Chris Rainey ponders a question for a moment. He’s actually trying to be careful about what he says these days but at the same time, he is Chris Rainey and that means there is a certain element of spontaneity that goes with the territory. He chooses his words carefully and tries to make sure he answers with as few words as possible. You know he would like to say more and the ear-to-ear grin tells you he’s still having fun, just trying to handle things with a bit more maturity than he has in the past.
He answers a question about the scraggly beard he’s grown. Some of it will come off; some of it will stay. He says he’s a life member of Mickey Marotti’s Breakfast Club, which means he eats until he can’t eat anymore in an effort to win the battle against his hyperactive metabolism. He wants to weigh 185 pounds in the fall, says he’s 177 now. He laughs when asked if he can bench 400 pounds but proudly says he got above 300 long ago. He wants to be a better blocker and says he’s not afraid to take on defensive ends anymore.
It is Monday afternoon and practice is over. Rainey has spent the day running behind a patchwork line against Florida’s very formidable defense. He squirted through a couple of needle’s eye-sized holes and busted a couple of very nice runs but he also got body slammed once by Brandon Spikes. Nothing unsual there. Spikes seems to be eating raw meat for breakfast and lunch these days and it’s showing in the way he’s playing middle linebacker, which is to say he’s arriving at the ball carrier in a perpetually bad mood.
Rainey also fumbled once and that got running backs coach Kenny Carter’s attention. Carter raced halfway across the field to where Rainey was making his way back to the huddle and he was in Rainey’s ear the whole way, never letting up for an instant. Rainey was like a bobble-head doll the way he nodded in agreement with everything Carter had to say. You couldn’t hear what was being said, but Rainey’s constant head bobs let you know he fully understood that Carter was taking the John Heisman approach to ball security — “Gentlemen it is better to have died a small boy than to fumble this football!”
Fumbles are rare these days for Rainey, who works as hard as any Florida back in the ball security drills. Fumble the football and Urban Meyer won’t trust you enough to put you on the field. If you want to sap all the joy that’s in Chris Rainey’s heart, then you punish him by making him stand on a sideline and watch while others who might not be as fast, as elusive or as talented carry the football.
In many respects, Rainey is that champion thoroughbred, born and bred to run and happiest when he’s blowing the competition away.
“My brother and me, we love football,” Maurkice Pouncey said last summer in an interview for a story in Gator Country Magazine.
Maurkice couldn’t finish the sentence. Twin brother Mike did the honors, chiming in, “We love it … Chris … he LIVES it.”
To the Pouncey Twins and their parents, Rob and Lisa Webster, Chris is family. Their home was always open to Chris from the time he started playing Pop Warner for the teams Rob coached until his senior year in high school when Mike and Maurkice moved into a room together to give Chris his very own room in their home. Mike and Maurkice have been blocking for Chris for years now although they are quick to point out that when they started playing football, they were the quarterback and tailback and Rainey was a tackle.
The twins know that all Rainey needs is the slightest of creases and he can make something magical out of what seems to be nothing at all. They have opened the holes for more long touchdown runs by Rainey than they can remember. As a redshirt freshman for the Gators last season and with the Pouncey Twins blocking for him just like the old days at Lakeland, Rainey carried the football 84 times for 652 yards, averaging 7.8 yards per carry. He had runs of 33, 34, 62, 73 and 75 yards even though he played more than half the season with a partially torn groin muscle that prevented him from running as fast as he can.
He only fumbled one time and that was a high pitch that hit him in the face mask. He still should have caught it, but that was the only time.
There was a time when Rainey was a fumbler, in part because he was completely reckless but also because he was the most undisciplined football player to be found anywhere on the planet. He got away with it at Lakeland High School where he was the state’s most electrifying running back for the mighty Dreadnaughts who won 45 games in a row en route to three straight state championships and two national high school championships.
He fumbled a lot in those days but Ahmad Black, Steve Wilks and the rest of Lakeland’s defense got a stop and got the ball back. It seemed that every time Rainey fumbled, next time he got the ball he broke a long run for a touchdown, his way of saying “I’m sorry” to Coach Bill Castle and his teammates.
He had this game against Lake Gibson his senior year when he scored a touchdown on his first carry of the game, something like 78 yards, a zip, zam and zowie kind of play where he hit the hole so fast the linebackers couldn’t react and his hips went one way, his feet the other and the corners and safeties fell flat on their butts. Two yards from the end zone, he did a front flip into the end zone, spiked the ball and chomped the Lake Gibson folks. They are the Lake Gibson Braves. Their colors are garnet and gold, their band plays the war chant and their fans imitate the fine folks from the Tallahassee Trade School.
Of course, that got a 15-yard excessive celebration penalty and a chewing out from Castle when he got to the sideline. Chris shook his head dutifully and essentially told Castle just give him one more chance and he would make up for his heinous crime. The Dreadnaughts held, got the ball back on their 38 and called the same play that had sprung Rainey before on first down. The Pouncey Twins pulled and wiped out the defensive end and strong side linebacker. Rainey did the rest. This time when he got to the end zone he politely handed the ball to the zebra and ran back to the bench fast as he could with this “is everything okay now?” grin on his face.
In his mind, I know Bill Castle was still steaming. In his heart, I know Bill Castle couldn’t resist the smile and it took everything in his power not to laugh until he cried. It was just Chris being Chris and there is a certain joy in being Chris Rainey. Hang around him and you feel it instantly.
Chris is in his third year as a Gator now and the constant smile tells you football is still his greatest treasure but the times are changing and he’s growing up before our very eyes. The fact that he tries to think before he speaks these days is ample evidence that he’s maturing. He also goes to class and makes a real effort to learn. He spent 12 years in public school on cruise control but now he has discovered that learning is actually fun. He does whatever Mickey Marotti tells him to do in the weight room and eats whatever Marotti tells him to eat at the Breakfast Club. He practices with a purpose and will do anything he can to earn the praise of Carter, his position coach, and Meyer and wife Shelley, who he would almost rather die than displease.
Marotti, Carter and Urban are constantly teaching Rainey life and football. Shelley loves him like a mom, bakes cupcakes for him and gives him a never-ending supply of hugs. They all know the Chris Rainey story and all the speed bumps and hard knocks and heartaches that are too many to be mentioned. They appreciate that for all the bad things that have happened in his life, Rainey has a heart of gold and an insatiable desire to please. They love him as a football player. They love him more as the person he is and the one he’s becoming.
Chris Rainey is a kid you pull for. You pull for him because nobody you have ever met has more fun playing football. You pull for him because he is spontaneous and tends to tell you whatever is on his mind, always with an ear-to-ear grin and laughter that starts at his toes and works its way up through his body. You pull for him because he never blames anyone for all the bad things and always believes that today will be better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better than today. He is a work in progress, still rough around the edges both as a football player and as the person that Urban, Shelley, Marotti and Kenny Carter are trying to mold him to be.
Because he is Chris Rainey and because he has always had that ability to suck the oxygen out of a stadium every time he touches a football, you know that if he can stay injury-free he will be the Gators version of a thrill ride in the fall. And somehow, because he has become a more grown up version of the perpetually smiling Chris Rainey, you get the feeling that he’s going to go about life the same way he’s always gone about football. Somehow, you just know that he’ll find a way to have as much fun in life as he has running with a football in his hands.
Oh, the joy of being Chris Rainey.