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.
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?"