It had been 363 days since Jacob Rainey played in a football game, and on this September afternoon last year in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, plenty of people doubted he ever would again.
Rainey wasn’t among them. He had been one of Virginia’s most promising high-school quarterbacks when, almost exactly a year earlier, he suffered a gruesome injury that many assumed would end his playing career. Today was supposed to be the day he took the field again. But doctors and his coach at Woodberry Forest School, Clint Alexander, weren’t sure his leg was ready, and they decided to hold him out one more week.
It was a setback but, after all Rainey had been through, a minor one. “I wanted to be out there, but I’ll just have to wait,” he said with a forced smile. “It’s fine.”
There would have been something symbolic to his stepping back onto the field for a three-way scrimmage with the same teams from a year before. The faux-Gothic buildings casting shadows over the field at Mercersburg Academy were reminiscent of Duke University, one of the first schools to start recruiting the six-foot-three, 225-pound Rainey and a reminder that his college football dreams were still in doubt.
Worse, the Woodberry offense struggled against Mercersburg and Oakton’s Flint Hill School, whose defenses Rainey had expertly dissected just before he was injured. The bright side, it was suggested as Rainey watched his replacement take another sack, was that once he took the field again there’d be no pressure.
“I actually feel a lot more pressure now,” Rainey said, tapping a white Nike on the grass and taking a quick glance at his new lower leg, a piece of black titanium connecting the sneaker to his thigh. “Before, I knew I could do it. Now . . . I don’t know.”
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Roughly an hour and a half south of the nearest Metro stop, Woodberry Forest School is a speck on the map in central Virginia. It’s a place so secluded and exclusive that many locals aren’t exactly sure where it is, but college football coaches from Stanford and South Bend could find it blindfolded.
Though founded by a Confederate cavalry captain, Woodberry Forest brings to life the traditions of the great Yankee prep academies, a steppingstone to the Ivy League for sons of CEOs, celebrities, and even a President. During the week, they roam mahogany halls and the perfectly trimmed fairways on the campus’s Donald Ross golf course.
But on fall weekends, there is football. Real, Southern football with pulled-pork tailgates and a pep-rally bonfire. The boys fill the bleachers in white shirts and striped ties, hosting pretty girls in pastel dresses.
“No one thought it was realistic for me to play last year, but I did.”
The boarding school’s 400 students come from 30 states and 17 foreign countries, but Jacob Rainey was a local product, from Charlottesville, the son of an accountant and a nurse. Yet he had no trouble fitting in at Woodberry.
From the time he was old enough to try throwing a ball, football was Rainey’s life. When he was five, his mother, Kathy, had trouble getting him to wear anything other than his Hutch replica Redskins uniform, complete with plastic helmet. By fifth grade, he was starring in local youth leagues. Football and academics led Rainey to Woodberry, where he joined a long list of Tigers courted by Division I college programs.
“His dream was to play in the NFL,” Rainey’s father, Lee, told ESPN. “And I’m of the opinion he had what it took to do that.”
Coach Clint Alexander had arrived at Woodberry in 2005 and quickly turned the Tigers into one of the top programs in the Commonwealth, producing five consecutive Virginia Prep League championships while sending 47 young men on to play in college.
Alexander had built a dynasty on defense, and in Rainey he saw a quarterback who could make his offense nearly unstoppable, too.
“He was going to be that running-threat quarterback that everybody looks for now,” Alexander says. “He was smart and knew the game and was definitely motivated. He was doing all the little things. He was putting in the time in the weight room. Some kids, especially quarterbacks, love to go out and throw the ball all day but don’t like to put in that kind of work.”
By the summer of 2011, before his season began, Rainey had attracted attention from dozens of major programs. He’d drawn comparisons to Tim Tebow, who’d won the Heisman Trophy at Florida in 2007. Like Tebow, Rainey ran with the ball like a fullback, with the strength to run over defenders and the speed—he was clocked at 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash during his sophomore year—to run away from them. But Rainey may have been the better passer.
The scrimmage with Flint Hill and Mercersburg, two other private-school powers, marked the unofficial start of the 2011 season. Wearing his orange number-9 jersey, Rainey took to carving up the Mercersburg defense, making big gains both on the ground and through the air.
On a 4th-and-1 near Woodberry Forest’s own 40-yard line, Coach Alexander counted on his quarterback to get the first down, calling a play-action pass for Rainey, who sucked the defense in with a fake handoff before dropping back and launching a missile down the middle of the field, connecting with a tight end for a 40-yard gain.
Sniffing the goal line, the Tigers called another play for Rainey. In a shotgun formation with two backs at his side as his lead blockers, he took the snap and hurried around the left end, but sensing an opening in the middle of the field, Rainey cut right. A defensive back trailing the play fell into his leg, crashing into his right knee and crushing it against the hard turf.
Rainey blacked out for a moment. When he came to, he saw his right knee jutting to the side and knew something was seriously wrong—a realization that soon hit everyone on the field.
“It wasn’t even close to a big hit,” says Nate Ripper, one of Rainey’s former Woodberry teammates, now a defensive lineman at the University of Richmond. “But when Jacob rolled over, he was holding his thigh and his knee was sticking off at a horrible angle. As soon as we all saw it, the whole team broke down. We all knew instantly that he’d be out for at least this season. He was down for a while before they were able to get him to the hospital. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like throwing up.”
In the ambulance, an EMT told Rainey his knee was dislocated and he could expect a quick recovery. But at Inova Fairfax Hospital, doctors realized that an artery in his lower leg was severed. Circulation had been cut off, killing huge amounts of tissue. Rainey spent the next few days in and out of surgery, and doctors concluded that the best, perhaps only, option was amputation just above the knee.
That week, the rest of the team traveled to Richmond for the first game of the regular season, against Benedictine. The Tigers were celebrating a victory on the bus ride home, some of them smiling for the first time in days, when tight end Greg McIntosh’s phone buzzed. He turned in his seat toward Ripper, who wore Rainey’s number-9 jersey that day, and showed him a text message from their friend:
“I have to have my leg amputated.”
“I didn’t believe it,” Ripper says. “I told Greg it had to be a joke.”