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Calling an Audible: A Quarterback Fights Back From Gruesome Injury
Comments () | Published October 9, 2013
Rainey, at a University of Virginia practice, says: “I could be a student coach my whole time, but my ultimate goal is to play again. I believe I can do it.”

Though suddenly an amputee, Rainey was getting even more attention from college coaches. He heard from Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, and Alabama’s Nick Saban sent a handwritten letter. Virginia’s Mike London mentioned Rainey in his weekly press conference. Tim Tebow invited Rainey to an NFL game, and the two became friends. But the tone of the letters and phone calls had turned from courtship to condolence.

Rainey sat in his hospital bed and said he would play again. To some of his friends and family, it was a Hollywood moment, a determined hero’s declaration. But Rainey doesn’t remember it that way. He doesn’t remember it at all—he says he was in a fog induced by painkillers.

Rainey was good at putting on a smiling face, but he often had insomnia due to withdrawal from his pain medication, sometimes staying up all night trying to adjust to his new life.
 He returned to Woodberry that fall and watched from crutches on the sidelines as his teammates won another Prep League title. While his friends created highlight videos and met with college coaches, they talked about Rainey’s playing career in the past tense. But a week after taking his first step on a prosthetic leg, he was throwing. Soon he was throwing well, perhaps better than ever.

“He’d always been a guy who threw really hard from his upper body, so losing a big part of that plant leg didn’t set him back as far as you would have thought,” Alexander says. “The kid still has a cannon.”

Rainey began working with a team of doctors, therapists, and prosthetists. At first his new leg was much like the crutches he’d been on for weeks, used mostly for balance, and walking was more a matter of using his body to move the leg around than of the leg helping move his body.

But soon he was putting weight on the prosthesis when he walked. Before long he was running. By summer he was working out with teammates and coaches, taking snaps, handing off, throwing passes. He was playing quarterback. But that wasn’t enough for Rainey.

“When I got hurt, I kind of let everyone down,” he says. “They were expecting big things from me, and I got hurt. I wanted to get back out there with all the guys and help—help win.” And he wasn’t ready to let go of his dream of playing for a bigtime college program.

Six days after he had to sit out of the three-team scrimmage in Pennsylvania, Woodberry Forest played Benedictine again, and this time there were tears of joy as Jacob Rainey trotted onto the field for the Tigers’ first offensive series.

He obviously wasn’t the same, still getting used to a new way of running, forced to extend his prosthetic leg farther than his natural stride. He’d no longer be able to plant his foot, drive hard off the ground, and bowl over a defender who dared get in his way, but he was on the field, about to play football again.

(Above) Rainey returned to Woodberry Forest’s football team as a backup quarterback a year after his September 2011 accident—the top photo shows him with his 2012 teammates. (Below) Wearing his prosthetic leg, he plays in a game against Bethesda’s Landon School. Woodberry Forest won 27-14, but over the season as a whole, Rainey didn’t get much time on the field. Photograph of team by Elaine Alexander; Photograph of game by Matt McClain/Washington Post.

A small stadium full of onlookers held their breath as Rainey took the first snap, turned, and handed the ball off for a modest gain. The next play was a short pass behind the line of scrimmage that gained eight yards. Two plays later, he guided the Tigers into the end zone.

“It almost didn’t even seem real. We had gone from holding his hand on the field that day to him leading us down for a touchdown,” Alexander says. “It was unbelievable. Even the Benedictine coach said it was hard not to be happy for him.”

• • •

Woodberry, like the Ivy League schools it so often feeds, doesn’t participate in a postseason football playoff. After missing the exhibition, Rainey was left with just ten regular-season games to prove to college coaches he could still play.

Over the next few weeks, he settled into a new role as a backup. Current prosthetic technology makes it possible for amputee athletes to run fast in a straight line, but Rainey didn’t have the ability to cut, twist, and turn that he needed to be the quarterback he once was. His replacement, Hunter Etheridge, was improving each week and began attracting attention from lower-level Division I programs.

Rainey’s play was solid—he completed two passes for 25 yards and a touchdown against Paul VI, and three for 44 yards and a score against Kiski School—but his time on the field was scarce. The rest of the world viewed his return to football as an amazing success story; the New York Times Magazine ran an article that detailed his recovery and marveled at the work of the prosthetists. But Rainey’s frustration grew with every snap he had to watch from the sidelines.

November brought the two most important games on Woodberry Forest’s 2012 schedule: a trip to nearby Fork Union Military Academy with a sixth straight Prep League title on the line, followed by the Tigers’ annual season finale versus archrival Episcopal High School from Alexandria.

The year before, local fans had argued over whether Rainey or Fork Union’s Christian Hackenberg would emerge as the top quarterback prospect in central Virginia. Since then, Hackenberg, a Penn State signee, had dazzled observers at summer camps and elite scouting combines with his rocket arm and superior field vision, becoming the number-one-rated high-school quarterback in the US.

