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Calling an Audible: A Quarterback Fights Back From Gruesome Injury
Jacob Rainey was one of the most promising high-school quarterbacks in Virginia—headed for Division I football and maybe the NFL—when a freak accident forced him to change course.
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.”
• • •
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.”
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.
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.
“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.