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?”
The chance of a lifetime
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.