On the day before it happened, Lance Easley got into his rental car and headed southeast. One of the perks of working as an NFL replacement official—on top of being able to do what you love on a stage to which you would in all likelihood never otherwise have ascended—was the opportunity to sightsee, and so Easley and his makeshift crew's umpire, Marc Harrod, drove together from Seattle toward the looming peaks of Mount Rainier. As they approached the mountain, Easley, 53 and from Santa Maria, Calif., began to notice the signs, white writing on a blue background: volcano EVACUATION ROUTE. Rainier has not erupted since 1894, but it remains active and is considered one of the world's 16 most dangerous volcanoes. Easley snapped a photo of one of the signs. It was not until the following evening, after he had raised his hands to the sky, instantly becoming, in his words, "the Steve Bartman and Bill Buckner of officiating," that it occurred to Easley that he had visited a 14,410-foot-tall metaphor. "All this stuff was bubbling, bubbling, bubbling," says Easley. "Then the top blew off."
When the cataclysm occurred on Sept. 24 in Seattle, Otto Greule was there to photograph it. Even when you've been shooting live sports as a professional for more than 30 years, as has the 53-year-old Greule, you can never be entirely sure where to position yourself for a good shot—for the shot. On that night, as rookie Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson took the snap with eight seconds remaining, his team trailing 12--7, and rolled back to the Packers' 40-yard line to loft a Hail Mary, Greule's instincts took him to the left side of the end zone, just inside the pylon. And luck was with him. Wilson's ball descended feet in front of Greule, where Seahawks receiver Golden Tate and Packers safety M.D. Jennings, among others, waited in anticipation. Greule lifted the Canon 5B Mark 2 strapped to his neck—one of the three cameras he carries—and started to shoot. Moments later he had imprinted on his memory card an image that would simultaneously define one of the more contentious episodes in NFL history, bring about that episode's quick end and change the lives of many of those involved.
"You never really know the life that a photograph is going to take on," says Greule. "That particular frame, to me it's definitely a moment, an important moment. As far as the aesthetics, it's kind of pedestrian. But I do like the context, showing the end zone, all the fans going ballistic."
Greule's photo is a fine one—clear, well-framed, exquisitely timed. But it would not have been splashed upon front pages and TV screens and websites around the world on its artistic merit alone. Context was everything.
December 24, 2012
For seven weeks America had been anticipating precisely what Greule had captured, the moment when the anger and the resentment—over the NFL's lockout of its regular officials; over its continued use of less qualified replacements through not just the preseason but also three weeks of the regular season—would be released in an unstoppable torrent. That moment had arrived.
It wasn't just the appearance that the replacement referees' ineptitude had finally cost a team a victory—even though Jennings and Tate fell to the earth entwined, both grasping at the football, Jennings had better position and both of his hands firmly wrapped around the ball, suggesting an interception. Or that this was the Packers, one of the league's most popular teams, getting jobbed. Or that it happened on Monday Night Football, with 16 million fans watching.... It was that the officials on the play didn't even appear to have the skill to see the same thing. The side judge—this was Easley, back from Rainier—ran up to the players wrestling on the ground, arriving in step with back judge Derrick Rhone-Dunn, who'd come from his more distant position beneath the goalposts. Easley raised his arms. Rhone-Dunn waved his over his head. Otto Greule snapped away. Wayne Elliott, the game's 54-year-old referee, reviewed the play and confirmed Easley's call: Touchdown.
No, this football-mad nation roared back. It was not.
In the minutes and days to follow, outcry about the play, the call and the men who'd made it took over the conversation on seemingly every form of media. The SportsCenter that followed the game on ESPN set an alltime high for viewership of that show. Outraged Packers guard T.J. Lang tweeted, "F--- it NFL.... Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs." The message was retweeted 98,000 times, more than any other sports-related tweet in 2012. (Lang wasn't fined.) In Seattle a 28-year-old blogger and Microsoft employee named Ben Brockman posted a detailed, multiangle analysis of the play. Brockman's most popular previous post, on the Lost finale, had drawn 700 hits; this one drew 85,000. And in Washington, D.C., Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, entering the final bitter weeks of their presidential campaigns, found something on which they could agree. The NFL needed its regular officials back and soon. Just take one look at Otto Greule's photograph!
Roger Goodell, the league's proud and stubborn commissioner, and the owners he serves, who are collectively worth billions, couldn't continue their stand. The announcement came 48 hours later: The NFL and the referees' union had reached an accord, the league agreeing to pay out a few more basis points of its $9 billion in annual revenue than it had desired. At that week's Thursday-night game the officials were cheered. Order had been restored.
Restored, that is, for everyone save for the formerly anonymous men who had, on a lark, responded last April to the league's e-mail seeking backup officials. The refs for the Seahawks-Packers game were suddenly overwhelmed by an unfathomable outpouring of anger and frustration. Their phones rang and rang, their displays often but not always showing Wisconsin area codes. They were told to kill themselves. They were offered help in doing so. The worst of it fell to Elliott and, particularly, Easley, who remembers one voice mail from a bitter gambler: "You owe me $5,000; I had that game picked. When are you going to send me a check?"
