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Lakeland RB will play in state championship

Chris Rainey will play tonight after all.

Lakeland High's star running back, who created a firestorm when he told the Miami Herald he received gifts and money from fans of the football program, will start tonight in Miami when the Dreadnaughts face Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in search of their third consecutive state title.

After a two-day investigation, the Polk County School Board concluded "at this time, there is no credible evidence that Chris Rainey accepted remuneration, gifts or donations for his participation in football or any sports at Lakeland High School. As such, there is no reason, at this time, to rule Chris Rainey ineligible to participate in the football program.''

The Herald published a story Tuesday with Rainey saying he received a bag full of sports jerseys, jewelry and money from a local vendor and fan.

Audio of the interview, conducted Nov. 9, is posted online. In it, Rainey clearly states, "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."

The (Lakeland) Ledger reported in Thursday's paper the vendor, Lynda Johnson, had come forward and claimed she gave Rainey a shirt and shorts valued at less than $10, and she denied receiving an autograph in exchange.

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

The results of the School Board's investigation were sent Thursday to the FHSAA, which is conducting its own investigation, expected to take a few weeks.

While the School Board decision clears Rainey to play, if the FHSAA comes to a different conclusion and determines violations were committed, the Dreadnaughts could be stripped of any state title. If so, the Class 5A title would be declared vacant.

Rainey has orally committed to Florida. He had 326 yards rushing in last week's semifinal win and is considered one of the top running backs in the country.

Lakeland (14-0) has won 45 straight games and is ranked No. 4 by USA Today.

John C. Cotey can be reached at (727) 869-6261 or cotey@sptimes.com

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