Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said Woodberry Forest School was located in Orange , Virginia, which is in Orange County. The school is located in Madison County. This version has been corrected.
Jacob Rainey lingered on the fringes of Woodberry Forest’s postgame celebration Saturday afternoon after his team’s 21-12 win at Episcopal. Fellow students from his central Virginia private school, dapper in their dark blazers and orange and black striped ties, mingled with Rainey, who leaned on crutches and wore his No. 9 game jersey and khakis, safety pins holding up the right pants leg where a powerful limb used to be.
Rainey, a 6-foot-3, 213-pound quarterback, was so badly injured during a scrimmage at Flint Hill on Sept. 3 that a week later doctors had to amputate the lower part of his leg, derailing a budding football career of a strapping team leader who was receiving interest from ACC programs.
Observing the junior as he trailed his teammates to and from the locker room Saturday, and watching him watch his team from the Woodberry sideline, it was difficult not to think that he should have been the quarterback capping the Tigers’ 8-2 season with a rousing win. That he should have been throwing that 27-yard touchdown pass in the final minute to seal the victory in the 111th meeting of what Episcopal and Woodberry refer to as “The Game.” That he should have elicited the lusty approval from the Woodberry boys with “G-O-T-I-G-E-R-S!” painted on their chests.
Instead, as his teammates huddled out of earshot to savor the triumph, classmates and parents approached Rainey with looks of veiled sadness and intense admiration, commenting on how proud they are of him, how great he seems to be doing, how they are looking forward to him eventually returning to school. One woman noted his “fabulous attitude.” Others asked him to pose for pictures.
As it turns out, Jacob Rainey, the recovering amputee who has maturely played an unfair hand, is even more appreciated than Jacob Rainey, the Tebow-ish quarterback with the 4.61 time in the 40-yard dash and the 193,813YouTube hits for his 2010 highlight video.
Just as the Tigers have been a continual source of strength for Rainey, he has been the same for the Tigers, a team comprising players from 14 states who attend the boarding school in rural Orange. Each game Rainey could not be on hand, a teammate would wear his jersey. Each player wore a No. 9 on his sleeve.
“I was down at first, but I know this isn’t the end of life,” Rainey said Saturday after the game, for which he had served as one of the team captains, loping out to midfield on his crutches. “I love football and I love playing and I was hoping I’d go to college for it. . . . You’ve just got to move on.”
“Moving on” and “going forward” are pat phrases these days, and they are often used in a dismissive, nothing-more-to-see-here manner. But Rainey really does seem more interested in the future than what he has endured this fall. Consider his Facebook posting from the night of Nov. 3:
“2 months.. damn life changes quick. excited to see my boys play tomorrow.”
“He hasn’t changed a bit,” Woodberry senior tight end Greg McIntosh said. “Not one bit. He’s been the same guy before, and the same guy after. The funny guy, the jokester, the guy who likes stirring things, just playing around but getting people working and serious and fired up.”
“Just Jacob being Jacob,” senior linebacker Walker Smithson said. “If anything, he’s gotten stronger. He’s grown up some in a way most people never have to deal with, but he’s still Jacob. He’s still the same guy. He’s not thinking about what he could have done. He’s enjoying the win just like all of us.”
That early September day at Flint Hill, Rainey was running to his left and tried to cut back when he was hit in the leg. He heard a pop and a crack. His leg was sticking out sideways. The injury was so gruesome that seconds after it happened, some Tigers wept and some vomited.
As bad as it looked, though, no one had any idea that a week later he would lose his leg to a severed artery. Lose the season, probably. His career, possibly. But not his leg.
“I can’t change anything about it,” Rainey said. “There’s no point in complaining and moaning about it. It’s life. I’m not going to let this get in the way of who I am. I’m still going to hang out with my friends and laugh and have a good time. I’m not going to let this change me.”
Varsity Letter is a column about high school sports in the Washington area.