The film study for one Texans player suddenly required a different kind of source material. In addition to reviewing practice and game tape, he delved into a ruthless fantasy world, seeking insight into the machinations of an extreme power struggle from the television series that tens of millions of others were watching: Game of Thrones.
He wasn’t alone. The grab for the Iron Throne was so analogous to the complicated, real-life dynamics that began to unspool at NRG Stadium last year that it had become something of a reference point among more than a dozen Texans coaches, players and team personnel, who likened the individuals at the top of the organization to characters in the TV drama.
General manager Brian Gaine was Robb Stark, the intended future King of the North, who was murdered by the end of Season 3. (Gaine would be fired after only 17 months as GM.) Coach Bill O’Brien was compared to King Joffrey Baratheon, a hot-headed ruler prone to screaming and chopping off heads, only to be poisoned in Season 4. (O’Brien would be fired in October of this year.)
Then there was Jack Easterby, hired as the franchise’s executive vice president of team development in April 2019, a man who’d risen from low-level Jaguars intern to Patriots team chaplain to lauded character coach—before making an unprecedented shift into football operations. Easterby, those Texans told each other, was Littlefinger, the nickname of Petyr Baelish, a shadowy and cunning operative who on TV espoused righteousness as a strategy, but sought to consolidate power through chaos and isolation and the pulling of strings behind the scenes.
For those who don't watch Game of Thrones, this might be an oblique metaphor, as well as a hyperbolic one. But the point is: A player found insight into his own workplace from a dramaseries about the vicious and unrelenting pursuit of power. “That’s why I was able to read them,” the player says of the trio of decision makers, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “I knew who it was going to be [at the end].”
Easterby’s sudden ascent to power has generated intense curiosity and, depending on whom you ask, either admiration or scrutiny. He has not conducted any on-the-record interviews since September, leaving others to make sense of perhaps the NFL’s most polarizing executive. In response to interview requests for Easterby and team owner Cal McNair, as well as a list of 83 questions regarding the details of this story, a Texans spokesperson provided broad statements on behalf of McNair and Easterby (which can be read in full here). To Sports Illustrated, some called the 37-year-old a guiding force in their lives, a beloved minister and mentor who shepherded two NFL franchises through difficult times and became part of the foundation of the Patriots’ late-dynasty years, earning him a rare spot in Bill Belichick’s inner circle. Many in Houston, though, have not seen him as the congenial confidant and Belichick foil. Rather, they describe an authority figure whose leadership style sows distrust and division, at times flouting rules and straining relationships inside the building. Meanwhile, his responsibilities expanded despite questions surrounding his credentials.
Conversations with more than 40 people—current and former Texans football operations staff and players, colleagues from Easterby’s time in New England, those from his past in and out of football—provided detailed accounts of his alleged role in, among other things:
- Undermining other executives and decision-makers, including the head coach who helped bring him to Houston.
- The team’s holding workouts at the head strength coach’s house during the COVID-19 pandemic after the NFL had ordered franchises to shut down all facilities, shortly before a breakout of infections among players.
- Advocating for a trade of star receiver DeAndre Hopkins soon after arriving in Houston—one season before Hopkins was sent to Arizona in a widely panned deal.
- Fostering a culture of distrust among staff and players to the point that one Texan and two other staffers believed players were being surveilled outside the building.
When SI began making phone calls in October to make sense of Easterby’s improbable path, he quickly caught wind and reached out to a reporter, saying that he wanted to help communicate “truth and honesty.” Easterby did not return a text message, sent Tuesday, offering a chance to tell his side of the story. But colleagues who spoke to SI—many requesting anonymity, like the player, for fear of retribution—said they felt compelled to share their own truth in the hopes of opening the eyes of McNair, of whom one source said: “[He] is just blinded.” There is a perception inside the Texans’ building that Easterby won a power struggle, completing his climb. And in doing so, these sources say, the character coach brought in to improve the culture has made it worse.
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Whether in front of congregations where the faithful packed into pews, behind the occasional podcast microphone, or standing before a locker room of professional athletes, Easterby likes to tell audiences that the coolest thing about sports is how “everybody has a story.” Easterby often waxed on in a folksy way about his influences, starting with his granddad (also a Jack Easterby), who became a bank treasurer and taught his grandson to take jobs seriously, to not lie and to always write thank-you notes. The younger Easterby also liked to tell audiences how he worked in the mall at a shoe store, emphasizing his humble start.
Easterby’s job in football, he would explain, was to learn the stories of everyone in an organization, come to appreciate their complexity and nuance, then attempt to stitch the stories and people together in a way that made everyone stronger as a whole. It sounded great, much like Easterby’s own story—the one that beckoned more scrutiny with each promotion. Because even Easterby’s allies, those who believe he can command an audience better than most anyone in the NFL, still wonder how he got here.
