JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Chris Rainey has been in a reflective mood lately. The moments of pause strike unexpectedly. This is really it for Florida’s 2011 Team MVP. Rainey will play his final game for the Gators in Monday’s Gator Bowl against Ohio State, the end of five memorable seasons and one huge growth spurt.
That may seem difficult to believe since Rainey is only 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds. This time, growth isn’t related to those timeless football measurables known as height and weight.
“I think about it every day,’’ Rainey said of his UF career coming to an end. “I was planning to come in for three years and head out, but I’m glad I stayed here. I grew up a lot and it really helped me out.’’
There was Senior Night on Nov. 26 at The Swamp. Rainey will remember that for a long time. There was his final practice on Saturday in Jacksonville.
“Rainey may tear up on us,’’ Florida coach Will Muschamp joked before the team held its final regular practice at Jacksonville University on Saturday.
There was that afternoon a couple of weeks ago when Rainey watched the Broncos and Patriots play on TV. He watched as former Gators quarterback Tim Tebow squared off against one of his favorite receivers at UF, Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Rainey used to take handoffs from Tebow and run behind blocks from Hernandez. They are now living his dream by playing in the NFL.
But there was one moment that made Rainey shake his head and spew out words in that Southern twang of his with a wide smile across his face.
“I can’t believe I graduated from the University of Florida because I wasn’t planning on graduating,’’ Rainey said. “I’m still shocked I graduated.’’
Rainey has a photo that shows him walking across the stage at the O’Connell Center last month, in full cap and gown, receiving a Family Youth and Community Science degree from UF President Bernie Machen.
He’s got that familiar smile on his face in the photo.
Rainey will tell you that school was never his favorite subject.
“I always took school seriously, but I’m so glad I’m done,’’ he said. “I’m a fast learner at football.’’
Rainey’s prolific prep career at Lakeland High drew the interest of former Gators coach Urban Meyer, who signed Rainey in 2007 and then redshirted him as Rainey adjusted to college and life away from Lakeland and a strong support system there that included the family of his former UF teammates, Maurkice and Mike Pouncey.
It was also Meyer who stuck by Rainey in 2010 when an off-the-field incident threatened to end his season and perhaps his UF career. Meyer supported Rainey when others didn’t. He resolved the matter (an upset text to a girlfriend) and returned to the lineup after missing five games.
Rainey instantly made the Gators better in a 34-31 win over Georgia at EverBank Field, the site of Monday’s Gator Bowl, by totaling 241 all-purpose yards.
Meyer, named Ohio State’s coach last month, was one of the first to call Rainey the night he graduated.
“He congratulated me on graduating,’’ Rainey said. “It means a lot. Urban Meyer is like my dad. I love him to death.’’
Rainey’s disjointed junior season made the decision to stay at UF an easy one. While Rainey has NFL speed and instincts, he knew he needed to prove himself more as a running back.
He figured Charlie Weis’ pro-style offense was a perfect fit for his shifty and elusive running style.
“I was in love with this offense,’’ said Rainey, who added that he thought he wasn’t “doing as much at running back as I could do because our quarterback ran a lot’’ in Meyer’s offense.
The transition worked well, as Rainey led the Gators with 790 yards rushing and became the first UF player with three consecutive 100-yard games since Percy Harvin in 2007. Rainey also caught 28 passes for 350 yards and continued to be a factor on special teams, returning punts and blocking his school-record fifth career punt.
Rainey earned Muschamp’s respect immediately by becoming one of the team’s leaders when Muschamp took over the program from Meyer in January 2011.
“I try to judge things with my own eyes,’’ Muschamp said. “You don’t like to form an opinion on what you hear. Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen a guy that loves the University of Florida. Everything he does, he does 100 percent.
“He has a great sense of humor, positively affects everyone around him.’’
Muschamp also learned about Rainey’s toughness when he decided not to play him against Vanderbilt because of Rainey’s ankle injury.
“He’s tugging me on the back saying, ‘Put me in there. Let me carry the ball.’ You need more of those types of guys.’’
Rainey (2,393 career rushing yards) needs 17 yards in the Gator Bowl to surpass John L. Williams and move into eighth place on the school’s all-time rushing list. He is hoping for many more.
“My goal is to try and get enough yards in this last game to hit 1,000,’’ Rainey said. “I want to be remembered for the rest of my life and be right next to Emmitt Smith on the 1,000-yard [wall] in the running backs room with all the other 1,000-yard backs.”
With Smith making a rare visit to The Swamp and watching from the sideline, Rainey had the best game of his career in a 33-23 win over Tennessee in September. He joined Harvin as the only players in school history to rush for 100 yards and have 100 yards receiving in the same game. Oh, and he also blocked a punt in the game.
“He’s one of those special guys,’’ teammate Frankie Hammond Jr. said. “You want to get the ball in his hands because you never know what he can do with it. Going into this year they wanted to get it into his hands because of the ability to spring things loose and get down the field. When I’m blocking out there for him, I know it’s hitting quick.
“He is probably the center of our offense pretty much. Everything revolves around him just because of his athletic ability and his talent.’’
With his college career down to one game, Rainey plans to begin preparing for the NFL Draft afterward. Whatever he lacks in size he makes up for in other ways according to former UF running back Ciatrick Fason, drafted in the fourth round by Minnesota in 2005.
“His toughness catches my eye,’’ Fason said. “He takes a pounding. Weighing what he weighs, being able to make it through an SEC season is pretty hard to do. We all know he has great speed and had a great high school career off his speed, but his toughness is what impresses me the most.”
Does Fason see Rainey getting a shot in the NFL?
“A shot? Somebody is going to draft him,’’ Fason said. “He’ll definitely fit in as a third-down type like a Darren Sproles. His punt return skills and kickoff return skills alone are going to help him get drafted and stay in the league.’’
That is what Rainey is hoping. Watching Tebow and Hernandez play recently offered another chance at reflection.
“That was crazy,’’ Rainey said. “Hopefully I’ll be there soon. Maybe playing against those guys or be on the same team.”