This past Sept. 7, Jacob Rainey prepared for the biggest football game of his life. Eight hundred spectators filled the bleachers. ESPN cameras arrived to shadow him.
Woodberry Forest, his all-male boarding school in central Virginia, was facing Benedictine College Preparatory in a season opener. Two years earlier, the Woodberry Tigers beat Benedictine 41-7 behind a touchdown pass and a rushing touchdown from Rainey. Unlike that earlier matchup, this performance wouldn't affect recruiting letters and scholarship offers.
Most of the spectators knew Rainey'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 Rainey, 18. "I thought to myself, 'I better back up what I've been saying.' "
He ran onto the field and tuned out the crowd.
"Once I got that first play under my belt, I felt like I was back," he said.
Everything for football
Rainey 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 Rainey said.
After two years of high school football at St. Anne's-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Jacob transferred to Woodberry Forest in the fall of 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 his junior year would be crucial in determining where he'd play college football. And that, he hoped, would move him toward his dream of quarterbacking in the NFL.
An arm and a leg
When Rainey was tackled during a scrimmage Sept. 3, 2011, at the 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 Clint Alexander, Woodberry Forest's coach, "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 Rainey to a nearby hospital. His first surgery took place hours later, when doctors harvested a vein from his left leg to repair the ruptured popliteal artery in his right leg. He spent four days in the trauma unit. That Wednesday, four days after the injury, he still couldn't move his right leg. Surgeons operated again, cutting open his injured leg on both sides to reduce swelling and remove muscle. But infection 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 his parents they needed to remove most of Rainey's right leg.
"We went in that night and told him, and that was devastating," Lee Rainey 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 his mom sitting beside him, Rainey looked down at the large bandage where his right leg had been. He broke down.
"That's when I really realized what had happened," Rainey said.
Rainey was hospitalized for 25 days. He spent the next six weeks weaning himself off painkillers and learning mobility with one leg. He lost 60 pounds and rarely slept. A physical therapist came several times a week.
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,' " Rainey said. "And I'm like, 'Mom, I'm not playing football. I got hurt. I'm done.' "
Still, Rainey harbored hope that there might be a way.
During their final visit to an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Virginia, Kathy Rainey asked about Jacob's football chances, and the surgeon told them Jacob would not play again.
As they drove home, "I knew he was kind of crushed by that," Kathy Rainey 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.' "
Three days before Christmas, Rainey 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 June, Rainey's prosthetist, Joe Sullivan, discovered the Moto Knee, a multisport prosthesis designed by a motocross athlete who lost his left leg above the knee in a 2008 accident. Sullivan asked for a demo.
In July, Rainey and his physical therapist, David Lawrence, traveled to Woodberry to show the team's trainer and coaches his 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 Rainey 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,' " junior linebacker Greer Martini said.
Rainey produces in return
Rainey 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 him 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 ' "
On the Tigers' first play, Rainey took one quick step back in the pocket and over before handing off the ball for a five-yard gain. On the next play, he fired a lateral pass. Next was another run play, advancing Woodberry to within 25 yards of the end zone. On the following play, Rainey handed 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 he executed well," said offensive coordinator Ryan Alexander, Clint Alexander's nephew. "It worked out about as best as I could imagine."
As Asher crossed the goal line, the crowd erupted. Rainey ran back toward the sideline, 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," Rainey 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 Rainey threw his first touchdown pass of the season in the team's 39-14 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."
He wants to do more physically
On Oct. 20, Woodberry battled visiting Kiski School from Saltsburg, Pa. Rainey 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, Rainey 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 for a touchdown.
Rainey played just one more series as Woodberry won 52-13.
"I'm fine with being on the sideline, helping to encourage people and trying to be like another coach, but I'd much rather be out there doing more, physically, for the team," Jacob said.
Virginia is recruiting Rainey
In its final game of the season in November, Woodberry faced its rival, Episcopal. Two thousand fans filled the bleachers.
Rainey was the starter. The Woodberry student section chanted, "Ja-cob Rain-ey!" After several run plays, Rainey completed his first pass. "Pass by number 9, Jacob Rainey!" the announcer yelled as the crowd cheered. A few plays later, the Tigers scored on a run play. Rainey jogged back toward the sideline, pumping his fists.
With three minutes remaining in the first quarter, Woodberry intercepted an Episcopal pass. Rainey went in again and led the Tigers down the field. Ten yards from the goal line, he threw a quick pass to Asher for a touchdown.
Rainey didn't play again in the 44-14 win.
By returning, Rainey accomplished the improbable. But was the Episcopal game his last competition?
While Riley wants to continue playing at a large college, it's unlikely. His chances would be better at a smaller, perhaps Division III school.
"I'm still trying to figure out if I want to play, because I've been at small schools my whole life," Rainey 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. Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor couldn't comment because of NCAA rules except to say the team is recruiting him.
So, like many high school seniors, Rainey has a tough decision to make, though it may not be the same choice he thought he'd have 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," Rainey said. "But I also feel like a year from now, I'll end up doing that. Something in me just loves football."