'Fail Mary' referee harbors no regrets
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
SEATTLE-For one week, Lance Easley took asylum inside his own home. He drew the shades, closed the curtains, locked the doors and shut off his cellphone.
Cars pulled into the driveway of his Santa Maria, Calif., home—one by one—and police swept them away.
Death threats from gamblers. More threats from Green Bay Packers fans. With his wife, all Easley could do was “strategize” and wait for the storm to pass.
“We just had to kind of hang in there,” Easley said.
September 2012 was a surreal time for Lance Easley, the replacement official who made arguably the most infamous call in NFL history. From anonymous banker to Cheeseheads Most Wanted, his life changed forever. But two years later, with the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks set for a second date at CenturyLink Field on Thursday night, Easley is at peace.
He is convinced this “Fail Mary” play was “Immaculate Reception”-rare, the type of play any official could botch. He wouldn’t change anything. Heck, he even misses officiating.
Easley coughs a rugged cough over the phone. He’s enduring serious health issues he’d rather not get into. Easley mentions his public speaking appearance, his published book and then pauses for humor.
If you haven’t read it, he understands.
“In Wisconsin, it’s probably on the burning list,” Easley said. “It’s probably already burned.”
Sept. 24, 2012, is a day he’ll never forget.
For Easley, officiating sports was love at first sight. For one, he said, it’s “the best seat in the house.” Two, it requires an acute level of concentration that fuels an unparalleled adrenaline rush. And, three, a live-and-die-together camaraderie with other officials grows.
“The negative part,” he said, “is everybody hates you. But think about police officers. You always like them when they show up to help you out. Otherwise, you’re looking in your rearview mirror.”
Easley handled junior college games, but he was mostly a back judge in high school football.
Then, the NFL came calling. Its officials locked out, the league needed replacements, needed Lance Easley.
He filled out the one-page application, went through the proper training and, zap, there he was on the sports’ world’s biggest stage.
His Welcome to the NFL moment truly struck one week prior between St. Louis and Washington. Through a “knockdown, drag-out brawl,” a player’s blood smeared Easley’s uniform. He was knocked silly in one scrum. When Easley asked Mike Shanahan what the deal was, the coach told him that Jeff Fisher likes to get his guys worked up.
“It was one of the worst games I’ve ever been involved with,” Easley said. “Guys were fighting the whole game.”
The problem was leaguewide. So that following week, the NFL’s vice president of officiating Carl Johnson told all the officials on a conference call to take charge, to be bold.
“We said, ‘All right, it’s on,’” Easley said. “We’re sending a message. None of this crap is happening tonight. None of this late-hit (expletive). None of that stuff’s going down.’”
Easley lacked no confidence. Packers-Seahawks was next.
Want to talk about a play that truly shaped that 2012 game? The roughing the passer penalty early in the fourth quarter gets a laugh from Easley.
With Green Bay leading, 12-7, Jerron McMillian intercepted a Russell Wilson pass deep in Seattle territory, an interception wiped out by a phantom roughing the passer penalty on Erik Walden.
Standing near the Seahawks sideline, Easley watched Pete Carroll’s emotions change. One moment, it looked like Carroll was “kicked in the nuts.” The next, he had a pep in his step.
“Boy, that’s a break,” Easley told the coach.
“You’re not kidding!” Carroll said.
Then, the fun began. Easley, who was the side judge, dissects the play as if it happened this Monday. Fourth and 10. The 24-yard line. Eight seconds left. Seattle was in a trips formation on the other side; Easley had Tate and Shields on his.
Wilson rolled to Easley’s side…let’r rip…showtime.
“Everybody started to leap up for the ball and I thought, originally, that the defense was going to bat the ball down, and they didn’t,” Easley said. “All of a sudden, they tried to catch it and I said, ‘Oh crap. What are they doing? Why are they trying to do this?’ That was my ‘Oh Crap’ moment. Now, I’ve got to bring that play to the ground.
