Sunday, February 22, 2015

Unusual Suspect: One Man’s Calling to Help a Team Embroiled in Controversy

What is the Christian life supposed to look like?

This is perhaps the most asked question in Christianity with answers that vary as much as New England weather. Some feel the Christian life should look, well, Christian. Moral people who help others and go to Bible College and are employed in full-time ministry. Others would say it is less about degrees and church membership and more about an attitude of forgiveness and benevolence toward others. Treat others like you want to be treated, right?

What if a great example of the Christian life took place within the walls of Gillette stadium? Yes, Gillette stadium. The home field of the New England Patriots who are not only current Super Bowl champions but entangled in a ball deflation controversy stemming from their footballs being under the league required air pressure range during the American Football Conference Championship game played on January 18. A game in which they won incidentally 45-7.

With a blowout win in hand and a trip to the Super Bowl on the horizon, surely no one would care about football air pressure? That might have been true if these same New England Patriots had not been caught illegally videotaping opponents defensive signals in 2007. A rule violation in which the league handed out its harshest penalty ever, fining owner Robert Kraft $250,000 and head coach Bill Belichick $500,000 and docking the team a first round draft pick.

It would seem that if this football deflation controversy proved to be true than the New England Patriots would be as synonymous with winning championships as they are with being habitual cheaters. An image and a brand that would be tough to swallow for management and its players.

Enter Jack Easterby – a lanky and balding former college basketball player and golfer with a thick Southern accent. Easterby was hired by the Patriots in July 2013 as the team’s chaplain.

According to Seth Wickersham, a writer for ESPN The Magazine who profiled Easterby just prior to the Super Bowl, Easterby’s first words to the team were, “Tonight, my goal is that you will never be the same.” Wickersham goes on to say that 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 to Wickersham for his 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 typical team chaplain, Wickersham explains, 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.

Like Belichick and Brady, says Wickersham, 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'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.

Many Patriot coaches and players credit Easterby and his presence as one of the reasons the team won the championship this season. High praise for a man teaching his listeners about the higher power found in Christ and his gospel message.

Often we think of the Christian life being spent on the mission fields of Africa or India not on the football field. But here is Easterby, at Gillette stadium, the home of the NFL's most notorious cheaters or so the narrative goes but make no mistake, if the Patriots are exonerated from this latest football deflation controversy, he will have helped them weather the storm. If not, he will embrace the chance to help them learn from it, underscoring that life and its ups and downs are temporal but eternal life is offered to anyone who comes to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. In short, Easterby will be ready to serve.

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