"It was like the The Twilight Zone," says Easley. "They're talking about me all over. Leno, Letterman.... It was just bizarre."
The thing about cataclysms: They're so powerful that they consume most nuances and most particulars until all that remains is a single truth, a single narrative. But what if what we think we see in Otto Greule's photograph isn't really what we are seeing? What if, of all the errors the replacement officials made in their seven weeks on the job, the ruling that broke the NFL—the one made by Lance Easley, upheld by Wayne Elliott—was not one of them?
The first thing to know about Greule's image is that it does not—as is widely believed—depict two officials making directly contradictory calls. Yes, Easley is ruling the play a touchdown for Golden Tate and the Seahawks. But Rhone-Dunn is not ruling an interception for M.D. Jennings and the Packers. "That's the international sign for stopping the clock," says Easley. "He's basically saying, Let's talk about it."
"I don't know why he chose to give that signal rather than do nothing," says Elliott. "If he just wanted to talk, he didn't have to give any kind of signal."
Easley saw no need to discuss the ruling with Rhone-Dunn for several reasons. First, he did not see Rhone-Dunn waving his arms until his own were already over his head. Second, through weeks of media scrutiny unlike any he had experienced while working D-III, junior college and high school games in California, he had been conditioned to be decisive. "It went through your mind before every call: If we stop and talk about it, they're going to crucify us," he says.
Most important, though, was this: "I had the play," says Easley. "Derrick came in late. I was alone. I looked up at [Rhone-Dunn], and in my mind I'm going, Goddangit, I've got it; I've got joint possession. I said to myself, Boom—we've got to sell it."
What Easley was trying to sell, however, was one of the most difficult calls any official has ever had to make, as it involved multiple vague rules (both written and unwritten) and their application to a play that was almost certainly unique in its complexity and the number of quickly moving body parts involved. This was a Rorschach test designed by a diabolical and unseen hand.
"The problem with that play was the play itself," says Easley. "It was so bizarre, you can't explain it. The fans want black and white, crystal clear. It was just ugly. If I had called something else, [other] people would have been pissed off. It didn't matter what I called. We were screwed."
One thing on which everyone agrees is that Tate committed offensive pass interference against Packers defensive back Sam Shields, shoving him to the ground just before Wilson's pass arrived. The NFL admitted as much on the following day when it issued a statement otherwise upholding the call—a statement that was given about as much attention as Chip Diller crying, "All is well!" near the end of Animal House.
At any level of football, however, offensive pass interference is rarely called in an end-of-game Hail Mary situation. (According to the NFL Network, it hasn't been called in the last 87 such plays, going back five years.) "It's like basketball," says Easley. "If there's a final shot and everybody's at the rim, there ain't going to be a whistle. You can see it, but philosophically, do you call it? No. The biggest, toughest guy wins."
Much more attention was devoted to the catch itself, and much more scorn was heaped upon the officials because of it. In the days that followed, professional writers and amateurs like Brockman, the Microsoft employee, devoted acres of pixels to thin-slicing the play.
"I'm a Seahawks fan, but I pride myself on being objective," says Brockman. "Like everybody else I thought we had won on a bad call in our favor. Then I watched in slo-mo and started looking into all the pieces. Eventually, I concluded, I don't think this is a bad call at all."
The first ordinance addressed by Brockman and others who filed minority reports, was Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 5: If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the [offense]. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.
Replays revealed that despite Jennings's superior position Tate actually got his left hand on the ball a fraction of a second before Jennings, and that the hand remained on the ball even as the two tumbled to the ground. It would matter not that Jennings clearly had "more" control if Tate, as the offensive player, had and maintained any at all.
The second centrally applicable rule had to do with the definition of a catch—and, more precisely, whether a player can fulfill its requirements with just one hand, as Tate clearly took his right hand off the ball for a moment. The rule book is not explicit on that point, although we have all seen plenty of circumstances in which a player has caught a ball one-handed. Months later Tate still insists that's what he did. "I thought I had it, and I'm sure Jennings thought he had it," he says.
From there, the requirements that Tate had to fulfill are as follows: Touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands (check); and maintain[s] control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground (check).
So, since Jennings clearly had at least jointly caught the ball, the crux of the matter was whether Tate had maintained control of the ball with his left hand—making it a catch by him too—or whether his hand was merely in contact with the ball.
It was the ultimate toss-up, one that would have given any official trouble no matter his experience. But Easley had the best view of it, and he thought Tate had never relinquished control. Repeated frame-by-frame viewings in the days and the weeks to follow did not dissuade him. "Golden Tate's hand and [some Packers players'] hands were on the ball simultaneously," Easley says. "Tate has to come to the ground and keep control through the process of the catch. And he did that."