Still, Rainey believed he was ready to go head-to-head with Hackenberg and lead the Tigers to victory. But the weather didn’t cooperate. It poured the first week of November, and Alexander decided he wouldn’t play Rainey, fearing for his safety on the muddy field.

“I couldn’t bear the thought of risking him getting hurt,” Alexander says. “His story was too important to too many people. We had a little boy in here to visit Jacob who lost his leg in a lawn-mowing accident, and it meant so much to that family. He had inspired a lot of people, and I wasn’t going to put him in a situation where he might not succeed.”

Rainey was ticked. Another precious opportunity missed, an afternoon spent watching Hackenberg tear apart the Woodberry defense, throwing for four touchdowns and leading the Blue Devils to a 42-14 victory.

“I could have been out there,” Rainey says.

But the hard feelings subsided as the Tigers entered the best week of the season for both the team and Rainey.

“My goal all year,” Alexander says, “was to start him against Episcopal.”

Taking cues from a player who had been through more than any of them could have imagined, the Tigers routed Episcopal 44-14, with Rainey leading two consecutive touchdown drives.

“That’s our biggest game of the year and all our alumni come back, and he got to play in front of 5,000 people and was the star of the show,” Alexander says. “That was a gift we wanted to give him, and he went out against Episcopal and tore it up.”

• • •

Students returned to Woodberry Forest from the winter break in January, and many days players were joined by college coaches trying to lock down recruits before the day in February when they could sign a national letter of intent with their chosen school. The flood of recruiting letters and phone calls to Rainey had stopped. Some small colleges considered taking a chance on the amputee QB, but Rainey still hadn’t given up on joining a Division I team.

The scholarship offers weren’t there, but Mike London, the University of Virginia coach who was among the first in Division I to identify Rainey as a potential recruit, still saw a role for him.

Rainey once drew comparisons to 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow (left)—who, after Rainey’s accident, invited the high-school player to a Denver Broncos game. Photograph by Derek Gee/AP Images.

“I said, ‘I want this guy on our team,’ ” London says. “That didn’t necessarily have to do with wanting him to be a quarterback on the team. We had to have a conversation that dealt with his situation.”

During the first week of 2013, London offered Rainey a spot on the roster as a preferred walk-on. Rainey might never play in a game, but he will serve as a student assistant, a kind of coaching apprentice, under Cavaliers offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Steve Fairchild.

Which means that Rainey may once again be on track to making a career in football, albeit not the career he’d imagined.

“He’ll be assisting in breaking down film, assisting in all the on-field coaching opportunities,” London says, noting that he has no plans to put Rainey into full-contact drills. “He can learn with Coach Fairchild, who is an excellent quarterback coach, and he can learn the finer points of playing the position. It could be a springboard to a coaching career if he wants that.”

London and other UVA spokespeople have stressed that Rainey’s role is that of a student coach. Even Rainey has acknowledged there’s no way he’ll take the field this fall. But talk to him for a while and it’s clear he hasn’t given up on playing.

“We decided it would be easier for me my freshman year to ease into things and be a student coach,” he says. “I could be a student coach my whole time, but my ultimate goal is to play again. I believe I can do it. No one really thought it was realistic for me to play last year, but I did.”

• • •

As any coach will tell you, when the body gets tired, it isn’t the legs that give out first—it’s the mind. This was apparent as the late-summer sun hung over the field that day last year in Mercersburg, beating down on the players.

Rainey, forced to the sidelines with his return to football delayed a week, could see his teammates’ mistakes adding up. Used to fielding teams full of talented seniors, this Woodberry Forest group had underclassmen in several key roles. Earlier in the day, Alexander had noted that as much as the team missed Rainey’s athleticism, what it needed even more was his leadership.

After spending most of the previous season’s games standing on crutches or sitting on a cart, now he was on two legs, stalking the sidelines with the coaches, pointing out formation shifts and hollering advice and encouragement.

“I never really thought past my playing days,” Rainey would say months later. “But if I really enjoy coaching, I think I would be interested in a career. Most people don’t get to start quite as early as I’m getting to. It could be an advantage.”

He cheered as the Tigers’ defense made a stop on a third down, before noticing Flint Hill’s offense staying on the field, opting to go for it on 4th-and-1. Examining the Huskies’ formation, Rainey looked at the assistant coach standing next to him.

“Gotta watch the ball!” he yelled at the linemen, then turned to his right, quietly addressing the coach: “They’ll probably go on two.”

Just as he predicted, Flint Hill’s quarterback sold a hard count, a staccato “hut hut,” fooling players on both sides, who jumped offsides before the ball was snapped. The officials jogged toward the ball, blowing their whistles and littering the field with penalty flags as Rainey and the assistant shook their heads. Neither could help smiling.

Here was a coach in the making.

Shane Mettlen is a freelance journalist and former digital-content coordinator at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville. He is on Twitter @shanemettlen.

This article appears in the October 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.


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  • True Fact

    This kid's a true hero! (But the buildings at Mercersburg aren't fauz Githic. The same firm that designed the Princeton U. chapel designed the Mercersburg chapel - first.)

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