It was late in the day, long after the damage had been done, long after he had captured the hearts of the fans, that Bobby Rainey finally departed the field he had claimed as his own.
He had carried the ball 30 times, nine more than he had in his entire career, and he was not ready to turn loose of the afternoon. And so, seconds after the Bucs had completed their 41-28 victory over the Falcons, Rainey sprinted toward the stands, toward the fans who leaned over the rail.
The noise rose, and Rainey reached up high — because, let's face it, he is sort of height-challenged — and he slapped palms for 20 yards. Finally he stopped, and he grinned a wide, toothy smile that had taken far too long for him to flash.
This is his time, and finally, this is his place. No one knows what tomorrow will bring, and for Rainey, yesterday was nothing more than a long, insufferable wait.
But today? Today, at 26, Rainey is on top of the world. Today, he has done what he always believed he could do. Today, he has shown all those who questioned his ability and who doubted his confidence.
Today, the rest of us may finally understand why Rainey seems to have struck such a chord with Tampa Bay.
Sunday, Rainey ran for 163 yards (the ninth-best single-game total in Bucs history) and two touchdowns. He caught a pass for a third score. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry. In other words, he had the afternoon of a star, of one of those big-headline backs who get all the carries and make most of the money. Never mind that he was unemployed only a few weeks ago.
He is constant movement, a skittering back who seems to make a dozen moves on a 3-yard carry. He dodges and he dances, and shakes and shimmys, and suddenly he is in the clear and everyone is chasing him.
Why does Tampa Bay love Rainey? Because it has seen so much of his back as he runs toward the end zone.
"I don't think anybody thinks the guy is going to come out and rush for 163 yards," coach Greg Schiano said. "But I'm very proud of him."
Oh, he is a small back, much smaller than the 5 feet 8 he is listed as, and everyone seems to love small backs. He is an overachiever, an undrafted back from Willie Taggart's Western Kentucky team, and everyone loves undrafted overachievers. He is a new toy, and everyone loves those. Mostly, though, Rainey is headed away from the disaster that was the first half of this season, and isn't it about time?
Put it this way: Rainey has never met Josh Freeman, and he wasn't here for the MRSA scandal, and he has only a passing knowledge of 0-8. But in the two games he has played, Rainey has helped the Bucs to a 2-0 record. That's a pretty good start.
As so you go back to the postgame lovefest between Rainey and the fans hanging over the rail, and you wonder what Rainey might have been feeling in the moment.
"I felt like a winner," Rainey said, flashing that grin of his again. "That's the thing we had lost sight of, basically, giving the fans something to cheer about. To win, and to come back and do it again, is huge."
That's the thing about Rainey. His voice is small, too. His confidence, however, is that of a giant. Even as he sat on the bench for a year for the Ravens, even as he scuffled along with the Browns (a 2.6-yard average on 13 carries), he believed.
Around the league, that isn't rare. There are dozens of running backs who are certain they can be stars if only they could get a shot. For most of them, it never comes. For Rainey, it took an injury to Doug Martin, an injury to Mike James, an injury to Jeff Demps and an injury to Michael Smith. It took a thousand steps for Rainey to get here, and just like that, he fits.
Faith and hope, Rainey was saying. Faith and hope.
"That's what it took for me to get here," Rainey said. "I think patience is the hardest thing in the world. But that's what I had to do. My motivation is when people tell me what I can't do. No man can tell another man what he can't do.
"For me, the doubts started when I went to high school. I always thought I could play. From the time I was 7, I had an image of me playing in the NFL. It was kind of scary. To be a part of it, it's weird."
How fresh is Rainey? Look, his teammates didn't even know who he was when he arrived. Oh, the Bucs had tried to get him before. They had put in a claim when the Ravens let go of Rainey, but Cleveland had priority.
"I tried to keep up with him (in practice)," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "I was like, 'Man, that's not a scout team running back.' I told these guys if he ever gets in a game, I think he's going to play well. He's shorter than Doug. He's just a tiny guy. He's real stout and strong, and he runs hard."
Along the way, Rainey also seems to have re-energized a football team.
Who knows? Maybe a fan base, too.
A career in a day
Here's how Bobby Rainey's rushing performance Sunday compared with his previous nine NFL appearances:
First nine games
21 carries, 79 yards, 1 TD, long of 31, average 3.8 yards per carry
30 carries, 163 yards, 2 TDs, long of 43, average 5.4 yards per carry