“It’s still a long-, long-shot story, right?” says one NFL executive who worked directly with Easterby in the past. “You’re not going to be the team chaplain, then, 10 years later, you’re the interim GM. That just doesn’t happen in our league.”
That unlikely ascent began on a hot July day back in 2005, on the basketball court. As South Carolina men’s coach Dave Odom made the rounds at his program’s summer camp, he noticed a young counselor who had earned the rapt attention of his campers. When the week concluded the veteran coach would invite Jack Easterby, then a part-time academic tutor at S.C., into his office—and by the fall, Easterby would be a fixture in Odom’s locker room, serving in a new role created by the coach in conjunction with a friend of Easterby’s at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“We gave Jack an opportunity to bring his faith to our team,” Odom says. “We didn’t force him on anyone, but I was amazed at how many of our kids took to him. He was a counselor and a coach—a ‘character coach’ is what we called him.”
Fans couldn’t miss Easterby over the next few seasons, cheering enthusiastically and energetically high-fiving players from the end of the Gamecocks’ bench—an Associated Press beat writer even profiled him in March 2008. Odom, who calls Easterby the “seed” from which today’s character-coach trend began, says he’s surprised at where that young camp counselor ended up 15 years later “only because the NFL is such a closed-door business.”
Easterby was well-liked, even loved, by most at South Carolina. There he earned the ear of Eric Hyman, the Gamecocks’ athletic director from 2005 to ’12. Hyman echoes Odom, saying Easterby was years ahead of the now-pervasive trend toward holistic care and mental health for athletes, acting as an all-around problem-solver. “He was sort of like an ombudsman,” Hyman says. But the unprecedented character coach role sometimes put Easterby’s short-term responsibilities and long-term goals in conflict. He was expected to serve the role of a selfless team chaplain, but he was also a young assistant who understood what he had to do to get ahead: Altruism and ambition don’t always sync. One lower-level athletic department staffer during Easterby’s time at South Carolina put it this way: “When it was just us, he’d want to know how you were doing and wanted to help you in any way he could.” But if an important coach or player walked into the room, “it was like, all of the sudden, you didn’t exist.”
Odom retired in 2008, and the next coach, Darrin Horn, showed little interest in Easterby’s services. After two more seasons under Horn, the program severed ties with the FCA program and the character coach. Easterby stayed in South Carolina, taking a job at his alma mater, Newberry College, as well as continuing to work with S.C. athletes through Gamecocks for Christ, a ministry for the school’s athletes that Easterby had founded. He was active with the women’s basketball program (Dawn Staley, the program’s Hall of Fame coach, raves about Easterby) and worked with players from the football and baseball teams.
Easterby used to pop by Hyman’s office and hand out these little cards bearing wisdom on leadership. Example: a picture of the open road, as seen from a driver’s seat; OUTLOOK splashed across the front; and the relevant lesson—Let your OUTLOOK be primarily focused on what’s in front of you, and let your past experience only serve as a reference—laid out on the back. Or: a picture of an open book; MOVE ON; Don’t dwell on the pages you have already read. Hyman so loved these cards that he kept more than 20 of them.
One year—Hyman thinks this was 2008 or ’09—the AD invited a special guest to talk to the football team. The speaker, a South Carolina alum, spent 10 minutes in that meeting room discussing character and the importance of developing mental skills in addition to physical ones. The Gamecocks’ character coach was sitting near the front of the room, intently focused on the man standing before him: Texans owner Bob McNair.
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It must have been a strange sight: This white brick house in the Houston suburbs, with the neatly landscaped front yard, had a row of oversize vehicles parked in the street out front and some of the city’s best athletes running sprints attached to resistance bands. After all, in spring of 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic was surging. Players lifted together on a covered back patio with squat racks and barbells that had been transported from NRG Stadium, supervised by coaches sporting team apparel; in one video posted to a player’s social media in May, none of the participants were wearing masks.
In March, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell closed all team facilities, and the league and the players union later agreed to conduct all offseason programs virtually, with no in-person interaction except for players who had ongoing medical rehab, based on guidance from medical experts. But in the weeks that followed, small groups of Texans players cycled through the home of head strength and conditioning coach Mike Eubanks, according to four people with direct knowledge of these workouts. Three of these people believe these workouts could not have happened without the approval of Easterby, who oversees the strength and conditioning department.
These sessions, even to Texans employees, appeared to at least violate the purpose of the league’s offseason COVID-19 restrictions, which were implemented to prevent teams from congregating as cases of the highly contagious virus soared nationwide. (An NFL spokesman declined comment.) Eubanks was put in a compromising position professionally; he also had his health, as well as that of the players, their families and their friends, put at risk. (The Texans did not make Eubanks available for an interview.)