NEWS SPORTS COLUMNIST
Marcus Easley contained himself after the game, playing it cool and initially doing his best to sound like a sage old veteran. His 55-yard kickoff return late in the second quarter, after which the Bills took the lead for good over the Jaguars? Easley attempted to pass it off as “just another football play.”
You know those winning Powerball tickets? It was just a few numbers on two pieces of paper that added up to nothing … unless you count the $587 million.
The kickoff return against the Jags wasn't just a terrific play for Easley, who made more round trips to hell over the past two-plus seasons than the Grim Reaper. It wasn't just another football play, as he said, or just a confidence booster, as he said, that helped the Bills to a 34-18 victory over Jacksonville on a rainy day in December.
It was more. It was the dream of a lifetime.
“It's been a rough few years. It has,” he said. “It gets very emotional on and off the field. It was pretty much the first time I ever had to deal with injuries, especially on this level. You see guys you came [into the NFL] with doing well, and you want to be part of that, especially when you know what you can bring.”
The shame, of course, is that it didn't happen three years ago. The Bills believed Easley would become an impact player they needed to help Ryan Fitzpatrick in their short-passing game. He's a big, physical receiver at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds. The Bills drafted him in the fourth round in 2010 as a complement to Stevie Johnson.
His physical tools were never an issue. His problem was staying on the field. Injuries led him to sleepless nights and a ride on the emotional roller-coaster. He wondered how his body had failed him, a knee injury wiping out his first season and a heart ailment ending his second. He worried that he would never play a regular-season game in the NFL.
Imagine, a competitive athlete getting that close to his dream, knowing he put his heart and soul into the game, only to have it all ripped away. The heart ailment took last season from Easley but it didn't take away his spirit. He kept coming back and never gave up.
Finally, on Sunday, he found himself camped under Josh Scobee's kickoff at the 4-yard line. He burst through the middle before being pushed out of bounds, another 15 yards added for a late hit. The Bills scored a few plays later when Fitzpatrick found Scott Chandler in the end zone.
“Seeing the ball in the air and knowing it was coming to me, it was time to make it happen,” he said. “It was time to go. This was it. This was the one.”
It wasn't his first play in the NFL, but it might as well have been. He covered the opening kickoff that resulted in a touchback. He made a terrific play while covering a kickoff 22 seconds before the half when he tackled Quan Cosby at the 9. Mostly, he showed what he could do with the ball in his hands.
And he left you begging for more.
Now that he's healthy, the Bills need to incorporate him into the offense. He's not a kid, anymore. He's 25 and has been around for three years. The only way he's going to gain real experience is by getting an opportunity to play as a receiver in games. The Bills' win over the sorry Jaguars looked like an extension of the preseason.
Chan Gailey showed off his brilliance yet again Sunday on third-and-7 from the Jacksonville 11-yard line late in the first half. What to call? Gailey left C.J. Spiller on the sideline, again, ignored Johnson and Chandler, forgot about T.J. Graham and dialed up a play for … Brad Smith.
It had little effect on the outcome, but it mattered in the grand scheme. The Bills had little to lose by playing Easley, especially after Johnson was sent to the locker room with a sore hamstring in the third quarter. The Bills had a 27-10 lead, which even for them met the criteria for being in command. The Bills inspired the offense with … Ruvell Martin.
Nobody knows what Easley would have provided. He could have been 50,000 volts off the bench or he could have flopped. There's only one way to find out.
Easley stood on the sidelines a few feet from Gailey with his chin strap buckled, itching for his chance with the offense. He looked like the kid with the long face and sad eyes who begs his Pop Warner coach for playing time.
“I was ready, ready to go,” Easley said. “Steve told me his hamstring was bothering him and told me to be ready. It put me on my toes. I was just waiting and [saying] 'be patient, be patient' like I have been for the past couple of years. I was just trying to stick around for them to give me that look and say, 'Easley, let's go.' ”
Finally, with 1:50 remaining, Easley jogged into the huddle with the offense and blocked on three uneventful running plays. His last play from scrimmage came after Fitzpatrick told him where to line up in the Victory Formation, another first for him and rarity for the Bills. There will be more firsts – a first catch, a first down, a first touchdown.
Given what he overcame to get into the game Sunday, he will treat them as if they were his last.
“This was my dream, to play on this level, and it was disappointment after disappointment after disappointment,” he said. “When is this time going to come? When is my moment going to happen? You got a little glimpse of it.”
But, Marcus, you said it was just another play.
Easley takes giant steps on a long road