Updated: May 1
There was a time when Chris Rainey would tell you there was no life without football. “It was all I had,” he says, his face lit up by that perpetual grin, but these days and times, there is much more than football. He’s happily married, just witnessed the birth of his fourth child, a beautiful daughter. He’s got a degree from the University of Florida. When football ends, there is even a plan. The kid who used to say “It’s good to be Chris Rainey” still thinks it’s good, only now for reasons he never thought possible only a few short years ago.
Life without football. Rainey has experienced that three times in his life, once at Florida, two seasons in the NFL. At UF he was suspended five games in 2010 for a threatening phone call to a woman he was involved with. He was arrested for simple battery in 2013 that resulted in an abrupt end to a promising career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Given a second chance with the Indianapolis Colts and then a few weeks later by the Arizona Cardinals in 2014, Rainey was cut twice. He was one of several involved in a rather dumb prank that got him cut by the Colts. He was on the practice squad three weeks with the Cardinals when cut again.
“Three strikes and you’re out so they say,” Rainey says. “I guess you could say I was rock bottom.”
For Rainey at the time, rock bottom was life without football. His brother called from South Carolina. You might remember him as “He Hate Me” from the days of the original XFL with the Las Vegas Outlaws. His name is Rod Smart and after that year with the Outlaws he put together a 5-year NFL career where he was a kick return specialist of some repute. Rod offered Chris a place to live and a chance to get his head together. They trained together on a daily basis, did a lot of talking and that led to a good bit of soul searching.
While figuring out what to do next, the Canadian Football League came calling, offering Rainey a lifeline, a sanctuary where he could put past mistakes behind him. Neither the crowds nor the paychecks in the CFL can compare to the NFL but the NFL doesn’t have a 55X110-yard field with those extended end zones, either. For someone with Rainey’s world class speed (he was timed more than once just below 4.3 in the 40 and was a member of an NCAA championship track team at UF), the CFL is a match made in heaven.
He has become a legitimate star in Canada, first with the British Columbia Lions in Vancouver and then last year with the Toronto Argonauts. When football resumes, he will be back in Vancouver. Along the way he has made peace with God, found the love of his life (wife Jennifer) and has a newborn daughter named Mikailyenn, their fourth child (son Makari and daughters Isabella and McKinley are the other three).
Once again he can say “It’s good to be Chris Rainey,” only now he appreciates what he has. Of course, if you know the Rainey story then you, too, can appreciate that he is in a good place.
Everybody remembers the Chris Rainey who led Lakeland High School to three state and two national championships. They remember how electric he could be when he had the ball in his hands at Florida where his 2,464 rushing yards still rank ninth all-time and his combination 3,259 rushing-receiving yards rank eighth.
What they don’t know is that his life has been spent climbing one mountain after another, each one seemingly steeper than the last.
Let’s start at the beginning. Rainey was born in prison. For the first 20 years of his life his father was in prison. Too often while growing up in Lakeland home was on the streets and a bed was a sofa offered by a friend’s mom. Football became his lifeline. His motivation was his dog and his grandmother.
“When I ran, I had it in my mind that people coming after me were going to take my dog or my grandmother away from me so I wasn’t going to let that happen,” Rainey says. “I know that sounds funny maybe, but to me, that’s all I had.”
He ran so fast and was so elusive that college recruiters overlooked the fact he was only 5-8 and 156 pounds. Urban Meyer is one of the ones who noticed. In the spring of 2005 at the end of Rainey’s sophomore year at Lakeland High School, Meyer offered Rainey a scholarship to play for the Gators. Without any hesitation, Rainey accepted to become the first commitment of what was to become a legendary 2007 Florida recruiting class.
That 15-0 season when Rainey was a sophomore was the first of three unbeaten seasons for the Dreadnaughts, who won 45 straight games and national championships in 2005 and 2006 to become one of the truly legendary teams in Florida high school history. Rainey was chosen to the US Army All-America team and he had stacks of offers from the top programs in the country, but he never thought of going anywhere but Florida.
When he first recruited Rainey, Meyer didn’t know the entire Rainey story, but the more he learned, the more he gravitated toward the kid with the never-ending smile.
“The further you dove into what he went through as a child just breaks your heart,” Meyer said. “He lived on the streets and for awhile he lived in a cardboard box. No kid should ever have to go through that. There were times he didn’t eat for days. Lisa and Rob Webster (mother and dad of Maurkice and Mike Pouncey) opened up their home to him when he was in high school. They gave him a real home where he had relationships and meals to eat and love. He needed that. You know what’s remarkable? For all those bad things that Chris had to go through, he isn’t bitter. He’s always smiling, always such a pleasant and happy guy to be around.”
