MIAMI — As an adoring crowd of family and fans gathered at the Dolphins Stadium gate where the Dreadnaughts emerged to board their buses after winning their third straight state championship Friday night, Chris Rainey headed straight for Lakeland High School Principal Mark Thomas. He put his bag down, wrapped his arms around Thomas and buried his face in the principal’s shoulder.
The embrace lasted for less than a minute and when Rainey pulled away, there were shiny streaks where a small river of tears had flowed down his face. He composed himself and smiled a smile that Thomas knows oh so well. When Chris Rainey smiles it is electric and it is contagious.
Thomas grinned in return.
“Thanks Mr. Thomas,” said Rainey, who will be playing football next season for the Florida Gators. “Thanks for believing in me. I’ll never forget you for that.”
Mark Thomas smiled and spoke with a gentle, caring tone, “Anytime Chris. I’d do it anytime for you.”
Mark Thomas does believe in Chris Rainey and he won’t hesitate to tell you why.
“Chris Rainey is a good kid … no, a great kid,” said Thomas, who could only admire the 5-9, 160-pound senior for all he’s had to endure, not just during a harrowing week in which his eligibility to play in the state championship game was challenged, but over a lifetime in which Rainey has had to deal with far too many cruel realities.
“You could write a book about all the things Chris has had to go through and most kids would crumble but not Chris,” said Thomas. “To go through what he’s been through — the pressure of being a high profile athlete with these unbelievable skills and yet he’s the sweet natured, happy kid he is — tells you a lot. You go to bat for kids like that. You stand up for them every time because it’s the right thing to do.”
There are too many stories to tell about the first 16 years of Chris Rainey’s life. Let’s just say he’s endured and leave it at that. Through it all, he’s had football and that has been the lifeline that exposed him to coaches, teachers, principals and friends that love him and care about him.
Bill Castle loves Chris Rainey and not just because the kid is unchained lightning with a football in his hands. Rainey has been the offensive catalyst behind three state championships and 45 straight wins for Castle and the mighty Dreadnaughts. He capped off a brilliant senior season with 276 yards and three touchdowns against St. Thomas Aquinas in the championship game including touchdown runs of nine, 73 and 55 yards. He also had runs of 50 and 33 yards in a 21-carry night. In the last three games of Chris Rainey’s high school career he had 68 carries, 878 yards and 10 touchdowns including six scoring runs of at least 55 yards. Rainey finished his senior year with 2,439 yards and 32 touchdowns even though he missed two games with injury, played hurt in another and only got to play in the second half six times because Lakeland was typically so far ahead that the underclassmen played as the clock ran continuously.
“What Chris can do with a football you don’t see too often,” said Castle, who has coached Lakeland to six state championships in 30 years. “He’s got that gift to make things happen. He’s a kid that his teammates and classmates love. He loves to practice. You see what he does in games. He is thoughtful and generous. He always has time for people that want to stop him and talk no matter where he is. He’s a terrific kid and we’ve been blessed to have him here. I love Chris Rainey.”
He almost wasn’t there for the state championship game. Early in the week a story in a south Florida paper alleged that Rainey regularly received extravagant gifts such as clothes and money from people in the Lakeland community. A couple of Rainey quotes seemed to lend credence to the story. The day the story broke, the Superintendent of Schools for Polk County ruled Rainey ineligible for the state championship game pending an investigation.
Thomas was already steps ahead. He had gotten a heads up about the story so he hired private investigators. They were already looking into things before the story even broke.
What the investigators had to say surprised even Thomas. Thomas knew that Rainey is well-liked and well-perceived in the Lakeland community, but even he wasn’t aware of how much this kid is loved by everyone.
“These people had no agenda except to uncover the facts and they found nothing to substantiate any allegations that Chris has done something wrong other than he got a little full of himself and said some things that he should have thought about first,” said Thomas. “Here’s what is remarkable, though. They were amazed that there wasn’t one person that they talked to — and they did a thorough investigation and talked to a lot of people — that had anything bad to say about Chris Rainey. Not one. Everybody they talked to loves this kid and would vouch for him.”
The reports from the investigators led Thomas and the school superintendent to lift the ban on Rainey playing which left only the Florida High School Activities Association to rule. Friday morning, after hearing all sides of the story and reading the investigators’ reports, they cleared Rainey to play.
“Chris learned a valuable lesson,” said Lisa Webster, whose twin sons Michael and Maurkice Pouncey are heading to the University of Florida along with Rainey and teammates Ahmad Black, Paul Wilson and Steve Wilks. “He said some things he knows he shouldn’t have said and it came back to hurt him. That’s a hard lesson to learn but he’ll know better next time.”
Lisa and Rob Webster have a vested interest in Chris Rainey. They know the Chris Rainey story about too many missed meals, not enough love, too many nights sleeping in a different place and so much instability. Rainey was always at their home or out somewhere having fun with Michael and Maurkice. Their two younger daughters adored Chris and Chris doted on them. One day Rob and Lisa looked at each other and knew what they needed to do.
Lisa and Rob Webster are by no means rich. They work hard and long hours and when your 6-5, 295-pound sons eat about as much food as your typical battalion in a single day, the dollars are stretched to the limit but inviting Rainey to live with them was a no-brainer. About a year ago, Chris Rainey came to live in their home and they’ve been the parents he never had before.
“It was the right thing to do,” said Rob Webster. “We love him like he’s our own. He is our own. He’s our third son. He needed a place that’s home and he needed to be loved unconditionally. Don’t get me wrong, though. It’s a two-way street, too. Chris loves back unconditionally.”
That’s why Rob Webster hired the best lawyer he could to represent Chris if it had come down to that this past week. That’s why Rob Webster had an ear to ear grin once the state championship was over, like the weight of the world had been lifted off his back. He was happy his boys had a state championship and that Chris has not only played but won the MVP award.
“Chris didn’t ask us to hire a lawyer,” said Rob. “We did it because we love him. We’re glad it didn’t come down to that but we were ready to do whatever it takes and him winning the MVP after a week like this tells you something about Chris.”
Mark Thomas was ready to do whatever it takes, too, and football was only one of the reasons he would stand tall for Chris Rainey anytime, anywhere, anyplace. He knows the Chris Rainey that has never been a problem at school. He knows the Chris Rainey that plays football, the cocky little guy that truly believes he can score a touchdown any time he has the football in his hands, but he also knows the Chris Rainey that takes time to visit elementary schools and hospitals, the one that has always given far more love than he’s ever received.
“He’s been the model citizen,” said Thomas. “He’s always been the model citizen even though life hasn’t always been fair or kind. Good times or bad times, he’s always been the same. That’s why it was no trouble to stand up for him. I know Chris Rainey. I know him well.
“Should he have said some of the things he said? Of course not but he’s a young kid and sometimes he gets a little full of himself. Tell me a kid his age that doesn’t have moments he wouldn’t like to take back if he had the chance. But that doesn’t make him a bad kid. I stood up for Chris because it was the right thing to do and I would do it again and again. The Chris Rainey I know I would stand up for every time.”