The Amputee QB
The call in the huddle, just moments before the injury, was Stanford Left Heavy Q7 Power, with Jacob Rainey in the shotgun.
September 2, 2012
By Keith O’Brien
THE CALL in the huddle, just moments before the injury, was Stanford Left Heavy Q7 Power, with two tight ends, two fullbacks and Jacob Rainey in the shotgun. His job was to take the snap, follow the right guard pulling to the left, find a hole in the defensive line and go. A quarterback running play drawn up just for Rainey.
Coming into the scrimmage that day, Sept. 3 last year in Flint Hill, Va., Rainey had reason to feel good about things. The previous season, as a newcomer repeating his sophomore year at Woodberry Forest School, a boarding school for boys about 30 miles northeast of Charlottesville, Rainey split time at quarterback with another player. Now, as a 17-year-old entering his junior year, Rainey was hoping to have his best season yet. Just weeks before, he ran a 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds — remarkable speed, given his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame. College football coaches were taking notice. His teammates were, too. Earlier in the year, a pass from Rainey ripped open a glove worn by one of his receivers, Greg McIntosh. “He had a lot of power,” McIntosh told me. “But he also had touch — and that was kind of hard to find for a quarterback.”
In the Flint Hill scrimmage, Rainey was proving that once more. Following a 40-yard pass play to McIntosh, Rainey’s teammate and friend Carlson Milikin said he felt as if he were watching “the Jacob show” all over again. Then the coaches called that running play.
Rainey went left and cut back to his right. A tackler dived and grabbed his legs. Rainey tried to shed him, fighting for more yardage, and then he went blank. “I feel like I blacked out for a second,” he told me. “I just heard a pop, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground.”
JEFF JOHNSON, Woodberry’s athletic trainer, knew it was bad even before he laid eyes on Rainey. “The screams were just overwhelming,” Johnson told me, recalling the moment months later. “I still hear them.”
Rushing to Rainey’s side, Johnson quickly realized that the injury was unlike any he’d seen. Rainey’s lower right leg was dislocated at the knee and cocked at an impossible angle — “an obvious deformity,” in Johnson’s words.
He asked the quarterback not to look at it. Rainey didn’t listen. He asked him to take deep breaths. Rainey was inconsolable. “My season,” he kept saying. “My season.”
Teammates began to cry. At least one felt ill. Johnson stayed at Rainey’s side. Knee dislocations are associated with severed arteries and blood loss, potentially life-threatening injuries, which the Raineys would soon learn. The popliteal artery in Jacob’s leg had been ruptured, cutting off circulation to his lower limb.
The Raineys, who have consulted a lawyer, declined to discuss the details of what happened at two different hospitals in the hours following the injury. What’s known is that with this kind of trauma, tissue, deprived of blood carrying oxygen and nutrients, begins to die rapidly. Dead tissue can lead to infection and even death. Despite multiple operations, Rainey’s lower right leg could not be saved. Doctors amputated it a week later above the knee joint. Rainey’s entire right femur remained, but that didn’t leave him much hope of playing quarterback again. As Rainey’s friend and teammate C. J. Prosise puts it: “There was no doubt in my mind that he was done.”
Certainly that was the assessment of medical experts. Even with the latest, modern prostheses — which can enable an amputee to compete in the Olympics, as the runner Oscar Pistorius did this summer — hardly any amputees have played quarterback competitively. In part that’s because no prosthetic knee has both the agility and durability the position demands. In football, a player needs to be able to cut, turn, dive and then be able to endure hits from 250-pound defenders running at full speed. Prosthetic legs simply aren’t designed to handle all that.
So while people question whether Pistorius’s carbon-fiber legs give him an unfair advantage, representing the first step into a future of bionic athletes, that debate is not happening in football. On a prosthetic leg, especially one that begins above the knee, a football player is expected to be limited. Which is why the experts suggested, months ago, that Rainey try channeling his competitive energies into something else: the Paralympics.
The quarterback wasn’t interested. “I’d rather play football,” Rainey said, and then surrounded himself with believers to work against time, his own body and the limitations of prosthetic science. “It’s just my mentality,” he says. “When people tell me I can’t do something, the stubbornness I have just pushes me forward.”
His parents, Lee and Kathy, worry that Rainey, the third-oldest of their five children, hasn’t taken time to grieve over his loss. But they admit there’s been little time for that. Woodberry opens its football season on Friday, and Rainey expects to be more than just an inspiration on the sideline. The high-school senior, now 18, wants to play quarterback and prove his doubters wrong, drawing on lessons he learned before his horrific injury. Rainey always prided himself on knowing how to beat a defense, how to find that gap, hit that seam, make something out of nothing.
