Before giving opposing offenses headaches, Dominique Easley suffered pains from just sitting inside his Staten Island, N.Y., apartment as a child.
He had to stay active. Headaches from staying inside forced Easley to the outdoors. Video games never interested him. He wanted to see the world. Moving was also not a choice. He moved eight times with his family. He remembers the McDonald’s housing projects and moving to his grandma’s house when they got evicted and the place on Sherman Street.
Naturally curious and inquisitive, Easley spent his days exploring his neighborhood streets, learning and observing those around him. He had no choice. He had no car. He did not have much at all. All he had was himself and his family.
“When I was a kid, I used to always take the bus and walk everywhere. I would see a whole lot of homeless kids,” Easley said. “Not even adults, but kids. A lot of my friends didn’t grow up off of anything.”
Staten Island made Easley the person he is today: a loving father and a caring friend first, and a football player second.
“I hate to see people hurt. I see people suffer every day,” he said. “When I see somebody hurt, I just get this feeling in my heart. I hate to see it.”
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Easley’s first ACL injury came two years ago when an offensive lineman fell on his left knee during a 21-7 loss to Florida State. The second tear was a non-contact injury suffered while covering a screen pass during practice on Sept. 24.
Before his latest setback, Easley looked like the player who earned a five-star recruiting ranking coming out of Curtis High in Staten Island. He lived in backfields, demanded double teams and relished his role as Florida’s emotional leader.
Sports Illustrated pegged him as the 15th overall pick in a mock draft released the day of that fateful practice.
He announced his intent to enter the NFL Draft six days later and signed with agent Thomas Santanello. Renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews performed the surgery on Easley’s right knee at the Andrews Institute of Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine on Oct. 17 in Gulf Breeze near Pensacola. Now, Easley receives treatment at 10 a.m. and works out at 2 p.m.
On Wednesday night, he visited the Sanders Practice Fields for the first time since the practice mishap. He will stay in Gainesville through Florida’s game against No. 2 Florida State on Nov. 30 for Senior Day, when he will likely be honored.
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Bombs fell on Baghdad in March 2003. David Easley, who was in the Army, would soon leave his family. To his son, who was still in middle school, the deployment meant potentially losing his father.
“That was real hard on me, because the war just started,” Easley said. “All you kept hearing about, and me being a little kid, is you go to war and some people don’t come back. That’s a hard thing.”
Despite David and Carine Easley, who served in the Air Force, separating, he grew up in a close-knit household. His parents, along with his stepmother, uncle, aunt and grandmother remain strong influences in his life.
A manic work ethic came from his family. A free-spirited attitude came from his father who always joked around. Easley brought both to Curtis High.
Peter Gambardella, who serves as the football coach and assistant principal cherished the early morning visits in his office. As assistant principal and football coach, Gambardella became a second father to Easley.
Despite living 45 minutes away, in a rival school’s district, Easley rode the bus in the morning and always arrived early enough to stop by Gambardella’s office.
Gambardella’s two children became pseudo-siblings to a bigger-than-normal brother, who finished high school at 6-foot-2, 258 pounds. Gambardella enjoyed the way Easley picked up his children and horsed around with them.
“You look at him and say, ‘This big guy is a monster,’” Gambardella said. “But he has a heart of gold.”
Easley led Curtis High to a Public Schools Athletics League Championship in 2009 with a team that Gambardella calls his best ever — not because of talent, but because of heart. A blocked extra point by Easley sealed a comeback 20-19 upset victory in the semifinals against top-ranked Brooklyn Fort Hamilton High.
For Easley, the championship run began in the weight room.
“He wouldn’t let guys sit down. He pushed them every time they weren’t lifting,” Gambardella said.
“The second somebody sat down and talked, he yelled.”
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Easley wasn’t the only defensive lineman from the Northeast to choose UF. Sharrif Floyd also overcame obstacles to play college football.
Both came from the inner city. Floyd hailed from Philadelphia George Washington High. Neither had a white-picket-fence suburban upbringing.
It seemed like a perfect match, but that wasn’t the case.
During the recruiting process, a recruiting analyst quoted Floyd saying something about Easley that Easley didn’t like. But when the two stayed in the same hotel the weekend of Florida’s spring game in 2010, Floyd visited Easley’s room.
The two hashed out their differences and bonded during a conversation about their upbringings. They not only shared the same hotel, but they also shared the same outlook on life.
“It’s that East Coast thing, being from Philly and New York,” Floyd said. “(We) came together at Florida and clicked with each other, because we knew where we were from and we knew what we expected from each other.”
Floyd and Easley anchored a defensive line that allowed only five 100-yard rushers in 21 starts together. But their relationship grew off the field.
The two lived together. They went out together. They pranked teammates together.
Floyd laughed as he recalled pouring flour, honey and syrup on an unsuspecting Marcus Maye, who was sleeping shirtless on a couch.
Defensive tackle Damien Jacobs came to his locker last season to soaked clothes. He was set to drive home, but didn’t have anything to wear because of Floyd and Easley. Jacobs borrowed some threads from the equipment room and still laughs about it to this day.
“Your life is short. You never know when you’re going to go,” Easley said. “Just enjoy it, because if you do go, you’ll be happy with it.”
Earlier this year, the two went their separate ways.
Floyd declared for the NFL Draft, and Easley elected to stay for his senior season.
Easley finally had center stage on the defensive line, but he wasn’t completely happy. Not being one of four players — Floyd, Matt Elam, Jelani Jenkins and Jordan Reed — to declare early hurt. He always thought he’d be three years and out.
But he wasn’t finished in Gainesville.
Although his senior season did not go as planned, Easley has no regrets.
“I was more worried about how my football career went. It didn’t go how I wanted it to go,” Easley said. “Everybody’s plan is to do well in college for three years and go to the league. (Now) I would never have wanted it any other way.”
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Dominique Earl Easley II was born seven pounds and 14 ounces on Nov. 4, 2012. He recently celebrated his first birthday. The defensive tackle from Staten Island who had worried about the master plan now has to play for two.
“The best thing about fatherhood is seeing somebody in you,” Easley said. “You’re sitting there watching him thinking, ‘That’s mine. He’s me.’ Just seeing that person you made puts a smile on your face.”
Whether it was the birth of his first child or coming to grips with returning for a senior season, Easley changed in the offseason. But the lighthearted defensive lineman with a heart of gold remained.
Only his perspective changed.
A childhood roaming the Staten Island projects, learning how the world works, made him realize the most important aspects of life aren’t so much the results.
For Easley, there’s a reason for everything.
As he has done since growing up in Staten Island, Easley will move again — this time to Boca Raton to train for the NFL Draft. Boca, known as a retirement community, won’t be the end for him. Instead, it’s a new beginning.
His latest painful injury is nothing. He’s been feeling pain his entire life. He’s not heading to the NFL in search of dollars or football immortality. He just wants to take care of his family playing a game he loves.
“It’s Dominique we’re talking about here,” Floyd said. “He’ll make it no matter what.”
Follow Adam Pincus on Twitter @adamDpincus.