But there was still one more step before the catch would be officially ruled a touchdown: Wayne Elliott's replay review. During the play Elliott was positioned 40 yards away, watching (as his job dictates) for roughing-the-passer and other behind-the-line infractions. By the time he turned his head, all he saw was Easley's raised arms—not Rhone-Dunn's signal—and all he heard was the crowd's joyous roar. So he did as he'd been trained. "A scoring play, on the last play of the game, so I headed toward the replay booth," he says. "That may have been wrong, not to have talked to the other guys, but I never went to them because I didn't know there was a controversy."
It may not have mattered. "If we had talked, I wouldn't have changed anything," confirms Easley.
Once Elliott was under the hood, he and Howard Slavin, an NFL replay official since the current system's inception in 1999, reviewed only two camera angles: the main TV feed and another from the far sideline. "I told Howard, 'That second view actually has a little more argument for the Seattle player,'" Elliott remembers. "And he said, 'There's nothing in here we can use to reverse the call.' We had been taught that these replay guys, you pretty much just do what they say." Elliott trotted back onto the field and raised his arms.
"I'm just making a call, like I've been making calls for 35 years," says Elliott, a longtime small-college official in Texas. "I'm not thinking it's something the world's never going to forget."
In the nearly four-month span of the NFL referee lockout, Elliott's crew worked seven games together—four preseason, three regular season—but saw only one team twice: the Green Bay Packers. "Before the game that night in Seattle, Aaron Rodgers came up to me and called me by name. He said, 'We're glad to see you here tonight; you're the best crew we've had,'" Elliott recalls. "I said, 'I hope you say that when the night is over.'"
Rodgers would not say anything like that after the mess that ensued—Seahawks coach Pete Carroll conducting his postgame interview on the field, before the extra point was even kicked; stunned Packers players returning from the locker room for that kick, half-undressed, having to reclaim their helmets from field-side storage bins. Few positive words were uttered in the officials' locker room immediately afterward either. "If you've ever played and lost a game, nobody says anything," recalls Elliott. "Phil Luckett [the former NFL referee who was on-site supervising the crew] was making sure it was quiet. Derrick said, 'I still had fun!' Luckett gave him the shush signal. I haven't talked to Derrick since that night." (Rhone-Dunn declined to speak to SI for this story.)
The play affected Tate's life, to a degree. "It's weird to one night be able to walk down the street and mind your own business and the next day people are like, Hey, it was a catch! It wasn't a catch! That was PI! ... looking at me, whispering," he says. "All I did is compete. If it happens again, I'm going to fight for the ball and try to get it."
For the second-leading receiver on a surging team, there would be many more chances to replace Otto Greule's image with new ones in the public's memory. But for the officials that day, it's a different story. Easley tried to return seamlessly to his regular life—he works as a banker—but that was difficult with TV vans staked out at his home, his phone buzzing incessantly with threats. "This was Green Bay, and thankfully Packers fans aren't that out of control," says Easley. "I'd have been more concerned if it was the Raiders. They're closer; right down the street."
It is equally difficult for Easley to come to terms with the fact that while the NFL rolls on, he will forever be remembered as one of the sport's goats—particularly difficult because he didn't necessarily do anything wrong and officiating is in his blood. His 76-year-old father, Roy (who once recorded country and western music under the name Hoodoo Fudgearound), taught the discipline for years at Cal Poly--Pomona, and his 25-year-old son, Daniel, is a seasoned football and basketball referee. "People will always associate my name with a bad thing," says Easley. "And for what? I'm an official. That's what I do. I officiate. There was a need for officials. And I officiated."
Elliott, who works as a real estate agent in Austin, has a more Zen outlook on the experience. "It's not something I think about," he says. "It's just something I did. It just happened." Although he had been assured that he would be able to return to his gig refereeing in Texas's D-II Lone Star Conference, Elliott lost that job, at least for 2012. The network of officials runs even deeper than he had realized: His supervisor is a Big 12 referee, whose supervisor, in turn, is Walt Anderson, a two-time Super Bowl official. Elliott has returned to calling high school games—it is playoff time in Texas—and harbors no regrets. "I would do it all again in a heartbeat," he says. "It was the absolute biggest thrill of my life. I was making $225 a game in D-II football, without a travel allowance. I loved that. I would have done it forever. But if I had to sacrifice that to work seven weeks in the NFL? Man, it was amazing."
Easley is not so certain he'd do it again. "If I knew it was going to end like that, probably not," he says. "But I don't know." After his experience he had planned to lie low, to take the rest of the season off from the game altogether. But officials get sick, and they get injured, and soon he was back in stripes, on high school fields in California. "They were so thin that they needed me," he says. "That happens all over the country. It's a very, very difficult thing to get really good people."
"I had the play," says Easley. "I've got joint possession. I said to myself, Boom—we've got to sell it."
"You owe me $5,000," one gambler told Easley. "When are you going to send me a check?"
To find out where the Green Bay--Seattle debacle ranks in SI's list of the 112 Biggest Sports Moments of 2012, go to SI.com/mag