Posted on Wed. Dec. 19, 2012 - 12:45 pm EDT
On Sept. 7, Jacob Rainey prepared for the biggest football game of his life. Eight hundred spectators filled the bleachers. ESPN cameras had arrived to shadow him.
Woodberry Forest School, his all-male boarding school in central Virginia, was facing Benedictine College Preparatory in the season opener. Two years earlier, the Woodberry Tigers had beaten Benedictine, 41-7, behind a touchdown pass and a rushing touchdown from Jacob. Unlike that earlier matchup, this performance wouldn’t affect recruiting letters and scholarship offers. Still, the pressure felt intense.
Sitting in the locker room, he couldn’t concentrate, so he walked down the hall to the empty JV facilities. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback lay down on a bench, put on his headphones and listened to Lil Wayne, Ke$ha and Eminem. He let his thoughts wander, trying to focus on anything but the crowded stadium and the cameras waiting outside.
Most of the spectators knew Jacob’s story; how, during a scrimmage the previous September, the quarterback suffered a horrific injury that led to the amputation of his right leg above the knee.
When he took the first snap, he would become the first high school quarterback to play in a game with an above-the-knee amputation.
“I was nervous because everyone was coming to watch this great comeback,” said Jacob, 18. “I thought to myself, ’I better back up what I’ve been saying.’”
He ran out onto the field and tuned out the crowd. “But once I got that first play under my belt, I felt like I was back.”
* * *
Jacob grew up in a bustling household in Charlottesville, Va., the middle of Kathy and Lee Rainey’s five children.
A natural athlete, Jacob has loved football for as long as he can remember. Every Halloween, he would wear the same tattered Washington Redskins uniform, until it fell apart. For each birthday, there was a football cake.
“Everything he did and does was because of football,” Kathy said.
After two years of high school football at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Jacob transferred to Woodberry Forest in fall 2010. He repeated his sophomore year on recommendations that the extended time would help the NCAA recruiting process.
On the field, he shared quarterback duties; off the field, he adjusted to life at an all-boys school. He went to football camps. He followed a strict diet and worked out for hours each day.
Jacob knew that his junior year would be crucial in determining where he’d play collegiate football. And that, he hoped, would move him toward his dream of quarterbacking in the NFL.
* * *
When Jacob was tackled in the Sept. 3 scrimmage at Flint Hill School in Oakton, Va., he fell hard, his right leg sticking out at a gruesome angle.
“I remember holding Jacob’s hand on the field,” said Woodberry Forest’s head football coach, Clint Alexander, “and he’s going, ’My season, my season,’ because at that point, we thought it was a blown-out knee -- we never thought it was something beyond that.”
An ambulance rushed Jacob to a nearby hospital. His first surgery took place hours later, when doctors harvested a vein from his left leg to repair his right leg’s popliteal artery, which had ruptured.
He spent four days in the trauma unit. That Wednesday, he still couldn’t move his right leg. Surgeons operated again, cutting his injured leg open on both sides to reduce swelling and remove muscle. But infection had set in: His pulse raced to 140 beats per minute, and he spiked high fevers. His kidneys were in danger of failing.
On Friday, surgeons told Kathy and Lee that they needed to remove most of Jacob’s right leg.
“We went in that night and told him, and that was devastating,” Lee said. “I’ve never had the nerve to ask him, ’Do you remember me telling you?’ Because it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
A week after the injury, doctors amputated his right leg above the knee. Afterward, with Kathy, sitting beside him, Jacob looked down at the large bandage where his right leg had been. He broke down.
“That’s when I really realized what had happened,” Jacob said.
That evening, one of his best friends, Nathan Ripper, came to visit.
“I walked in, and the first thing he says is, ’Look at how cool my beard is,’ because he’d been growing his beard all week, and I didn’t have any facial hair, so he had to bust my chops,” Ripper said.
