The Most Important Coaches on the Field at the Super Bowl

NFL chaplain

As the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots prepare for Super Bowl LIII on Sunday, some players say their Christian faith—plus the guidance of team chaplains—helps them put football into proper perspective.

Both rosters contain men who are outspoken about following Jesus. Brandin Cooks, who was traded from the Patriots to the Rams last April, frequently tweets Bible verses, prayers and encouraging words. Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, who donated a game check to survivors of a mass shooting in California last fall, says, “I accepted Christ at a young age, but it took many years of failure and pain for me to realize what it means to follow and seek God in every aspect of my life.”

For the Patriots, Duron Harmon, Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty are particularly outspoken about their faith. “Football is temporary,” says Slater. “It’s going to be over for all of us at some point. But when you look at a relationship with Jesus, you understand you’re living for eternity. And if you can’t get excited about that, I don’t know what you can get excited about.”

The Team Chaplain Values Faith Over Football

To encourage players during each season’s highs and lows, most teams rely on a chaplain, whether a paid staffer or volunteer. For the Rams, that role is filled by Kevin Nickerson, director of the Los Angeles County chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Nickerson, who played pro football for seven years, credits a former team chaplain for being “very instrumental in my faith walk.”

Now as a chaplain himself, Nickerson says he plays a “big brother” role, befriending and serving players, no matter their beliefs. “I treat everybody the same in the locker room,” he says. “Jesus said, ‘I didn’t come for the well. I didn’t come for the righteous and those who don’t need a doctor. I came for the sick.’ … My mentality is that we’re all sick. … I’m just as big of a sinner as those who don’t know Jesus.”

For the Patriots, chaplain and “character coach” Jack Easterby receives kudos for providing genuine affection to players and personnel. He “offers love with no strings attached,” says Slater, a special teams player. “As macho as we are in the locker room, we all want to be loved.”

Easterby, who’s known for his bear hugs, encourages players as they deal with injuries and personal issues, whether joyful or tragic. “As men, sometimes we don’t know how to deal with different emotions,” Slater says. “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.”

Life Lessons Beyond the Gridiron

While serving as chaplain for the Kansas City Chiefs, Easterby helped them through heartache in 2012 when linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then committed suicide in the team’s parking lot. “My heart, my mind, were conditioned through that moment,” Easterby says. “I think it’s prepared me for a lot of things that I don’t even know that it’s prepared me for.”

The next year, Easterby joined the Patriots and helped them cope with player Aaron Hernandez’s arrest on murder charges. Easterby, who took seminary classes at Erskine College and Liberty University, was drawn to coach Bill Belichick’s challenge to be “the seeds and water of truth, love and support to grow people and have them be encouragement-oriented.”

Slater says many of his teammates had been praying for that type of spiritual mentor. Easterby leads Bible studies, conducts premarital counseling, and is available any time of the day or night. “If it’s washing a guy’s car, meeting him for dinner, playing Wiffle ball in the back yard, my best ability is my availability—2 o’clock in the morning, 3 in the afternoon,” he says. “When I do that, I show a little glimpse of who God is. Because God doesn’t sleep. God doesn’t turn away when your problem’s too big. My goal in a small way is to mirror that the best I can.”

Easterby Emphasizes Servanthood and Character

Through his website, GreatestChampion.com, Easterby helps athletes and teams remember that true victory comes through Jesus. When asked to sum up his job description with the Patriots, he says, “Servant. To serve anybody and everybody in the building, to help us be prepared on and off the football field. To be prepared as men, as people. … And also to be the glue for our team.”

Amid the roller coaster of each season, Easterby’s mission is to “grow people” and “leave everyone I interact with better than I found them.” Players agree he’s accomplished that. McCourty calls Easterby “a godsend” who creates “better men.” And Slater says, “I can only hope and pray to be half the man that [Jack]’s been and impact lives the way he has.”

Some football fans don’t associate the word “character” with the Patriots, who’ve dealt with scandals such as Spygate and Inflategate. But ESPN reporter Seth Wickersham says that “for all the attacks on their character,” the Patriots “have actually invested more [in] their team’s character than any team in the NFL.”

Broadcasting Faith in Jesus

For Sunday’s big game, Christians are represented beyond the playing field and sidelines. Color analyst Tony Romo, who will be in the broadcast booth, frequently speaks about his faith. The former Dallas Cowboys quarterback attributes his trademark poise on the field to his relationship with Jesus. “As long as he has control, I’m at peace,” Romo says. “Having Jesus in your life gives you everlasting peace, which never goes away.”

Being a spiritual leader is important to Romo. “For me, my greatest peace of mind, my greatest success, you might say, is when I walk the spiritual journey, when I’m a spiritual leader to my family and the people I’m around,” he says. “That’s what I’m striving for, and that’s where I hope to continue to go and grow.”

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Stephanie Martin
Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 26 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her husband and two teenage daughters.