There are many stories of perseverance in the NFL. But perhaps none as complete as WR Marcus Easley's path to the pros.
Many of us have seen or heard plenty of stories of perseverance in the NFL. Players coming from single-parent homes or lightly recruited in high school, or walk-ons who carved out productive college playing careers. Professionals who overcame major injuries, surgeries, or medical conditions, or players who earned a spot on the roster despite their lesser stature on a draft board.
Now what if you were told that Bills wide receiver Marcus Easley is all of the above?
Easy going with purpose
Born to a single mom, Marcus Easley's father was never a part of his life. His mother Tiki Easley lived with her parents for the first 10 years of Marcus' life. It proved to be a blessing. Marcus' grandparents Jackie and George Easley were always around to help raise him and his younger brother Michael. Though Marcus' uncle was also around it was his grandfather who would serve as his father figure.
"As Marcus started to grow up and understand things I had to take the role as if he was my son," said the elder Easley. "Marcus was very easy going. As he grew into a young man he always seemed wise beyond his years. Whenever there was a time that he needed advice I would tell him things just like a father would tell his son. He always listened. He was never a problem with being disrespectful."
"I was pretty cool. They never really had too much to worry about with me," Easley said. "I just listened and always did what I was told."
A big fan of roller coasters, Easley's grandfather would take him and his brother to theme parks and ride them all day with the boys among the many things that most fathers do with their kids. The presence of his grandfather never left Marcus feeling deprived.
"My grandfather was my father figure," he said. "He was my biggest teacher in my life. Between him and my cousin Clifton Allen and my mother it never really seemed like an issue not to have a dad. My grandfather was always there so I never felt like I was missing out."
His grandfather also got Marcus involved in youth sports after it was obvious he was very interested in football and basketball.
"When he got into playing Pop Warner, he loved it," said George. "He was a super football player even at that young age, but he was kind of a small kid. It never took him long to adjust to good challenges and as he grew and went to high school he was still kind of small, but very fast and eventually excelled when he got a chance."
Working for an opportunity
Lightly recruited out of high school for football, Easley chose to go the route of an academic scholarship with his exemplary grades. Football became an afterthought.
"I only applied to one school coming out of high school and that was UCONN because they offered me an academic scholarship," he said. "I ended up getting denied the scholarship, but got accepted to the school. My first year I just went to school."
Easley's grandfather, a manager at Hubbell Incorporated, an international manufacturer of electrical and electronic products, made sure Marcus' tuition was taken care of.
"He wanted to concentrate and focus on his academics and make sure he could handle everything well in school," George Easley said. "After his freshman year he was on the Dean's List, but he said he was bored and still had plenty of free time."
Not long after thinking about trying to walk on to the football team Easley received a campus-wide email offering a tryout in the fall. Easley decided to give it a shot.
"It was a one day tryout," he said. "I ran the 40, did some drills. It was pretty basic. They asked what position you might be interested in playing. I said defensive back or receiver. I didn't think I did all that well, but they must've liked what they saw."
The UCONN staff called him later that day and offered him a spot on the team as a receiver. Easley happily accepted, but his mood changed in less than a week.
"I didn't know what I signed up for until the first couple of practices," he said. "Then I realized what a walk on really is. You're pretty much just a scout team player. That's when I realized how much I needed to hit the weight room because those linebackers and safeties come down hitting. I thought I was strong and big, but it was a different level."
Despite the adjustment Easley was at a position where the Huskies were desperate. In two weeks he was on the two deep and traveling with the team. He would post his first college catch against Maine that season, but spent most of the year on special teams.
By his junior season Easley had added muscle to his frame and sharpened his route running. He put up numbers in the team intra-squad spring game, but his time on offense was as a run blocker as other younger recruits for the program were moved ahead of him on the depth chart. He had four catches for 94 yards that year.
"That was probably the biggest obstacle to get over," he said. "No matter what I did the year before or all the work I put in I would always go back to ground zero and have to work my way back up."
Come the spring prior to his senior season Easley dominated the spring game with 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Surely the coaching staff would award him a starting spot. Easley's grandfather, who attended the spring game, was stunned by the decision of the coaching staff.
"Right after that game they would put out the two deep for the depth chart, and he was nowhere to be seen on the depth chart," said George. "He came away from that saying, 'What else do I have to do?' And again they brought in a lot of new recruits who were put ahead of him on the depth chart.
"In talking to him it never seemed to affect him in such a way where he wanted to just quit playing football. He would just say, 'I'm going to still play and just do what I have to do.' That was his attitude."
Easley was back in his familiar run-blocking receiver role for the first few games. Then late in a game against Rhode Island on a play he didn't even make, the coaching staff sat up in their chairs after watching the game film.
"It was an option route where you could run a post, go, corner or hook it up," Easley said. "They threw me in there and I just blew past the defense, but the quarterback didn't throw it. I don't know why he didn't throw it. We worked on it all week in practice. The safety stepped up and I just took off. I was moving."
The next week against Pitt the offensive staff put Easley into the game to run the same option route at their own 21-yard line.
"Even though I had an option route there was no option in my mind. My read was already made," said Easley. "I stemmed in like I was getting under the safety and once I saw him bite up I just took off. There was no reading I was gone. That was the first time I scored."
Easley's 79-yard touchdown on a two-catch, 100-yard outing was the start of an explosion of production. Over the next two months Easley's stat column read like that of an All-American. In his final eight collegiate games Easley had 44 catches for 767 yards and seven touchdowns.
"He was just waiting for his chance," said Easley's grandfather. "It always seemed that when he got the chance that he would always make the best of it."