“That was the first time I breathed a sigh of relief. Like, here he is, at the worst moment of his life, and he’s still cracking jokes that he would crack anytime.”
Jacob was hospitalized for 25 days. He spent the next six weeks living with his parents, weaning himself off of painkillers and learning mobility with one leg. He lost 60 pounds and rarely slept.
A physical therapist came several times a week. Afterward, Jacob would lie on the ground, tossing a football in the air.
“My mom would say, ’Practice your long snapping, so you’ll be ready to long snap next season,’ ” Jacob said. “And I’m like, ’Mom, I’m not playing football, I got hurt. I’m done.’”
Still, he harbored hope that there might be a way.
During their final visit to an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Virginia, Kathy asked about Jacob’s gridiron chances. The surgeon told them Jacob would never play football again.
As they drove home, “I knew Jacob was kind of crushed by that,” Kathy said. “I said, ’You know what? You’re Jacob Rainey -- they don’t know what you’re capable of or not capable of as an amputee.’ ”
Lee started wearing a wristband with the team motto and Jacob’s number inscribed in orange ink: “Take a Stand #9.”
While Jacob was recovering, the Woodberry community united in supporting him. The team adopted the wristbands and handed them out at games. Parents wore #9 buttons, and team members wore Superman T-shirts with “9” in the logo under their jerseys. The T-shirts were also sold, with proceeds going to a fund for Jacob’s medical expenses.
When Jacob returned to Woodberry after Thanksgiving, he didn’t have a prosthetic leg and used crutches. A friend with connections to the Tim Tebow Foundation arranged a December meeting between Jacob and the then-Broncos quarterback, who was also Jacob’s favorite NFL player. ESPN columnist Rick Reilly wrote about their meeting in a piece that was shared 109,000 times on Facebook.
Suddenly, Jacob was a celebrity. Hundreds of supporters wrote letters of encouragement and left messages on his Facebook page. He received requests for motivational speaking appearances but turned them down so he could focus on his recovery and high school life.
The attention, he said, was cool, but he didn’t want to try to return to the football field for the fame; he was motivated by his deep love of the game.
Three days before Christmas, Jacob received his first prosthesis.
“When I got it, I thought, ’Yeah, there’s no way I’ll play football,’ because I could hardly walk,” he said. “But the more I got used to it, I started to believe again.”
In February, Jacob started working with David Lawrence, a physical therapist in Richmond who specialized in patients with prostheses.
“It took all of five minutes for me to realize that he was a physical stud who had the intangible of ’I will overcome and make this happen’ that elite athletes have,” Lawrence said.
“He was being told that sports were not something he should do, but he still wanted to try. So I said, ’My job is to make you the safest, most successful possible in doing it.’ ”
Jacob and Lawrence began with walking exercises before moving on to agility, lateral and backward movements, seeing how quickly his leg could respond. Next, they incorporated running, then running with a football.
A dual threat on the field who had often relied on his speed (he had been clocked running the 40 in 4.6 seconds), Jacob knew that now he would need to focus on getting the ball off quickly before defenders could tackle him.
“A few times he’d pause, and I’d think, this is it, Jacob will tell me he’s done for today, but he never did,” Lawrence said.
When Jacob returned to campus after therapy, he was often exhausted and in excruciating pain. He’d switch to crutches, his leg socket throbbing where it met his basic prosthesis. Although viable for training, it could not withstand the pounding of football.
In June, Jacob’s prosthetist, Joe Sullivan, discovered the Moto Knee, a multisport prosthesis designed by a motocross athlete who had lost his left leg above the knee in a 2008 accident. Sullivan asked for a demo.
About the same time, Jacob received the Genium prosthetic system from the German company Ottobock. The battery-powered, microprocessor-controlled knee, often used by soldiers who have lost legs, allowed for ample dexterity and speed of movement through a sophisticated sensory system.
