Earlier this week, Mike Peek was a high-profile temp worker racing down the field on the final play of the game between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, smack in the middle of the biggest controversy of the young NFL season. By Thursday, Peek had returned to his quiet life in Athens, Tex., where he teaches economics at Trinity Valley Community College and tries not to be that “little guy in the brown suit with the black skinny tie.”
His last game was on ESPN, as the line judge of the replacement officiating crew that blew a call and gave the Seahawks a last-second victory. His next is likely to be on a high school field somewhere in Texas, far away from the bright lights and intense scrutiny of the National Football League.
“As an official, you want to get it to the top level, the big game in town,” said Peek, 62, who lost his position as a replacement official when the league and the referees’ union agreed to a new labor deal Wednesday night. “We got to the top game with ‘Monday Night Football.’ It was the only game in town.”
After a three-month lockout, the NFL’s regular officials returned to the field Thursday night in Baltimore for the Ravens game against the Cleveland Browns, bringing some semblance of normalcy back to the sport. Meanwhile, more than 100 replacement officials, referees and linesmen who’d donned the black and white stripes and faced boos from coast to coast, returned to their lives, trying to find some normalcy of their own.
Peek’s final NFL contest will stand as one of the season’s most memorable. In the final seconds, the Seahawks, trailing by five points, heaved a pass toward the end zone, where the side judge missed a pass interference call. The Packers appeared to intercept the ball, but the officials instead awarded Seattle with the game-winning touchdown.
As the line judge, Peek wasn’t in the end zone when the call was made. But the result left a bitter taste in his mouth all the same.
“When it goes to the end and it ended so ugly, I was more disappointed that we didn’t live up to what I wanted us to live up to,” Peek said by telephone Thursday, the lone official from the crew to speak publicly. “I wanted us to go out close to a 300 game, as a bowler would. You always strive to bowl 300, you always strive for perfection. I thought we were doing well until right there late in the game. I was just disappointed that we didn’t bowl a 300 game.”
The NFL’s replacement officials were recruited this spring and tasked with policing some of the fastest, most physical athletes on the planet. Their résumés were mixed. Some, like Peek, had worked top-level college games. Others threw yellow flags at middle-school games and in the Lingerie Football League, a women’s outfit in which the players compete in revealing clothing.
Regardless of the officials’ level of experience or expertise, Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, said during a conference call with reporters Thursday that mistakes and errors of judgement have always been a part of the game.
“I would say the folks on the field during the last three weeks were under unprecedented scrutiny,” he said. “Everything they did, every call, was magnified. They kept the game going. They worked hard. They trained hard.”
While Goodell and the owners were roundly criticized on barstools and Internet forums, the brunt of the week’s anger focused on the seven-man crew from Monday night’s game, the same crew that had worked the Washington Redskins game against the St. Louis Rams eight days earlier.
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.”
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