Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Practice

In Football, Long form on September 19, 2011 at 11:36 am

Up. Down. Up. Down. The rising sun illuminated the beads of dew and sweat on the players’ helmets as it began to break through the leaves of the trees encircling the field. The cold morning air, more suitable for mid-autumn than for the fleeting days of a Virginia summer, turned the players’ hot breaths into a translucent mist, obscuring each player’s face to create a supernatural aura. Up. Down. Up. Down. Few cars passed the stadium as the players drilled at 6:02 a.m., and no student would arrive for at least another hour. A solitary jogger made his way past the field and briefly watched the assembled young men as they completed up-down drills in the first light. Up. Down. Up. Down. It was too early for Orange, Va. to wake up — and the players knew it. But this was two-a-days season, and if a guy couldn’t make it through two-a-days, his ass didn’t belong on the field Friday night.

If it had been any other week, Jacob Rainey would have been on that field. It would have been his immaculate helmet glistening in the sun. The chilly air would have met his breath as his voice echoed through the empty stadium, calling the plays Woodberry Forest would run against Benedictine. At the sound of a coach’s whistle, he would have dropped to the ground and risen with more hustle and determination than any other player — because Jacob Rainey was a quarterback, and his obligations went beyond the up-down drills and suicide sprints. But Jacob Rainey was not there that morning. No one wore the familiar number 5 jersey, and the stadium was silent, except for a single coach’s whistle and the collective grunts of 60 young men. Up. Down. Up. Down. While the Woodberry Forest Tigers were on the field preparing for their season, Jacob Rainey was in a hospital bed preparing for surgery.

It was supposed to be another great year of Woodberry Forest football. One had to expect it. Only great teams drew 15,000 spectators to a cramped high school stadium on any given Friday night during football season. Only great teams were nationally broadcast on ESPN. Only great teams rallied 10,000 fans at their Homecoming bonfire. Woodberry Forest had been one of the top teams in Virginia from 2008 to 2010, and this year would be no different. Jacob Rainey would see to that.

He could do it all: air it out, short yard pickups, even scramble for a first down if he had to. Jacob Rainey was a coach’s dream. Already 6 feet, 3 inches and 215 pounds, Rainey had the build, the athleticism and the knowledge of the game that Division-I schools craved. The football insiders used the phrase “pro-style quarterback” for many players, but Rainey personified it. He was only a junior, but he was receiving serious interest from high-profile college programs: Duke, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech. But one school stood out — the University of Virginia. It was a perfect match. Rainey was a Charlottesville boy, and Virginia was a program on the rise. It would read like a movie script: Hometown kid leads Cavaliers back to football glory. Camera pans out. The End.

The end came sooner than anyone expected. In Woodberry Forest’s last preseason scrimmage against Flint Hill, Rainey took the snap and dropped back for a pass. A Flint Hill player broke through the Tigers’s offensive line and tackled Rainey from behind. It was a clean tackle, but Rainey hit the ground hard. His kneecap broke, taking with it any hopes of a championship. Rainey wouldn’t play that Friday. He wouldn’t be under center for the Homecoming game against Episcopal High. He might be on the field, but he would be wearing jeans instead of pads. Rainey’s season was over.

The media called it a “freak injury,” but people recover from freak injuries. Freak injuries are strange, unexpected and even comical. Gus Frerotte jammed his neck when he beat his head against a wall to celebrate a touchdown — freak injury. Milton Bradley tore his ACL while arguing a call with an umpire — freak injury. Bill Gramatica blew out his knee while jumping to celebrate a field goal — freak injury. “Freak” may have described Jacob Rainey’s injury after the scrimmage. A week later, “tragic” described it far better.

Rainey knew his knee hurt, but the swelling, the straining tendons and the excruciating pain didn’t dominate his thoughts. Rainey was thinking more about his team. He knew the team would rally around whoever Coach Alexander named as starting quarterback. He would still be present at practices and games to fulfill his leadership obligations, albeit with a clipboard on the sideline instead of taking snaps on the field. If the team made it deep into the playoffs, he might even be able to dress again before the end of the season. But that thought was in the back of his mind, suppressed beneath the reality that confronted him in the back of the ambulance. Whatever the doctors said wouldn’t matter — he knew his season was over.

You can tell a lot through the eyes of doctors. Their protective masks hide half of their faces for a reason, but their eyes — the subtle flicking of a lid or the narrowing of a gaze — can be an omen. Rainey’s MRI began with the obligatory small talk practiced so faithfully by all doctors, but the physician’s calm eyes quickly narrowed, his forehead wrinkled and his brow peaked as the machine returned its first results. Rainey was rushed to the operating room. The injury had severed an artery.

They had hoped, but sometimes all you have is hope. Rainey was transferred to Inova Fairfax hospital, which was better equipped to treat the injury. That Friday night, the Woodberry Forest Tigers took the field against Benedictine. Without their star quarterback, what had looked like an easy victory for the Tigers became a stalemate. Every yard mattered, each point was crucial. After 48 minutes of the hardest football of their lives, the Tigers won 16-13. The Woodberry Forest players ran off the field toward the home stands to soak up the adoration of the Tiger faithful. The lights at the Woodberry Forest stadium shined like a beacon in the northern Virginia night, and the sounds of victory echoed throughout the brick grandstand. Seventy-four miles away, the fluorescent lights in Rainey’s hospital room seemed to illuminate only his bed, and the only sounds were the quiet discussions of doctors huddled at his feet, occasionally glancing at the teenager. His condition had gotten worse.

They amputated part of Rainey’s leg on Saturday. The championship, the scholarship offers, the Hollywood ending for the talented kid would never come. His teammates reacted with shock as their sullen coach informed them that their teammate, their friend, their leader would never play football again.

Woodberry Forest’s two-a-days resume next week, just in time for autumn. The young players will gather once again at an early hour in an empty stadium to practice the plays for Friday’s game. Up. Down. Up. Down. If a guy can’t make it through two-a-days, then he doesn’t belong on the field. Number 5 will be on there again soon. He won’t be under center; he’ll be on the sideline. He won’t be taking snaps; he’ll be holding a clipboard. He won’t be wearing pads; he’ll be wearing jeans. He won’t be on the field, but he’ll deserve to be.

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