Easley insists he got it right, wants chance to 'share my heart' with Packers fans
The temperature scratched 90 degrees, but he didn't mind. As players prepared for kickoff at Lambeau Field one week before the start of the 2012 NFL season, Lance Easley took a moment to appreciate where he stood.
Fans filled the stands. Music blasted through the speakers. The upper deck was adorned with championship seasons, retired numbers and hall of fame players, history notes documenting one of football's proudest franchises.
The scene showed why Green Bay could be the sport's unofficial capital. Easley never thought he'd make it here. After years of dabbling with high school and small-college officiating, the replacement official was handed a golden ticket.
"I just fell in love with the place," he remembers. "I said, 'This is what football is all about.' The fans, everything. It was a shrine. If I could work one game, that's where I'd want to work."
Irony had a different idea.
Easley, who spoke with Press-Gazette Media this week, didn't know what awaited the next time he saw the Packers less than a month later. Mired in a referee lockout, the NFL was at a boiling point when Green Bay visited the Seattle Seahawks for "Monday Night Football" two years ago. The atmosphere coarsing through CenturyLink Field was perfect for one of the most bizarre, controversial moments in league history.
Eight seconds separated winning from losing on Sept. 24, 2012. Eight seconds, and a man who was either in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the perfect place at the right time.
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His memory is crisp, even two years later. Step by step, Easley can pull you through the familiar sequence.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson started right, then rolled left. Seven players — five defensive backs, two receivers — merged in the back of the end zone. Two teams touched the football in midair after the clock expired.
Easley, the sideline judge, jogged toward the scrum. His hands were at his side, eyes fixed on the pile of humanity. When he arrived, Easley said, he saw Packers safety M.D. Jennings and Seahawks receiver Golden Tate simultaneously clutching the football.
His thought: dual possession.
"They were never going to take it away from one another," Easley says.
Slowly, Easley raised his arms in a touchdown sign. To his left, back judge Derrick Rhone-Dunn waved his hands above his head. In the moment, fans interpreted Rhone-Dunn's gesture as touchback, the signal for an interception.
Easley says Rhone-Dunn simply stopped the clock so the play could be discussed on the field, but he saw no need for a conversation. It was Easley's call to make, he says. From the snap, he had keyed on Tate's route.
Hovering above the pile in the end zone, his mind was set.
"I rushed because I wanted to sell it," Easley says. "I had nothing else to do. I looked at (Rhone-Dunn's) eyes after we both looked down, and I go, 'There's nothing else I have. I have touchdown. So we can stop and talk about it and let the Jeopardy music play, or we can go ahead and just close this deal and shut it down.' "
The touchdown went to replay review, like all scoring plays. When it held up, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll lifted his arms in victory. Adrenaline pumping, Tate turned around and basked in the home-crowd cheers.
There was pandemonium in every corner of CenturyLink Field. Well, almost everywhere. Inside the visiting locker room, euphoria had turned into something else.
"Just mass confusion, really," linebacker A.J. Hawk says.
Lips pursed, answers short, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said he'd never seen so much chaos to end a game. Coach Mike McCarthy, taking the high road, called it the "most unusual" game he'd ever seen. ESPN color analyst Jon Gruden summarized the contrarian's view perfectly.
"Golden Tate gets away with one of the more blatant pass-interference calls I've ever seen," Gruden said over the telecast. "M.D. Jennings intercepts the pass. And Tate's walking out of here as the player of the game. Unbelievable."
Somehow, mercifully, the Packers sent 11 players back onto the field from the locker room to make the game's ending official. When they returned, the questions were only beginning.
Most focused on the obvious. Did Jennings intercept the football? Did he and Tate have dual possession? Touchdown or touchback? It's a subjective call, of course. Easley uses his perception of the rule book to state his case.
"Players A and B, which would be offense and defense, touched the ball simultaneously," Easley says. "Which, in the air, that's where you start control. There's no rule that says you can't catch it one-handed. Now, if there was a rule that said you have to have two hands, but it just doesn't state that. You see guys making one-handed catches all the time.
"If Tate's hand never got in there, it was easy. But unfortunately he did and the rules specify when A and B touch the ball at the same time, it's a different animal."
Most games, win or lose, players have moved on before their return flight touches the runway. Not this one. Packers cornerback Sam Shields watched the replay on repeat, taking a couple of extra days to let the defeat digest.
Shields checked to see whether his teammate intercepted the ball. He also wondered something else.
How was there no pass interference?
"I got pushed in the back," Shields says.
The replay makes it clear. Arms extended, Tate shoved Shields with two hands. With his attention on the football, Shields never saw the push coming. He catapulted to the turf like a rag doll.
Isolate that play in any other game situation, and it's a layup for the official. How did the offensive pass interference go uncalled? Easley has a reason for that, too.
