In the central California town of Santa Maria, roughly halfway between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, people know Lance Easley — the side judge who made the ill-fated signal for a touchdown Monday night — as the tall, thin, gray-haired and good-natured vice president for small-business banking at the Bank of America branch near the Town Center Mall, and as a longtime referee for local junior college and high school games. Until the NFL hired him, Easley had never officiated at the sport’s highest levels.
For Don Willis, the head football coach at Santa Maria High School, the best that could be said about Easley as a referee was that he was rarely noticed, the hallmark of an official who allows players to take center stage.
“I hate to see him getting beat up like this, because all my dealings with him have been positive. . . . It’s not like he doesn’t know the game,” Willis said. “The problem is, there is a big difference between high school and the NFL. It’s an unfortunate situation that happened, but my whole point is: What do you expect when you have officials that are not used to officiating professional games?”
Attempts to reach Easley Thursday were unsuccessful.
This summer, Easley reportedly attended a pair of training sessions with the Stars and Stripes Academy for Football Officials in Salt Lake City, which attempts to prepare prospective officials for Division I college football. But Karl Richins, who runs the academy, said his staff found Easley to be unfit for working at the game’s highest levels.
“Our conclusion,” Richins said in a telephone interview, “was that Lance was a good football official given the level he was at, which at that time was juco [junior college] and Division III, and we thought as a staff he . . . wasn’t ready for Division I, let alone the NFL. We hadn’t even talked about that.”
“As I examined all the replacement officials, I just think they were outside of their ability,” Richins continued. “They just found themselves way out over their skis. I have to guess the people who wanted the lockout over the quickest was those replacement officials.”
Dan Ellington, head football coach at Pioneer Valley High School in Santa Maria, said in an email response that Easley had been excited to get a shot at officiating NFL games. “Who wouldn’t be?” Ellington said.
“He is a person of great integrity,” Ellington said. The replacement referees in the NFL, he said, “were put in a no-win situation.”
The other official in the end zone Monday night was Derrick Rhone-Dunn, among the more experienced members of the crew. He was the back judge who had the best view of the play and initially signalled interception, which would have ended the game in the Packers’ favor. Residing in Oklahoma City, where he’s employed by the Federal Aviation Administration, Rhone-Dunn had previously worked Division I games in the Western Athletic Conference and the Big 12. He served on a Sugar Bowl crew and most recently officiated games in the Arena league.
“All he cares about is getting things right,” said Gene Semko, a Texas-based official who has worked college games with Rhone-Dunn. “He’s a quality person and a quality official as far as I’m concerned.”
Rhone-Dunn, contacted by email, declined to comment.
Semko pointed out that regardless of their experience, the replacement crews were thrown into a difficult situation. Not only is the game faster and more physical than anything they’d seen, but the pressure is nothing like the high school and college games they were all used to.
“What do you expect?” he said. “When you put a motley group of guys together who don’t have the trust in each other — I don’t mean that in a negative way — but when you’re in the same crew for years and years, you can read each other’s body language, process everything together. These guys were just thrown out there.”
For Peek, though, working NFL games was a dream situation. A referee at the college level for 27 years and for 40 overall, Peek tasted the NFL once before as a replacement, during a lockout back in 2001. But that amounted to just one preseason and one regular season game.
Eleven years passed and Peek got the call again in June, and after clinics in Atlanta, he found himself at Lambeau Field and Soldier Field, far away from the high school fields in Texas.
“We were hired knowing that the probability of a long-term situation wasn’t there,” Peek said. “We were hired to be fired, as you might say.”