The closer Meyer got to Rainey, the more Rainey wanted several of his Lakeland teammates to be Gators so he started recruiting them. The Pouncey Twins were lifelong Seminoles as were their parents and sisters. Ahmad Black grew up dreaming to play for FSU. Paul Wilson was the son of a former Georgia wide receiver. Steve Wilks and John Brown had other schools on their minds. One-by-one they turned their attention to UF, in no small part because of Rainey’s insistence.
The twins committed to Meyer after they made a last-ditch effort to salvage their lifelong love of FSU. During an impromptu visit to Tallahassee, Bobby Bowden couldn’t remember their names. They were stunned so Rainey convinced them to stop in Gainesville to meet with Meyer on the way back home. They stopped and within a couple hours committed to UF. Days later, Black said yes followed by Wilson and Wilks. Brown waited until National Signing Day in 2007 but he, too, became a Gator.
Of those seven, there were three All-Americans – Maurkice and Mike Pouncey and Ahmad Black – and an All-SEC in Rainey. Wilson and Wilks had their UF careers ended abruptly by injuries. Brown struggled in the classroom and transferred out after taking a redshirt in 2007.
“Do you know how remarkable that is?” Meyer asks even today. “A third of our recruiting class went to the kids from one high school and four of them become vital contributors to a national championship team in 2008. We don’t win the national championship without those kids. It says a lot for the kind of coach Bill Castle is at Lakeland. They were all good kids, all of them great athletes.”
While at Florida, Rainey became a fixture at the Meyer home. Rainey still calls Meyer “my second dad” and Meyer still refers to Rainey as “family.”
Because Chris was family and because he knew the whole story about the tough life Rainey had growing up on the Lakeland streets, Meyer was both heartbroken and at the same time determined to help when Rainey was suspended five games in the 2010 season. Rainey says he was “in love for the first time in my life” and was hurt when he lashed out with a threat on the phone. This was the week of the Tennessee game. Rainey found himself in the Alachua County lockup and there were demands from all over the country by writers and fans alike that he be dismissed from the football team and taken off scholarship.
“This was so uncharacteristic of Chris,” Meyer said. “We weren’t the least bit afraid of him being at our home with the kids. He’d go swimming in the pool with them and I’d come home sometimes and there would be Chris and Nate (Meyer’s youngest) watching a video together on TV. I was just devastated when he was arrested.”
Rather than dismiss Rainey, Meyer pleaded his case to athletic director Jeremy Foley. Meyer was passionate about finding a way to help Rainey learn from the situation without losing him. Having painfully endured the death of Avery Atkins in the summer of 2007, Meyer couldn’t bear the idea of what might happen if Rainey was cut off from all that was important to him.
Foley and Meyer agreed to give Rainey a chance to redeem himself. Counseling was a requirement along with strict behavioral guidelines. One misstep and Rainey would be gone. He would have to earn his way back onto the team.
The suspension lasted five games, three of which the Gators lost including last second defeats at the hands of LSU and Mississippi State. Watching the Gators lose and knowing he could have helped win the games tore Rainey apart.
“I almost want to cry now just thinking about those two games,” Rainey said. “I let my team down. I let my coach down. I let me down.”
When he came back from suspension, Rainey played well the rest of the season, particularly in Florida’s 34-31 overtime win over Georgia, a game in which he ran for 84 yards and a TD, caught two passes for nine yards and ran back six kickoffs for 148 more. Meyer retired from UF after that year, but Rainey was a model citizen for Will Muschamp in 201, earning All-SEC honors as the Gators’ leading rusher (861 yards) and receiver (31-381).
Rainey also completed his degree from the University of Florida.
“Coach Meyer made me believe I could do that,” Rainey says. “Nobody thought I could do it. I did that for me but I did it for him, too.”
Having that Florida degree is just one more proof for Rainey that there is life after football. There was a time when a college degree seemed unattainable but now he is a graduate of one of the top public universities in the United States.
There was more than one time when he thought there was no life other than football. While football was and remains an integral piece of the Rainey puzzle, it is no longer all there is. He has a wife. He has kids. He is happy.
Football may or may not be a part of whatever is next but if it is not he knows that won’t be the end of the world
“If there’s another mountain I got to climb, I’ll just climb it,” he says. “I’ll be all right. My family will be all right. You know something, God is good.”
It’s still good to be Chris Rainey.