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Do-everything Chris Rainey flies high for Florida Gators

GAINESVILLE — Faster and faster, the yard lines flash past, like the road stripes disappearing beneath a street racer. Quicker and quicker he moves as if his world is in fast forward, which, of course, it is.

Up ahead, there is an end zone.

Beyond it, there is stardom.

Somewhere on the other side, there may even be redemption for Chris Rainey.

He is the finest player on the Florida Gators' roster, and perhaps in the Southeastern Conference, and perhaps in the nation. Whatever you have thought of Rainey, and whatever you may still think, there is magic in his feet and wonder in his hands.

Time will tell if he can outrun a bad reputation or if he can catch up to a second look. For now, what we know is that the Tennessee Vols cannot keep up with him. Three weeks into a season, and no one else in college football can, either.

For now, however, the fans are chanting his name.

For now, they are cheering his effort.

For now, fans of the Florida Gators want to believe in second chances.

Rainey, the Gators' running back, was incredible in Saturday afternoon's 33-23 victory over Tennessee. He made every big play, every key play, as Florida won its first SEC game of the year. He stacked statistics like a Heisman Trophy candidate, and yes, if you judge off the season's first three weeks, he should be one.

He rushed for 108 yards against Tennessee.

He caught passes for 104, including the longest reception in Gator history (83 yards) by a running back.

He blocked a punt.

He had 233 total yards.

He returned three punts for 21 yards.

Best of all, he managed not to text anyone.

Yes, that came up again. When a player messes up as badly as Rainey did last year — he sent a threatening text to his ex-girlfriend that included the now famous phrase "Time to Die" — it always does. When you consider the horrible history of violence against women, there should be a lot of yards between excellence and amnesia. You don't find forgiveness in an end zone.

Still, those who know Rainey a lot better than I do swear he is not a bad kid, just a kid who typed a dumb thing into his cell phone. Maybe that's true. He is a soft-spoken man, one who tucks his beard, lowers his head and stares upward at you as he talks. He describes himself as a guy with a constant smile. He says he has matured in the last year. Maybe that's true, too. Still, people continue to raise their eyebrows when his name comes up.

"I don't care what people think," he said softly. "They don't know me."

On other hand, as long as the world has Rainey underneath a microscope, perhaps it should notice what a terrific player he is, too.

For instance, did you check him out in the middle of the second quarter when he caught a short pass from John Brantley and turned it into an 83-yard touchdown?

"I turned and saw the biggest hole I've ever seen in my life," Rainey said.

Did you see him in the fourth quarter, when Florida was trying to seal the victory? Rainey carried the ball seven straight times, and the Gators moved from their 25 to the Tennessee 32. On one play, Rainey started right, broke a tackle by Curt Maggitt, ran left, broke another by Dontavis Sapp, then went 8 yards.

Keep this in mind. Going into Saturday's game, Rainey was the only player in the country who led his team in both rushing and receiving. Add in the punt returns, and punt block, and you can argue the fifth-year senior from Lakeland is the most versatile player in America.

"I don't know," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "This guy works hard. He talks a lot, but he doesn't complain about anything. Playing football, playing at Florida, is important to him. Since I've been here, he's been everything you want in a football player and everything you want as a competitor."

For now, Florida fans want to believe in Rainey. These days, there is nothing so comforting as the ball in Rainey's hands. These days, he is the right kind of threat.

Time to fly.

Do-everything Chris Rainey flies high for Florida Gators 09/17/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 18, 2011 12:18pm]
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