Jacob began wearing the Genium every day, but Ottobock wouldn’t approve the leg for sports use. If the leg, which cost $90,000, broke, it wouldn’t be covered by warranty -- a risk Lee, an accountant, and Kathy, a part-time nurse, couldn’t afford (the initial Genium prosthesis was paid for by their insurance).
In July, Lawrence and Jacob traveled to Woodberry to show the team’s trainer and coaches Jacob’s progress. They met again in August, a few days after the Moto Knee arrived.
As far as Lawrence knew, no one had ever been able to run on the Moto Knee; when Jacob tested it, he ran on his first try.
His teammates were impressed.
“Once I saw that he could move in the pocket and throw the ball -- because he’s got one of the best arms on the team -- that was the point where I said, ’Definitely, he’ll be able to do this,’” said junior linebacker Greer Martini.
* * *
Jacob found out he’d be the starting quarterback the day before the opening game. The coaches knew they had a strong offensive line but still worried about Jacob being tackled.
“I was probably the most nervous I’d ever been,” Alexander said. “I told my wife, ’I’ve never been in a situation where I can lose a game in more than one way. If he gets out there and gets hurt bad, or it just goes horribly wrong . . . ’ ”
As the Woodberry offense ran onto the field, Jacob lagged a few paces behind. He jogged on his Moto Knee with a vertical, quick gait, more hopping than running. Because he’d received the leg so recently, he hadn’t thoroughly tested it on the football field.
On the Tigers’ first down, Jacob took one quick step back in the pocket and over before handing the ball off for a five-yard gain. On the next play, he fired off a lateral pass to wide receiver Matty Sheehan. Next was another run play, advancing Woodberry to within 25 yards of the end zone. On the following play, Jacob handed the ball off to running back Christian Asher, who sprinted through several defenders to the goal line.
“We put together plays that we knew we could get off quickly, and Jacob executed well,” said offensive coordinator Ryan Alexander, Clint’s nephew. “It worked out about as best as I could imagine.”
As Asher crossed the goal line, the crowd erupted. Jacob ran back toward the sidelines, pumping his arms, as quarterback Hunter Etheridge greeted him with a chest bump and hug. Several plays later, Clint Alexander walked over to Jacob, wiping away tears as he bear-hugged the teen for several minutes.
But Jacob didn’t play for the rest of the game. Woodberry lost, 28-19, in a bittersweet return for the quarterback.
“I wasn’t very satisfied,” Jacob said. “Being successful the first time on the field made me want to do more.”
As the season continued, those opportunities proved elusive; Etheridge -- an agile junior with a strong arm who could scramble out of the pocket or run for a first down -- started most games.
Jacob didn’t play in the next game, which Woodberry won. The Tigers faced Paul VI Catholic High School in their third game, and Jacob threw his first touchdown pass of the season in the team’s win. He didn’t play in the next three games.
“He’s competitive and he wants to play, so I think it’s been difficult for everyone involved,” Ryan Alexander said. “He’s had to embrace a different role.”
* * *
On Oct. 20, Woodberry battled visiting Kiski School from Saltsburg, Pa.
Jacob entered the game with 8:42 remaining in the third quarter and the Tigers up, 35-7. As he jogged onto the field, the spectators cheered, stomping their feet and sending a loud, vibrating rumble through the bleachers.
With the ball on Kiski’s 40-yard line, Jacob stood in the pocket. After reading the defense, he switched the play and threw a tight, arching spiral to one of his receivers, who had beaten his defender on a wide right route. Touchdown.
The crowd jumped to a standing ovation, screaming, “Go, Jacob!” as the quarterback ran toward the sideline, grinning. Five minutes later, after a Kiski touchdown, Jacob came onto the field again. After three run plays, the Tigers punted.
Jacob didn’t play again that afternoon as Woodberry won, 52-13. He spent most of the game talking and laughing with teammates, walking the sidelines and following the action.
