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Gifts put Lakeland on hot seat

As two investigations swirl around the mighty Lakeland High football program and its star running back Chris Rainey for accepting money and gifts from fans and vendors, the big question heading into Friday's Class 5A state championship remains unanswered.

Will he or won't he play?

As of Wednesday night, that depends on whom you believe.

According to Polk County athletic director Don Bridges, Rainey, one of the state's top recruits, will sit out the game in case the Florida High School Athletic Association decides he is ineligible.

"We're not going to take a chance because there are 59 other players on that team,'' he said.

But Lakeland principal Mark Thomas said Rainey is still eligible pending the outcome of his investigation, the results of which will be forwarded to the FHSAA today.

"Most definitely it is (wrong to say he won't be playing),'' Thomas said. "That's never been the case. There is no change in his status.''

The FHSAA, which won't conclude its investigation by kickoff Friday, will have little to say regarding Rainey's status, leaving the decision to Lakeland administrators or Bridges.

The Miami Herald published a story Tuesday with Rainey saying he received a bag full of sports jerseys and jewelry in exchange for an autograph, as well as a wad of money from an elderly woman who approached him at a restaurant.

The audio of the interview is posted online. In it, Rainey says, "When I walk around, people are buying me food, giving me money. I'm like, 'Damn, I'm glad I'm Chris Rainey. It's real nice to be me.' "

Bridges feels the tape is enough evidence to keep Rainey out of uniform Friday.

"At this time, based on what the audio tapes say, he's violated FHSAA (rules) and he won't be playing,'' Bridges said. "The FHSAA ... is at Lakeland interviewing people, trying to find out the depth of this, whether this was a one-time thing or an every Saturday after every Friday thing, and if it goes further than just him.''

According to FHSAA bylaw 11.9.1, any student who receives gifts or money for playing a sport is disqualified for one year.

If it is determined Rainey received gifts and money, the value of those things could affect his college status. The NCAA could determine the amount he received is enough to cause him to lose his amateur status, meaning he wouldn't be able to play college football. Rainey has orally committed to Florida.

Lakeland attorney Robert Puterbaugh issued a statement Wednesday stating Rainey's comments to the Herald "were not meant by him to be taken seriously and were made by him in a joking manner and not as fact.''

Bridges said it was his understanding Lakeland won't have to forfeit any games and will keep any state title as long as Rainey, who had 326 yards rushing last week, does not play again.

But Laurel Ring, communications coordinator for the FHSAA, said "that has yet to be determined.''

Lakeland, winner of 45 straight, is 14-0 and ranked No. 4 in the USA Today national poll. The Dreadnaughts will be vying for a third straight state title and sixth overall when they meet Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (12-1) Friday at Dolphin Stadium in Miami.

The (Lakeland) Ledger contributed to this report. John C. Cotey can be reached at (727) 869-6261 or