GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – His teammates say Chris Rainey is a different person.
Senior center Mike Pouncey, who knows Rainey as well as anyone on the team, says Rainey’s “attitude about the game’’ has changed drastically since he was suspended earlier this season for five games.
Another of Rainey’s teammates, Gators safety Ahmad Black, sees a more humble and appreciative Rainey.
“I think he needed a wake-up call and he got that,’’ said Black, who was a high school teammate of Rainey and Pouncey at Lakeland High prior to UF. “God gave him a second chance and he is taking advantage of it.’’
What’s not different about Rainey is obvious: his ability to make big plays in a variety of ways. In two games since returning to the field, Rainey has helped the Gators save their season.
In Florida’s 34-31 win over Georgia on Oct. 30, Rainey rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown. He also returned six kickoffs for 148 yards. In Saturday’s win at Vanderbilt, Rainey blocked two punts – one led to a touchdown run by Mike Gillislee and the other was returned 42 yards for a touchdown by Solomon Patton – and caught four passes for a team-high 75 yards.
Rainey was named Southeastern Conference Special Teams Player of the Week on Monday for his performance at Vanderbilt.
When Rainey hauled in an apparent 40-yard touchdown reception from John Brantley early in the second quarter – the Vanderbilt defender was called for pass interference and the officials hesitated in calling the catch a touchdown – Rainey quietly pointed to the sky and headed to the sideline.
Once there, Gators coach Urban Meyer wanted to know if Rainey made the catch cleanly.
“Yes sir,’’ Rainey replied. “I caught the ball.’’
No one is more responsible for Rainey being allowed to rejoin the team than Meyer, one of Rainey’s biggest supporters. Rainey had a troubled childhood growing up, at one point living with Pouncey and his family to stay off the streets.
Rainey’s arrest in September prior to the Tennessee game made headlines and tested a young team’s resiliency.
“We had a player who wasn’t accountable and we lost him for [five] games,’’ Meyer said Monday. “You can’t do that. That stings the team.’’
While critics called for Meyer to cut Rainey loose, he instead met with UF president Bernie Machen and athletic director Jeremy Foley to discuss Rainey’s future. They came up with certain requirements Rainey had to meet once his legal issues were clarified.
“Chris Rainey hit rock bottom. We all know that. We're not ashamed to say that,” Meyer said. “Chris is like a son to me. He hit rock bottom and he is coming up and going as fast as he possibly can right now.”
Meyer has shielded Rainey from the media since his return, and Rainey told UF’s media relations staff that his only statement about returning is that he is “thankful for the opportunity.’’
So is Pouncey, who has called Rainey the Gators’ best player on multiple occasions this season.
“I was [worried],’’ Pouncey said. “Chris really doesn’t have any family outside of me and my family. It was tough on him. Obviously he had a lot of time on his hands without being part of the football team. He is just glad to be back. He doesn’t say anything at practice. He just goes hard and that’s the way it should be.
“All Chris has is football. He’s had a rough life. I think Florida has given him a second opportunity to do well in this sport. He and Coach Meyer have a special relationship. He knew Rainey’s past and his whole life story.’’
Black and others checked in on Rainey during his time away to offer their support.
“I like the way he has been attacking it and the way his approach has been since he’s been back,’’ Black said. “Like I’ve always said, Chris is a great playmaker. I’m glad he is a Gator still.’’
Meyer said Monday he approaches each case differently when players get into off-the-field trouble that jeopardizes their place in the program. He referenced the case of receiver Frankie Hammond – he was charged with a DUI over the summer – in talking about Rainey’s situation on Monday.
“Each guy is different. Each background is different. Each commitment to academics and team and attitude are different,’’ Meyer said. “If I’m Frankie Hammonds’ parents, I’m pretty impressed right now. He is doing a lot of positive things and he happens to have great parents.
“Chris Rainey comes from a little different situation. To say, ‘Well, just handle these two guys the same.’ … I would question the parent who would do something like that and I would also question the coach.’’
Has Meyer seen enough to be convinced Rainey has learned his lesson?
“It’s really encouraging to see some positives,’’ he said. “However, we’re not naïve enough to know we’ve [still] got a long way to go.’’