“I’m fine with being on the sideline, helping to encourage people and trying to be like another coach,” Jacob said, “but I’d much rather be out there doing more, physically, for the team.”
Jacob’s academic adviser, Hunt Heffner, said he and Jacob talked early in the season about the leadership role Jacob could demonstrate when not taking snaps.
“He’s really worked on that,” Heffner said.
Worries about what would happen if Jacob were tackled never came to fruition: He never was. Earlier in the year, his close friend Wilton Speight, quarterback of Collegiate School in Richmond, Va., had asked Jacob whether he should tell his players not to tackle him.
“No, I want to be hit,” Jacob said, insisting they play him like any other quarterback.
* * *
In its final game of the season in November, Woodberry faced its rival, Episcopal. Two thousand fans filled the bleachers.
Jacob was the starter. The Woodberry student section chanted, “Ja-cob Rain-ey!”
After several running plays, Jacob completed his first pass. A few plays later, the Tigers scored on a running play. Jacob jogged back toward the sideline, pumping his fists.
With three minutes remaining in the first quarter, Woodberry intercepted an Episcopal pass. Jacob went in again and led the Tigers down the field. Ten yards from the goal line, he threw a quick pass to Christian Asher for a touchdown.
Jacob didn’t play again in the 44-14 win. Ryan Alexander said afterward that the coaches wanted to let all three quarterbacks play.
“We have so many good players,” Ryan Alexander said. “I wish we could give them all more playing time.”
Clint Alexander said that determining when Jacob played usually depended on the opponent.
“If it’s a team we’ve really got to run a lot against, that’s not a good situation for him. But when we know we can protect the pocket. . . . He’s a senior captain, and he’s done a great job in that role. Especially when, mentally, I’m sure he expected two years ago to lead us down the field.”
Jacob never broke down in front of his friends or teammates, who said he’s the same person as before his injury -- cracking jokes, talking football, staying competitive.
“On a competitive scale of 1 to 10, he’s a 10 -- in everything,” close friend Matty Sheehan said.
When he has broken down, it has been private.
Kathy remembered Jacob’s first night home from the hospital. He had fallen trying to get out of bed, so the Raineys moved his mattress to the floor. Kathy slept on a mattress outside Jacob’s room. After they said good night, she could hear his sobs through the door.
Still, those moments have been rare. Jacob said he didn’t see the point in dwelling on an injury he couldn’t change, so he chose to focus on what he could do.
“I’ve met new people, and the football aspect of college and scholarships has changed, but aside from that” -- Jacob paused -- “I guess it’s a pretty big thing, but I don’t know. It hasn’t changed my life as much as people from the outside think.”
His parents are proud of how he has adjusted.
“At 17 years old, to have the maturity to get up and move forward and reset goals, to not look backward and say, ’Woe is me,’ ” Lee Rainey said. “That internal strength is pretty rare at such a young age.”
* * *
By returning, Jacob accomplished the improbable. But was the Episcopal game his last competition?
During the season, several Division III colleges contacted Jacob about playing quarterback. At the time, Jacob didn’t respond; in November, he said he might reconsider, depending on whether he wants to prioritize playing football on a smaller campus over having a big-college experience.
“I’m still trying to figure out if I want to play, because I’ve been at small schools my whole life,” Jacob said. “I want to have a bigger, fun environment.”
There may be the possibility of both.
Jacob has talked to the University of Virginia about a preferred walk-on spot, meaning he could be on the football team without a scholarship. U-Va. offensive coordinator Bill Lazor couldn’t comment because of official NCAA rules except to say that the team is recruiting him.
So, like many high school seniors, Jacob has a tough decision to make, though it may not be the same choice he thought he’d be facing two years ago.
“It’d be cool, but I don’t know if it’s worth practicing every day, because I doubt I’d play in a game,” Jacob said. “But I also feel like a year from now, I’ll end up doing that. . . . Something in me just loves football.”
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributor to ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine.