Dominique Easley was hoping for the best as he sat in a Florida hospital room in September. But soon, as the doctor entered with his head down, the defensive lineman and NFL draft prospect knew the worst was coming — not only had he torn his right ACL, but his right meniscus, too, after suffering a dreaded non-contact injury in practice three games into the season.
"I already know what time it is," the Staten Island product recalled telling the doctor, before the results of the MRI exam was relayed to him.
The first-team All-SEC preseason selection didn't stay down. Despite the injury, the chiseled 6-foot-2, 288-pound Easley remains a hot prospect.
Seventeen teams attended his Pro Day in Gainesville, Fla., Thursday, watching him show how far the knee has come, which he estimates is at 85 percent. He already has visits set up with the Patriots, Bears, Chiefs, Rams, Browns and Cowboys, and Easley is projected to go as high as the second round of next month's NFL draft.
"I was disappointed, but I'm not going to stay down," Easley said. "I never thought there's a point to dwell on something you don't have control over.
"I knew I was going to be back, because I just know myself."
He had additional reason for inspiration — his 18-month-old son, Dominique II. Dominique II forced him to mature this past year. Florida coach Will Muschamp noticed him calm down off the field and focusing even more on football.
"That's all of me," Easley said of his son. "Everything I do is for him. I try to give him the best life possible I can.
"It's a crazy thing to look at somebody being just like you, the way you are."
Dominique II was with him when he went under the knife, putting a smile on his face at a dark time.
"I can't ever be sad around him," Easley said.
A late bloomer, Easley didn't play organized football until arriving at Curtis High School. As a youngster, he was drawn to football and practiced with the Staten Island Hurricanes, but Easley was too big to be allowed to play, hence the nickname "Popeye" given to him by his father, David Easley Sr.
He quickly became a star at Curtis, winning two city championships and being named a U.S. Army All-American. He was ranked as the second-overall prospect in the country entering college, and enjoyed an impressive career at Florida despite myriad injuries.
"He's got the best initial quickness for a defensive lineman I've ever been around, and I've been around some good ones," Muschamp said.
Bluntly honest, Easley raised eyebrows at the NFL Scouting Combine when he told reporters he preferred watching cartoons to football. Teams have asked him about those comments frequently and his explanation is simple: He's honest. He's also a student of the game. He'll spend hours upon hours watching film. Passion was never a problem at Florida.
"He's got an edge about him," Muschamp said. "When those bullets start flying, he's the first one I'm looking for in that foxhole."
Easley's injury history — which includes two torn ACL's at Florida — began in the third grade, when he fractured his left knee riding a mountain bike down a steep hill without brakes because of a dare from his older brother, David. A doctor advised him to give up sports, a recommendation he didn't follow.
"I just looked at him like he was stupid," Easley recalled with a chuckle. "I have issues with people telling what I can't do."
He's used that same determination to prove his doubters wrong following the latest setback.
Easley attacked the rehabilitation process like it was a quarterback stepping up in the pocket. In December, he moved to Boca Raton, Fla., to work at XPE Sports, a sports training center.
Director Tony Villani's biggest problem with Easley was slowing him down.
"He never wanted to take a day off," Villani said. "You had to start playing games and tricking him."
Muschamp thinks Easley would be mentioned with South Carolina star Jadeveon Clowney as the top defensive lineman in the draft if not for the injury, a notion NFL Network's Charles Davis doesn't necessarily subscribe to. The analyst, however, thinks Easley could still be a second-round pick.
"He's a big-time talent and he's so good that I know most people have him in their top 40 even though he's coming off that type of injury," Davis said. "If he doesn't have that injury, he's top 20 on most boards."
Davis said teams he has spoken to are looking at Easley as more of an investment for 2015 than someone they expect to produce in 2014, like a college player who will need to redshirt. He's versatile, able to play tackle and end, and is explosive off the line of scrimmage.
"I think he can be a player that is pushing for Pro Bowls," Davis said.
Where he is selected in the draft isn't important, Easley said. To hear his name called will be a dream come true, of course, but he's more focused on what comes next, getting onto the field as soon as possible and proving the injury was just a setback, not a derailment.
After all, he's not only playing for himself anymore.