THE CONDOLENCE letters poured in from all over. Handwritten notes from an entire eighth-grade class in Davie, Fla. “It may not mean much,” one boy wrote, “but you will be in my prayers always.” Personalized letters from college-football coaches. “Stay strong, Jacob,” Nick Saban, the University of Alabama football coach, wrote. Well wishes from N.F.L. stars like the quarterback Tim Tebow, the linebacker Clay Matthews and the Houston Texans’ head coach, Gary Kubiak. “Please accept my heartfelt thoughts and prayers for you and your loved ones,” Kubiak wrote, “during this difficult period of your life.”
People struggled at times to find the right words to comfort Rainey. Even now, friends have trouble explaining what happened. Some find themselves calling it an accident, as if the word “injury” isn’t big enough. The fact that a leg was amputated seems almost an impossibility — and, statistically speaking, it practically is.
Dawn Comstock might know more about high-school sports injuries than anybody else. A researcher at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, Comstock publishes the nation’s foremost annual report on injuries to American high-school athletes. She tracks them all: concussions, sprains, fractures and very rarely something worse.
Since 2000, at least two other football players have suffered in-game injuries that led to leg amputations not unlike Rainey’s. But limb loss hardly registers among football mishaps. In the last decade, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which monitors football injuries in a representative sample of American hospitals, has recorded just eight amputations at any level of the sport — seven of fingers, one of a thumb — which is too few to calculate a national estimate.
By comparison, over the same time frame, the C.P.S.C. estimates that there have been roughly one million football-related fractures. Even paralysis appears to be more common. In the last decade, the Annual Survey of Catastrophic Football Injuries, published by Frederick O. Mueller at the University of North Carolina, has documented 94 cervical-cord injuries with paralysis — more than 10 times the number of reported amputations. “Amputations in football are incredibly rare,” Comstock told me. “And a leg amputation? I can’t even tell you how rare it is, to be honest with you. . . . We just don’t see it happen.”
Last fall, Rainey knew better than anyone just how unusual his case was. Laid up for months, he had plenty of time, perhaps too much, to think. Insomnia only made matters worse. At night, while his family slept, Rainey killed time by surfing the Internet and watching television. Sometimes he read stories about himself and even relived his injury. “I got the scrimmage film in the fall, and I watched that a lot,” he told me. “I don’t know why I did, but I couldn’t stop watching it.”
For a while, Rainey, like others, believed it would be his final football play; among other problems was the fact that he dropped 60 pounds after his injury. But well before he received his prosthetic leg in late December, he was considering a comeback. His parents supported him; failure, they told him, was not trying at all. Before winter was over, he was becoming impatient with his physical therapists and the slow pace of his recovery. “We weren’t really doing anything,” he said, “but just walking in circles.”
DAVID LAWRENCE works as a physical therapist, in a low-slung, redbrick office complex in Richmond, about a 90-minute drive from the Raineys’ house in Charlottesville. He’s 50 and beginning to gray around the temples but exudes youthful enthusiasm. He’s seen enough to expect the impossible — or at least to encourage it — from patients who are missing limbs.
Lawrence once coached the national disabled volleyball team. He still works with one of the players: Joe Sullivan, a below-the-knee amputee who became a prosthetist and shares office space with Lawrence. In late March, they met together with Rainey for the first time.
At that point, Rainey wasn’t even close to running. The previous month, he was forced back onto crutches by pain in his residual leg. “He was at a 70-year-old-amputee point,” Lawrence says. “He could walk. He could put weight on his leg. But he was basically carrying the leg around.”
Rainey was using his prothesis like a stilt, Lawrence explains, balancing on it, but not walking in concert with the device, not controlling it. If Rainey wanted to play football, he had to trust the leg beneath him. By the end of their first meeting, the Raineys could see that Lawrence and Sullivan understood what Jacob wanted to do, and believed they could help him do it. “They both started brainstorming right then,” Kathy Rainey says. “They were onboard from the beginning.”
Rainey’s dream is a legitimate one, at least from a rules standpoint. Since 1978, state athletic associations have had the authority to permit prostheses in sports. And many associations, including Woodberry’s, allow them. There is also a precedent for playing football — even quarterback. Jeremy Campbell, who was born without a right fibula and had his leg amputated as a young child, played several positions, including quarterback, during high school in Texas a few years ago.
Still, Campbell’s experience doesn’t offer an exact road map for Rainey, who is just a year removed from his amputation and still adjusting to his new reality, relearning everything, while also rushing to get back on the field. “It’s almost like our biggest enemy right now is time,” Lawrence says. “We almost don’t have enough time to pull it off.”
