Willie Taggart still remembers his first time seeing Bobby Rainey on film. It was the fall of 2009 and Taggart had just been hired by Western Kentucky to replace then-head coach David Elson. Elson had helped the school earn a spot in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but once finally there the Hilltopers struggled mightily. 12 losses, zero wins. Taggart, a former Western Kentucky quarterback and assistant coach, had been pried away from Stanford to turn things around. Before attempting to do so, though, he first had to watch the tape.
“Bobby was the only one doing anything for them,” Taggart, who is now the head coach at South Florida, says today. The year before Rainey, who had redshirted in his freshman season, had amassed 939 yards, despite carrying the ball just 144 times (he split time with a back named Kawaun Jakes). Taggart was impressed with how well Rainey finished his runs, how it was rare to see the first tackler be the one to bring him down. “He had great burst, too,” Taggart said. “I knew we had to build around him.”
Rainey had arrived at Western Kentucky by way of Griffin, Ga, a city about 40 miles south of Atlanta. He had been a star at Griffin High School where he took snaps at quarterback and played linebacker, too. According to his high school coach, Steve Devoursney, the only time Rainey would come off field was for field goals and extra points. “Other than that,” Devoursney says, “he played every snap.”
Rainey’s training on the defensive end of the field actually came earlier in his career, when, as a seventh grader, he was slotted into the nose tackle position (in addition to playing running back). “I averaged like three sacks a game,” Rainey said in a phone interview with TDdaily. “Teams would double-team me. I hated that.”
And yet, the big schools never came calling. Georgia Tech showed some interest, but Rainey’s SAT scores weren’t up to the school’s standards. It wouldn’t be the first time Rainey would find himself being overlooked.
“It’s because I’m a small back,” Rainey said. “That’s really what it is. I’m a small back and I was never a 4.3 guy. All the things that they say you’re supposed to look for in a back, those are the things I wasn’t.
“But for me, that all becomes motivation.”
At Western Kentucky Rainey was able to channel that motivation into on-the-field production, rushing for a school-record 4,524 yards. Then came the next slight: no NFL Combine invitation. He eventually signed with the Ravens after going undrafted in 2012 and spent the season on the bench. That off-season he was released by Baltimore and then signed by the Browns, who, in Week 7, also decided they had no use for him, opting to start giving carries to the 32-year-old Willis McGahee instead.
Rainey, though, says he never lost faith.
“There were a lot of guys in the league that I looked at and said, If they can make it, then I got a good chance,” Rainey said. “The most frustrating part, for me, was being patient and waiting for an opportunity where you can take control of things yourself.”
That chance would come in Tampa Bay, who picked Rainey up off waivers after his release from Cleveland to help fill the void that an injured Doug Martin had left. A couple weeks later, on the heels of the birth of his first child, a baby girl, he was scoring a touchdown against the Dolphins in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football. The week after that he was making the Falcons defense look silly with a dominating 163-yard effort.
“Going into that game, I didn’t really think I was going to play. I had just got there and was still learning the offense,” Rainey said. “Then I start getting the handoffs, and Coach Schiano is using lots of stuff I used in college—power inside runs and stuff like that—and I just started feeling comfortable. The excitement of all of it didn’t really hit me right away.”
Rainey would finish the season with 566 years and 5 touchdowns. More important that his stats, though, he had shown the NFL world that he was capable of playing at the highest of levels. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee anything for Rainey going forward. Then again, football has entered a new age. Gone are the days of the Franchise Back. Today, running backs come in all different shapes and sizes. They look different than they used to and play different roles than they used to and, as Rainey demonstrated last year, they’re found in different places, too.
“Bobby is short and a step slow,” Devoursney, Rainey’s high school coach, said. “Everything he’s gotten has been through hard work.”
“I expect to be a starter next year,” Rainey said. “Right now I’m working on getting stronger in the blocking game and for me, my goal is to be the team’s starter. If I’m not, I’ll still play my hardest and accept my role, but that’s what I expect from myself.”
Yaron Weitzman is an Associate Editor for TDdaily.com. Follow him on Twitter at @YaronWeitzman. Image via USA Today and Bobby Rainey.