“You go from just a regular, normal schmo — normal guy in your community,” he says, “to people all over the place, all over the world, knowing you.”
Easley shut down his social media accounts. He offered to change his phone numbers. When he returned to officiating high school football games, the feeling had changed. The eyes seemed on him, not the players.
During officiating meetings, Easley’s peers whispered and laughed. If he explained a rule, someone brought up if he knew that one as well as what he had shown on that Monday night.
“I have noticed a general consensus of not, at times, taking him as seriously,” Hall says. “When he says something, there’s always a tail-end, last comment. . . . It’s too bad.”
So when the time came to sign up this fall to officiate basketball games, Easley stepped aside. He doesn’t know if he’ll return to basketball; for now he says he’s simply taking the year off. He doesn’t expect to officiate college games again. He says he has gained weight and doesn’t feel the need to exercise and eat properly, as he did when he was officiating.
But a turning point came, he says, when he opened his phone, drifting through his contacts. He asked himself how many of the names had been through what he had. And how many of them would allow it to consume them? Some had called to offer encouragement. Others, including many officials at higher levels, had gone silent. Rhone-Dunn, the back judge in Seattle, hasn’t returned Easley’s calls.
“You thought they were your friends,” he says.
Then he and Corina talked about God’s plan, and maybe there was something he was being prepared for, the same as when the surgeries and the drinking and the wandering led him to her so many years ago.
She doesn’t like that her husband has stopped officiating, but she likes thinking about how good things might come; how strength comes from darkness.
“Nobody who has never suffered pain,” Corina says, “could withstand something like this.”
Searching for normalcy
He walks into the gymnasium at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, during a high school basketball tournament. Cusack, whose husband works FCA events with Easley, spots him first. He hasn’t been around lately. He sees her, touches her fingers.
“I was sad for you,” she says. “But I was proud of the way you handled it.”
He nods, smiling of course. He ignores the sounds he’s so used to: bouncing balls and squeaking shoes. Easley leans in.
“I thought about it like, ‘Why is it happening to me?’ ” he tells her.
This is the moment it becomes clear: Regardless of how Easley or any of the replacements handle this, or seem to handle it, they unknowingly sacrificed themselves and their reputations so that the NFL machine could keep running. As the regular season winds down, they are mostly forgotten. But in towns like this, in school buildings and offices, in communities and churches, men like Easley are left to search for normality even in the places they call home.
“I just want to make sure,” Cusack says, “you’re taking time off for the right reasons.”
He presses his hands on the table, pausing for a long time. There is no joke this time. No smile.
“I don’t want to be a distraction,” Easley says. “And what if I make another controversial call?”
He shakes his head, and a question arises: What is the difference between strength and denial? Only someone who has endured this, carrying this burden, can know.
“It’s better just to let it rest,” he tells her, and a moment later she lightens the mood, saying that the Monday night game wasn’t the first time she disagreed with one of Easley’s calls.
As he stands there, friends and neighbors, admirers and strangers, walk by, shaking Easley’s hand or slapping his shoulder. They ask how he’s holding up after all this. He nods and smiles, sometimes making a joke. The conversations usually don’t last long.
“How are you?” a man says as he climbs the bleachers, and Easley looks up.
“I’m alive,” Easley replies.
“I saw you right before you were dead.”
“I’m resurrected,” he says, smiling again.
Then the man sits, and Easley turns toward the game. Men in stripes bring law to the chaos, and players run from one end of the court to the other. Easley stands in a corner, watching as the whistles blow and the signals are made, and at this moment he is almost invisible.