Updated Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 02:57 PM
SANTA MARIA, Calif. — 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 NFL season, and when he tells it, 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 in Seattle was close. As time expired, Easley signaled a touchdown for the 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.
Easley's controversial touchdown call sent ripples through the NFL. Facing pressure in the aftermath of the call, the league settled with its locked-out officials three days after the game.
In this coastal California town where Easley lives, 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.
"It can collapse a person," Corina says as she waits.
Finally, Easley returns to the table 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. "Does one moment in your life really define who you are?"
The chance of a lifetime
Years ago, Easley liked to drink and start arguments, and there were reasons for both. After four foot surgeries ended his football and military careers, Easley was lost, bouncing between colleges and jobs. When he was 25, he mostly gave up drinking and began attending a Bible study, where an 18-year-old Mexican immigrant named Corina walked in.
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 proposed marriage.
Corina noticed that Lance seemed happiest when he was officiating. There was purpose in those signals, something that had been missing in Lance's life. She says officiating has been a blessing for him.
Last summer, Easley sent in paperwork to the NFL but held muted expectations.
Then the email came. Get to Atlanta for a tryout. Easley passed the first leg, moving on to Dallas for training and uniform fitting.
Then another email 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.
He remembers the goose bumps of that first game, of hearing the fighter jets as the singer hit the final note of the national anthem.
"This is really happening," he remembers thinking.
At first he underestimated the NFL. Easley thought a punt returner had lined up too deep, then watched the ball sail farther than he'd imagined. The speed made each official's learning curve steeper.
By the end of his crew's second regular-season game, 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 St. Louis linebacker Ernie Sims.
After each game, NFL officials are graded. He was given a minus for the bad call.
By then, replacement officials were under scrutiny. Mistakes were rampant during a nationally televised game. The NFL's credibility was being battered.
The Seahawks-Packers game 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.
With time expiring, the Seahawks needed a touchdown to win. Quarterback Russell Wilson scrambled to his left. Easley stood near the pylon and eyed players running toward the end zone.
"Follow the play," Easley remembers thinking.
Wilson launched a deep pass. A cluster of players had formed in the end zone, and 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 Green Bay's Sam Shields forward. Easley would receive a minus for missing offensive pass interference, which would've given the win to the Packers. 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."
"It's going to be ugly"
A while later, a phone rang. Corina Easley picked up and heard her husband's voice. "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 for threats.
"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 a contract with the permanent officials. Then the league moved on. The replacements had no such option.
When Easley returned to work, a security guard stood watch for a month. Easley listened to his voice-mail. He heard one man say that he hoped Easley's family died. There were dozens of them.
When he returned to officiating high-school games, the feeling had changed. The eyes seemed on him, not the players. During officiating meetings, Easley's peers whispered and laughed.
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.
Searching for normality
As the regular season winds down, Easley is left to search for normality.
"I don't want to be a distraction," Easley says in a Santa Maria gym. "And what if I make another controversial call?"
As he stands there, friends and neighbors walk by, shaking Easley's hand or slapping his shoulder.
"How are you?" a man says as he climbs the bleachers.
"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.
OTTO GREULE JR / GETTY IMAGES
Replacement ref Lance Easley, right, signals a touchdown on a controversial call that gave the Seattle Seahawks a dramatic 14-12 victory over Green Bay on Sept. 24.
KEVIN CASEY / GETTY IMAGES
Ex-NFL ref Lance Easley