The strangers laugh as Lance Easley shares the story again, standing and gesturing at their table to tell it right.
One of them asks about the night Easley changed the 2012 National Football League season, and when he does, they laugh at his jokes and groan at his misery. A few yards away, this story has lost its thrill.
“Everywhere he goes, I go, ‘No,’ ” says Easley’s wife, Corina, sitting at the restaurant table with an empty chair to her right. “ ‘Not again.’ ”
Nearly three months ago, Easley was a replacement side judge during the NFL’s lockout of officials, which placed applicants with only high school and college officiating experience onto the game’s biggest stage. Mistakes were made, and men were embarrassed. None was vilified like Easley, the 52-year-old bank vice president who officiated football and basketball games in his spare time.
On the night of Sept. 24, tension was high and the game was close. As time expired, Easley signaled a touchdown for the Seattle Seahawks on a Hail Mary pass to the end zone, handing them a 14-12 win against the Green Bay Packers. More than 16 million viewers watched as the NFL season changed, along with Easley’s life.
“I go, ‘Oh, crap,’ ” Easley says, still wearing his business suit, as the strangers listen.
Easley’s controversial touchdown call sent ripples through the NFL that haven’t yet settled. If the season ended today, for instance, the Seahawks would make the playoffs and the Washington Redskins would not. One victory can sometimes mean everything, and so can one decision.
Facing pressure in the aftermath of the call, the league settled with its locked-out officials three days after the game; the replacements would not represent the NFL again.
In this coastal town about three hours’ drive northwest of Los Angeles, the following weeks faded into a blur of threats and humiliation. Easley has mostly given up officiating, his side job and passion, and doesn’t trust outsiders or even those he once considered friends.
“It can collapse a person,” Corina says as she waits.
Finally, Easley returns to the table, dips an artichoke leaf into white sauce and orders a rib-eye. He smiles again and waves as the men disappear toward the door.
It eventually fades.
“I think about it,” he says in his first extensive interview since the Seattle game. “Does one moment in your life really define who you are?”
They stood on the golf course last summer, discussing the downsides. Sure, some might not like that an official was willing to be a “scab,” going against the union and benefiting from the NFL officials’ lockout.
But Howard Hall, a friend and a fellow high school official, told Easley that this was a chance that so few get: to practice your craft at the highest level. Sure, Easley told him, he’d submit an application.
Still, sending the paperwork wasn’t easy. Easley stood at the fax machine, hesitant to press send. What would his coworkers and friends say? What about his fellow officials? Was this a renewed invitation of turmoil, the kind that he believed God had eased 27 years earlier?
In those days, Easley liked to drink and start arguments, and back then there were reasons for both. In six years, he had four surgeries on his feet, ending his football career. The son of an official, Easley volunteered to officiate intramural football and basketball games. He joined the Marines long enough to complete boot camp, but when the Corps discovered the bones in his feet had been fused, he was issued a medical discharge.
Easley was lost, bouncing between colleges and then jobs, from marketing to acting, searching for his identity in any place it might hide.
When he was 25, he mostly gave up drinking and began attending a Bible study, where one evening an 18-year-old Mexican immigrant named Corina walked in. He told her about the day his mother left his dad a note, telling him goodbye; she told him about her father’s death and her family’s move across the border.
He found comfort in her warmth and compassion. She admired his ability to see things simply, in black and white. On their third date, Lance picked up the check for the first time and proposed marriage.
“I’m a closer,” he says with a smile.
Corina noticed that Lance seemed happiest when he was officiating. He was healthier, more vibrant. There was purpose in those signals she couldn’t understand, something that had been missing in Lance’s life. She says officiating has been a blessing for him.
This past summer, Easley stood at the fax machine, considering what his friend had said on the golf course and what this opportunity represented. He saw it as a chance not only to experience greatness but to bring its lessons back to Santa Maria, where he’s president of the Los Padres Basketball Officials Association. Then he prayed.
“I had a peace about it,” he says.
He sent the paperwork but maintained muted expectations. He had worked junior college games only for a few seasons, after giving up coaching. At his core, Easley was a high school official, refereeing sometimes but usually preferring the role of back judge.
Then the e-mail came. Get to Atlanta for a tryout. They ran five miles, underwent a background check and labored through tests of their knowledge and judgment. Easley had studied the rules like never before, but in the officiating game, making a split-second judgment call, such as with pass interference, is the real test. Officials dread the day a decision affects a game’s outcome.
Easley passed the first leg, moving on to Dallas for training and uniform fitting. The NFL game is different than in high school and college, and this was a crash course in the variations, the speed, the pressure.
Easley kept waiting. Then another e-mail arrived. When the preseason contests began, he’d get $2,000 per game. If the ride continued into the regular season, the stipend increased to $3,000. He would be a side judge, not a back judge, as he had been used to. Regardless, Easley wanted only one game, to walk onto a field wearing the NFL stripes.
The good news, though, came with a hangover. In late July, Easley received another e-mail, this one from the Southern California Football Association, which had overseen his college officiating and had learned that he’d applied as a replacement NFL official.
He read the 94 words, but these were the most jarring: His services would no longer be needed.