Hand-timed at 4.35 in the 40, Easley was soon on every scout's radar, earning an invite to the Texas vs. The Nation all-star game and an NFL combine invite. The NFL was suddenly a real possibility.
A fourth-round draft choice of the Bills, Easley could not believe Buffalo had taken him. They did not work him out and did not have much contact with him in the pre-draft process. He and his family huddled in his grandparents' home in Stratford, Connecticut went berserk when his name was called.
The only receiver taken in the Bills draft class, Easley was seen as a wideout, who with a little seasoning could soon be contributing on offense. His rookie training camp was off to a good start until the end of the first week when he landed awkwardly after a reception.
"I ran a basic route and I caught the ball and went to plant and go up field and my knee just kind of buckled," Easley said. "I kept practicing. I practiced that day and the next two days, but my knee just got stiff."
He eventually had surgery for a torn meniscus and was placed on injured reserve ending his rookie season before it began.
Easley committed fully to rehab and attended team meetings for regular season games the rest of the year. Ready to attack the 2011 season the NFL lockout robbed him of valuable practice time in the spring and led to an abbreviated training camp. Still, Easley impressed and earned a spot on the 53-man roster.
However, the Friday before the regular season opener at the beginning of practice Easley's heart went into overdrive.
"My heart went crazy. I don't know how," he said. "It felt like it was ready to jump out of my chest. It started when we were just jogging out routes. I was out of breath and didn't know why. Then we went to do routes on air and I remember I ran an in route in the red zone and I caught it and I was just gasping for air. My heart was racing."
A subsequent EKG revealed an irregular heartbeat and Easley was eventually moved to injured reserve missing his second straight season.
"I wondered if I was going to have a football career," said Easley. "It was tough. It came across my mind that maybe football wasn't for me, but it was a fleeting thought. I knew it wasn't my talent that was keeping me off the field. It was circumstance. I always believed in myself and had a strong support system that kept my spirits up and even staying around the facility being around the guys helped. They always encouraged me."
Easley's heart problem was corrected not long after his I-R designation, and he's been fine ever since.
Come 2012 Easley was determined to earn a roster spot and appear in his first NFL game, but his opportunities were limited in the preseason. Undrafted players like David Nelson and Donald Jones were preferred over him and there was third-round pick T.J. Graham. It was hard not to think back to the new recruits that would show up on the UCONN campus every fall and knock him down the depth chart.
"I got cut and they put me on the practice squad, but halfway through the year they bumped me up to the active roster," Easley said.
Special teams was where Easley would make his mark first, serving as a parallel to the start of his college career.
"The Jacksonville game was my first regular season action," he said. "I went down and made a tackle inside the 15-yard line and I had a 55-yard kick return. That's when they first started to notice me. I guess it was fitting to get an opportunity there first again."
Easley appeared in two more games on special teams that season and the team underwent a coaching change in the offseason. The change wasn't a concern for Easley, but rather an opportunity.
"He thought it would be better because he knew that Doug Marrone knew him from college," said George Easley. "Not that he wanted anything given to him, but he felt he'd get a fairer shake when it came to getting on the field."
Making the most of it
Easley already had Bills new special teams coordinator Danny Crossman impressed with his game tape having seen him every preseason on kick return as well as kick and punt coverage from the annual preseason games with Detroit.
"He was the special teams coordinator when I had a kick return for a touchdown in Detroit," said Easley. "When Crossman got here he said, 'I know you're not afraid to come down and make tackles.' The film didn't lie. Wherever they put me I was just trying to make plays at that point. I was just happy to be back on the field."
Once again there were new receivers coming in who were drafted high in Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. Easley never harbored any bitterness toward any other teammate. He just went about his business.
Easley tore it up last preseason with 12 catches for 224 yards (18.7 avg.) and a touchdown in three preseason appearances. Easley made the roster, but served primarily on special teams where he excelled leading the league in special teams tackles with 23.
"Special teams is something I can do, but I got drafted to play receiver and I think I'm still a pretty darn good receiver and I had a good preseason last year," he said.
For every step of his playing career Easley has always had at least one family member in the stands. No matter the city or the distance, George Easley is always there wearing an 81 jersey.
"There's never a trip that's too far for him," Easley said of his grandfather. "All he needs is 15 minutes notice. His bag is always packed."
"Even though it's a professional sport, a lot of these young men are kids and it does them good to look up and find someone they know," George Easley said. "He always manages to find me wherever I am. He gives me the thumbs up and he knows I'm there and it kind of lets him know he can just go play."
Easley's grandfather is still mistaken for his father by some of his newer teammates. The Bills receiver just shrugs his shoulders and nods going along with the misidentification. As far as he's concerned he is his father.
"He has always shown me appreciation for everything. He's my grandson," said George Easley. "His father was never in his life, so what was I going to do? Not do things because he's not my son? I never even thought about it that way.
"Now he always asks me, 'What do you want Papa? What do you need?' And I tell him, 'I don't need anything.' I'm just happy that he has his head on straight to do the right things and is the young man that he has become. I feel that's all I could ever want."
Playing his hand
For Easley the struggles and roadblocks in his career have only strengthened his resolve. There's never any bitterness for the circumstances he's had to face or overcome. He devises a plan and executes it trusting that things will work out. His NFL path has been longer than expected, but so far, so good.
"My slogan is, 'It ain't easy being Easley.' Honestly it hasn't been," Easley said. "I never saw all this coming. Life happens. You can only worry about the things you can control. Regardless of what obstacle gets thrown your way, you've just got to get through it. It's not really the cards you're dealt, it's more the hand you play."