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Injured Rams lineman Dominique Easley takes to the sky to occupy his downtime

The Los Angeles Times' Lindsey Thiry rides along with Rams defensive lineman Dominique Easley during a flying lesson in Camarillo.

As the sun rises across Camarillo, Dominique Easley crouches beneath the wing of a small airplane parked at the local airport.

With a checklist in hand, the Rams defensive lineman inspects the flaps, takes a fuel sample and removes the chains from a Cessna 172.

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Following his instructor’s approval, the 6-foot-2, 273-pound Easley ducks under the wing, then climbs into the cockpit of the four-seat plane.

It’s a late November morning. Fifteen miles south, Easley’s teammates are arriving at the team’s Thousand Oaks headquarters to prepare for a game against the Arizona Cardinals.

But Easley won’t make an appearance at the facility for a few more hours.

The third-year pro sustained a season-ending knee injury in August during the first week of training camp, the third major knee injury of his college and pro career.

In the fall, Easley, 25, started flying lessons to help fill the void. He also is taking online courses from the University of Florida, has taken to the guitar and recently performed a stand-up routine at a comedy club in Los Angeles.

“I still do my rehab, still work out, everything like that,” Easley says, “but I’ve got to bulk up my time with something.”

Before he was injured, Easley was on track to play a significant role in the rotation with Aaron Donald and others in coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme.

The Rams are 11-4 and have won the NFC West. They play the San Francisco 49ers this week in the season finale and then will host a first-round playoff game.

“I want to be out there playing,” Easley says, “but I’m happy that we’re winning.”

Easley, a first-round pick in 2014 by the New England Patriots, joined the Rams last season. He was solidifying his role with new coach Sean McVay and his staff when he was injured during a non-contact play.

After undergoing an initial surgery in August and a follow-up procedure in October, Easley has watched most games from his home in Thousand Oaks.

“There would be some times when I would be watching [on television], but certain games when we would be blowing people out, I would just change it,” Easley says. “The whole point of me watching it is to make sure we’re winning.”

NFL players who suffer season-ending injuries can be cast into somewhat of a limbo, caught between working to get back, but on the outside looking in. Some keep their distance.

But Easley has maintained a constant presence around the practice facility. He is a regular in the training room and sometimes drops by position meetings.

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“You can’t get rid of him,” defensive line coach Bill Johnson says. “He loves being up here.”

Teammates say it’s been difficult for Easley to remain on the sideline.

“I know it was tough for him,” Donald says. “I just try to be a friend and just give him motivation.”

Flight instructor David Tushin and Rams defensive lineman Dominique Easley conduct a preflight inspection of a Cessna 172 at Camarillo Airport before taking off for a lesson.
Flight instructor David Tushin and Rams defensive lineman Dominique Easley conduct a preflight inspection of a Cessna 172 at Camarillo Airport before taking off for a lesson. (Lindsey Thiry / Los Angeles Times)

Receiver Tavon Austin, one of Easley’s closest friends on the team, says it’s good the lineman has kept himself busy with extracurricular activities. Austin had off-season wrist surgery and was sidelined for organized team activities and mini-camps.

Focusing on endeavors outside of football prevents the mind from wandering, he says.

“If you’re hurt, nobody is really paying attention to you,” Austin says. “You’re just another guy, and I experienced that, so I definitely know.”

Easley is happy filling some of that time in flight.

“I’m what you would call adventurous,” he says.

So on a windy morning, he prepares to log his second flight hour. He must fly 40, including 20 with an instructor, before he can apply for a license.

His instructor, David Tushin, and a reporter join him in the plane.

“So here’s oil pressure,” the instructor says pointing at a gauge, “and there’s oil temperature.”

“Check,” Easley says.

The instructor calls to the control tower and gives Easley the go-ahead to put the plane in motion.

It lurches forward as Easley steers toward the runway. He stops at the hold line at the end of the runway to perform his final cockpit checks.

Minutes later, air traffic control clears the plane for takeoff.

Easley accelerates down the runway, pulls back on the controls and the plane ascends into the turbulent sky. About 3,000 feet above the ground, he practices turns. Then his instructor takes him through an emergency drill.

Easley remains calm as he goes through an emergency checklist and prepares the plane for a crash-landing scenario. When completed, the instructor revs the engine once more, checks his watch and says it’s time to return to the airport.

“I feel like when you’re flying a plane, it’s just more about your confidence, and I’d say it’s somewhat similar to football,” Easley says, adding, “as long as you are confident doing it, you’ll be alright.”

Donald says he’s not surprised that Easley is keeping busy, but he was caught off guard by his latest venture.

“He likes to do stuff that is out-of-the-box stuff like that,” Donald says. “But you know, the plane, I ain’t going to lie, flying the plane I was a little surprised about that.”

Easley’s teammates aren’t certain that they would take a ride.

“I love him to death, but I don’t know if I can do that,” Donald says.

Adds Austin: “He barely can drive a car, so I ain’t going in no airplane with him.”

Easley is in the final year of his contract with the Rams. He is making a strong recovery from injury, but his future is uncertain.

“Hopefully,” he says, “I learn that soon.”

It will take longer for Easley to log his flight hours and earn his pilot’s license.

But that’s OK with Easley.

“I’m a traveler,” he says, “so I just want to get up and go wherever I want to.”

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