently met with J.I. Packer before he died, and he sent me a signed copy. I had read it before, but I had never really spent a ton of time breaking it down.

Q: Who were your childhood friends?

A: Tons and tons of sports with Jay Draffin. And I had a lot of the overlap with Det Bowers’ family — Wyman and Joel and that crowd. Jay and I spent every Friday at each other’s house growing up.