He remembers the goosebumps of that first game, of hearing the fighter jets’ engines as the opera singer hit the final note of the national anthem.
“This is really happening,” he remembers thinking.
At first he underestimated the NFL’s grandeur. Easley thought a punt returner had lined up too deep, then watched the ball sail farther than he’d imagined. The speed was harsh, making each official’s learning curve steeper, their insecurities more noticeable.
“You don’t want bizarre when you’re a replacement,” Easley says. “You want simple and normal.”
By the end of his crew’s second regular season game, there was blood on Easley’s shirt from scuffles between Redskins and St. Louis Rams players, and his mind was drained.
Easley had thrown a flag for a late hit against Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, and his eyes had focused an instant too early. Griffin wasn’t out of bounds when he was touched by Rams linebacker Ernie Sims.
After each game, NFL officials are graded, receiving pluses and minuses depending on calls and no-calls. He was given a minus for the late hit, which Easley still disagrees with because he felt he was protecting the Redskins’ franchise quarterback.
“The spirit of the call was right,” he says.
By then, though, the replacement officials were under heavy scrutiny. Mistakes were rampant during a nationally televised game between the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, and ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico called it “embarrassing” during the telecast. The NFL’s credibility was being battered.
Easley admits the continual criticism affected his on-field decisions.
“I would think through my calls,” he says, “thinking, ‘What’s the media saying?’ ”
The day before Easley and his crew traveled to Seattle, a simmer of frustration was becoming a boil. Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan berated a replacement official at the close of the Redskins’ loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, and New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick grabbed an official at the end of a loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Shanahan and Belichick were later fined.
Before the Monday night game, Easley sidled next to Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a central California native. They were a long way from home, Easley told Rodgers.
That peace turned to tension during another game that exposed the officials’ inexperience. It began with a roughing-the-passer call against the Packers, negating an interception. The game’s 15th penalty, which Easley flagged, was a debatable pass-interference call on first down and 25 yards to go against Green Bay’s Sam Shields.
“I don’t even believe they’re going to call this,” ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said during the broadcast of the game.
With time expiring, the Seahawks needed a touchdown to win. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson scrambled to his left. Easley, expecting any pass to land short of the goal line, stood near the pylon and eyed players running toward the end zone.
“Follow the play,” Easley remembers thinking.
Wilson stopped and launched a deep pass, and Easley’s eyes tracked the ball.
“I’m just going to watch it be some hope,” he says now, “some prayer that wouldn’t come through.”
A cluster of players had formed in the end zone, and when the ball approached, Easley began watching their hands.
“I’m hoping when I got on top of it that one of the players would rip it out,” he says.
Instead, Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate shoved Shields, the Green Bay cornerback, forward — Easley would receive a minus for missing offensive pass interference, which would’ve ended the game and given the win to the Packers. Despite that, Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings initially caught the ball, though Tate’s left hand somehow never lost contact. Easley hurried over, and remembering the rule that joint possession goes to the offense, he caught the eye of back judge Derrick Rhone-Dunn.
“In my mind,” Easley says, “I’m like, ‘We can’t talk about this, because the media is going to crucify us.’
“So my hands go up.”
Back in Santa Maria, phones were ringing in homes throughout town. Dana Cusack called her husband, who worked with Easley on the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Hall, the fellow high school official, called a friend, and they laughed about what they had just witnessed on TV.
A while later, another phone rang. Corina Easley picked up and heard her husband’s voice. He asked if she had watched the game. She had it on television but hadn’t been paying attention.
“Well,” he told her, “it’s going to be ugly.”
The next morning, two unfamiliar cars were parked outside the Easleys’ home. They belonged to reporters, and they soon wouldn’t be alone. Corina drew the shades and locked the doors. An NFL security official called, saying that Corina should prepare herself for threats.
Friends stopped joking about what had happened on Monday, concern taking humor’s place. When an unexpected package arrived from Wisconsin, Corina hurried it outside and called police. They traced its origin and opened it carefully; inside were cheese curds and a note leaving little doubt Packers fans had sent the package: “The Cheeseheads will never forget.”
Their only child, 25-year-old Daniel, worried about his mother’s safety. “I have never experienced this type of fear,” Corina says.
Easley’s call and the national outcry forced the NFL’s hand, and it agreed to an eight-year contract with the permanent officials. Then the league moved on. The replacements had no such option.
Easley stopped in Fresno, Calif., for a banking conference on his way home from Seattle, and when he returned to Santa Maria, neither he nor his wife left the house for nearly a week. Everyone wanted to know how Easley could’ve gotten the call so wrong; how an ordinary man can redirect the season trajectory of America’s most popular sport.
When Easley returned to work, a security guard stood watch and didn’t leave for a month. Easley listened to his voice mail. He heard one man say that he hoped Easley’s family died, the next say that he wished for Easley’s death, and the next one . . .
That was enough. There were dozens of them. If he didn’t recognize the voice, he immediately pressed the button to archive the message; he had been told by security to save them. If he did recognize the voice, he returned the call and asked the person to pray for him.
President Obama referred to Easley’s call as “terrible,” and Jay Leno made a joke about the Seattle touchdown. A friend read about Easley in an Israeli newspaper.
“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.”
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.