And then there are the limitations of the technology itself. Over the last two decades, prosthetic science has evolved rapidly, with microprocessors replacing free-swinging knee hinges. For example, the sensors in the Genium knee, sold by Ottobock for the first time last year, communicate with the leg’s microprocessor roughly 100 times a second, providing increased mobility.
But such prostheses are still lacking when it comes to athletes like Rainey. Todd Schaffhauser, a former Paralympic gold medalist sprinter and now the director of patient programs for International Prosthetics on Long Island, told me that today’s most advanced prostheses are best at one thing: running straight, not quarterbacking. “There really is nothing,” he says, “that’s available for that kind of mobility.”
This challenge has seemed to energize Lawrence, who began training Rainey last spring. By June, the quarterback was running outside. By early July, it was time to see what Rainey could do on the football field, while his parents, coach, two prosthetists and Lawrence watched.
“We’ll start with our Zone Right,” said Woodberry’s offensive coordinator, Ryan Alexander, easing Rainey into the workout in the 100-degree heat by having him execute some handoffs. Next Alexander called for Rainey to throw out of the shotgun. “Step and throw, O.K.?” Then he called for screen passes. “We’re going to have to be good at the screen to slow the rush down.” Finally, Alexander wanted to know if Rainey could roll out and throw on the move. “He should be able to do it,” Lawrence informed the coach. “He needs to try it.”
For several minutes, Rainey rolled to his right and left, hurling passes down the field. His speed was still lacking. But the throws, tight spirals, were almost always on target. Though he still had concerns, Alexander was impressed. Before the workout, the coach had been, at best, cautiously optimistic that Rainey could play quarterback on a prosthetic leg; by the end of the session, Alexander was beginning to see it.
The therapists assured Alexander that they could modify Rainey’s prosthesis to make it faster. A few weeks after the workout, Rainey decided to go with a different prosthesis altogether, choosing the Moto Knee, an aluminum device originally designed for amputees to use on snowmobiles and Motocross bikes. With the Moto Knee, Rainey felt more stable. And when he trusted the prosthesis, planting it into the turf, stepping into the throw with his left leg and then rotating his hips as he released the ball, he showed flashes of his old talent.
“My God, he’s a heckuva athlete,” Don Payne, one of the prosthetists, marveled. “Did you see what happened when he planted that leg and turned those hips into the throw? That ball was out 30 yards — bam — on a laser. It shows you how strong he is.”
PAYNE USED TO be a skeptic, doubting that playing quarterback again was a realistic dream for Rainey. Now he and others are coming around to the possibility that it might happen. In the time that some amputees take to learn to walk with proficiency, Rainey is both running and throwing, to the surprise of even his biggest advocates. “I don’t know whom you credit that to — if you credit that to his work ethic or you think it’s a miracle from God,” says Carlson Milikin, Rainey’s friend. “I think it’s a combination of both, to be honest with you.”
Still, the Raineys are well aware of the challenges that lie ahead. What happens if the pocket breaks down? What if Jacob needs to scramble? What if he’s not ready? In late July, three weeks after his workout at Woodberry, Rainey was back at Lawrence’s office in Richmond complaining anew about pain in his residual leg — “a sharp, tingly pain,” he called it.
“Doggone,” Lawrence said, examining the angry red rash and irritated purple skin on Rainey’s leg. “Here’s our spot,” he added, pointing to an inflamed area. “That’s kind of our epicenter, the tip of the volcano.”
“That spot,” Rainey agreed. “And over here, too.”
Lawrence had no idea what was causing it — perhaps the new socket that Rainey had started wearing recently, perhaps all the running he had been doing that week, perhaps neither or both.
“Maybe my skin’s just not ready,” Rainey suggested.
“Yeah,” Lawrence said. “Or we’re bringing it on too fast or too hard.” But with football season looming, they had no alternative. As Lawrence put it on another occasion: “Right now, we have a very small window. If he’s ever going to be a quarterback . . . this is his chance.”
Rainey isn’t sure he’ll be able to play football in college, which increases the pressure he feels to play now. He relishes that, but he also worries about letting people down. And he still thinks about the play that changed his life.
“I shouldn’t have gotten tackled,” he says. “I might have missed the hole. I think it’s my fault. I don’t think it’s someone else’s. I think it’s me being stubborn. Not going down. Me not finding the right hole. Me not being fast enough, not strong enough.”
In those condolence letters he received last fall, Rainey often heard the same message over and over. The injury, he was told, happened for a reason.
Rainey wasn’t so sure about that. “There might be,” he says, “there might not be.” To him, it sounds like a cliché. But lately, he has been dreaming. He pictures himself taking the field with his teammates on Friday night. He imagines throwing not just a pass, but a touchdown. For now, Rainey seems willing to at least consider the possibility that things might go his way: “What if it all works out?”