“If Tate did not have his hand on the ball immediately, by rule, I could have given it to the Packers. But because all the hands went on it at one time—the ball is loose, M.D. (Jennings) and Golden (Tate) touched the ball simultaneously. It’s not a catch yet. To be a catch, it has to be possessed.”
What Tate did, Easley continued, was smart. He got his hand in there and was the first person to the ground with both feet. The pile of bodies landed, a “wrestling match” ensued and Easley raced over to see who had the ball outright.
That’s when he had his second “Oh Crap” moment.
“I look at my partner and he’s looking down,” Easley said. “I’m looking at his eyes and I’m like, ‘Well, we can sit here and talk about this and hear the Jeopardy music and Jon Gruden’s going to beat the hell out of me upstairs, or I’m just going to go ahead and sell this call and it goes to replay anyway. That’s what I did. I sold it.”
Of course, replay spawned the “simultaneous possession” madness. Seattle won. T.J. Lang fired off the Tweet Heard ‘Round the World and, soon, the NFL’s refs returned.
And to think this all would’ve been avoided if Easley flags Tate for offensive pass interference. At his angle, Easley never saw Tate shove Shields.
Yet, he also has a cardinal rule on such plays.
“My philosophy on a Hail Mary? You ain’t getting pass interference on it,” Easley said. “Just like a shot at the rim at the end of a basketball game. Nobody’s putting a whistle on any of that. They’re going to let the guys beat the hell out of each other.
“If it was really flagrant and I could really see it, I probably would have thrown the flag. If you look at the film, you’ll see his hands are extended into Shields’ back. His arms are already out. He pushes him with his hands. He doesn’t extend his elbows.”
Easley figured it’d all blow over by Tuesday. He was wrong.
Over the phone, Easley asked his league supervisor if he had ever seen a play like this. All he heard was “Uhh…uhh…uhh…”
True, this Hail Mary was different. But the replay was an eyesore.
Easley heard his name mentioned by Jay Leno, by David Letterman, even the president of the United States felt the urge to label his call “terrible.” The chaos was swirling so fast, Easley didn’t even hear Barack Obama’s comments until weeks later.
Easley was locked in his home. When he did return to the bank, a security guard took guard for a month. His phone rang so much, with so many death threats that Easley hired a friend to act as a personal secretary. One package showed up at his doorstep, prompting the bomb squad to step in. They opened it up and inside was…cheese curds…with a note that read “Cheeseheads never forget.”
Yet all along, Easley never sprinted toward total seclusion. When he saw an photo one fan posted online of himself and Roger Goodell sipping champagne while watching the NFL burn, he cracked up laughing. A bunch of fake Lance Easley Twitter accounts popped up, so he made his own and started retweeting/favoriting the haters.
“What are you going to do?” he said. “Nobody’s stuck a gun in my face or followed through with any of the threats.”
Easley appeared on “The Today Show” to, as he said, let everyone know he’s OK. And, yes, he has capitalized on his 15 minutes of, um, fame. Basically, he’s a bizarro Steve Bartman. In addition to his published book, “Making the Call: Living with Your Decisions,” Easley served as a celebrity umpire at Richard Sherman’s softball game.
Since 2012, he hasn’t officiated. Most of his old officiating buddies have abandoned him, but he does miss the rush, the pressure, the exact situation he was thrown into that night in Seattle.
One day, Easley wonders out loud, one day maybe he’ll return to high school games. He has a different take on the performance of the replacement officials.
“I thought it’d be a total disaster when we went out and did that,” Easley said. “And I was amazed at how well we did. People can hate my call. But my call was such a bizarre play. It’s one of these calls, like the Immaculate Reception. It’s weird. It’s a weird-ass play. It didn’t matter who the official was.”
When the Packers-Seahawks clash Thursday, Easley isn’t sure how or where he’ll even watch it. Memories have recharged this week.
But, no, Easley has zero, none, zilch regrets about that night at CenturyLink.
“No, no,” he said. “It was a blast. The whole thing. It’s just life—things happen.”