"The problem with that, if you ask any DB in the NFL, they'll say, 'You don't get those calls on Hail Marys,' " Easley says. "It's just like a basketball game at the end of the game at the rim. All the men are going for it, and it's a bloodbath. Whoever's the biggest, strongest man has it, and they know that.
"I just thought that Shields tripped into the big pile. Everybody was coming together. I had marked it off anyway in my head, 'We're just not going to call it.' Now, if it's one-on-one — Shields and Tate — I'm throwing the flag. But it isn't."
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Green Bay Press-Gazette photojournalist Evan Siegle shares his experiences from along the lines of Green Bay Packers games. (Sept. 24, 1012)
Easley was instantly concerned. By the time he returned to the officials' locker room, he knew the magnitude.
"I was like, 'Oh, how bad did I screw that up?' " he says.
Easley checked the replay. Play. Stop. Rewind. Play. Stop. Same routine, over and over and over. He couldn't remember ever seeing a game end with a play like that. The next day, he called his supervisor. The NFL confirmed his suspicion.
"I was the only one that play has ever happened to," Easley says. "You get stuck with a play like that, and it is what it is. Hopefully you can rule it correctly. By rule, that's all I did. Luckily, I got the rule right. I went back and checked."
By Wednesday morning, Easley was making talk-show rounds across the country. He expected the media storm. It was the personal attacks he never saw coming.
Gamblers found his home and work phone numbers, sending him angry calls at all times of day. Fans shot missiles over social media. His wife changed her Facebook profile. Easley had panic attacks, paranoia gripping him. In a swarm of death threats, he called the bomb squad to his home that week to investigate a suspicious package.
Easley expected the controversy to last a couple of days. Maybe a week, tops. He was wrong.
"I guess I don't try to bring it up, but it comes up," Easley says. "They say that Franco Harris and the Immaculate Reception, that play came up 10 times a day. So people do talk to me about it."
Even when the lockout ended the next week and regular officials returned to the field, the play hovered like a cloud above the season. There were clever nicknames. Fail Mary. Inaccurate Reception. Even more, there were significant consequences.
Green Bay finished the 2012 season 11-5. The Packers won the NFC North, but they finished a half-game behind the San Francisco 49ers in the hunt for a first-round playoff bye. That one play, those 8 seconds in September, forced Green Bay to travel to San Francisco for the divisional round instead of hosting the 49ers at Lambeau Field.
"We'll all have our own debate about that whenever the time comes, when we're retired and gone," Carroll says. "That referee was standing right there, looking right there — right down at it — and he didn't miss what he saw. He just saw it the way that Golden Tate made the catch. So I know that he wasn't confused. He saw what he saw."
* * *
Two years later, the bitterness has faded.
A lot has happened since Easley's call. The Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII in February. The Packers have won two more NFC North titles.
Neither team feels like revisiting the past as they prepare to open the NFL season at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Seattle, Green Bay's first trip to CenturyLink Field since the play.
"Truthfully, I really don't think about the play," says cornerback Tramon Williams, one of the five Packers defensive backs in the end zone on that play. "We don't talk about it anymore. It was just one of those deals that happened. You kind of feel like it happened for a reason. It got the real officials back. So we don't dwell on that game.
"We had to come back and face a tough, tough New Orleans team the next week, and we came out with a win. So we got over that pretty quick."
Still, Easley is restless. He calls himself "a man without a country." Right or wrong, he believes he's the most hated person in Wisconsin.
Easley wants people to understand. There were no hard feelings, no ill will in those 8 seconds. Two years later, he not only believes he made the right call, he says it was the only call the rulebook afforded.
"I can see how everybody has their different opinions on it, because there are different camera angles," Easley says. "But there's not one camera angle on the top of my head to what I'm looking at."
Once the storm passed, Easley rode the momentum of his newfound fame. He used his platform to write a book, fittingly titled "Making the Call: Living With Your Decisions." He's also a motivational speaker, traveling the country.
There's one city he especially wants to visit. It's the same place he fell in love with two years ago, when the Packers represented his golden ticket.
"I'd love to come to Green Bay someday to speak with people and let them know, just share my heart with them," Easley says. "I'd just tell them that, 'Hey, this is what happened, this is what I saw from my perspective.' I think that most people see it, and they go, 'Oh, I can see why you thought what you did, or why you saw what you saw.' I think when people hear me explain it, they're a little bit more empathetic. They see me as a human being, and not just some guy that had any stake in the game or anything.
"I was in a tough spot. Any referee is in a tough spot, but we were the guys who weren't even supposed to be there, so throw that into it. And, you know, I think that's a great lesson that everybody goes through. People say, 'Well, I wasn't supposed to be there.' No, you were there, so you're supposed to be there."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.