Lions hoping for Rainey in forecast Sunday

It was a lovely football Kodak moment, if only Chris Rainey and the person he was holding at the time were old enough to relate to a defunct camera company, and it had the potential to suggest things could be rosy with the B.C. Lions for years to come.

It was time for the ritual known as the presentation of game balls for the Lions in the locker room after their emotional win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Sunday, and the player chosen to be recognized on offence was tabbed for his ability to adjust offensive roles on the fly when a teammate was injured.

Rainey accepted the accolade, holding a game ball in one hand and son Makari in another, looking sheepish as always when in front of his teammates. No speech, just a thank you. Yet anyone witnessing the moment might have thought that perhaps for one of the few times during his football journey, Rainey might have truly found some solitude and a sense of belonging, at least relative to some less-stable times in his life while in college at Florida and briefly in the NFL.

Alas, it was just a snapshot, said Rainey.

The receiver/returner/runner/difference-maker with the Lions was asked if indeed he has discovered a comfortable place so far in his last 16 months with the CFL team.

“I still do want to go to the States too,” he said, and by referencing the home of Donald Trump it was clear Rainey was suggesting he hasn’t ruled out another NFL foray at the expiration of his contract following the 2017 season.

“But if I have to stay here, I fit.”

Where he is at present is in the position perhaps as the one player who could prevent the Calgary Stampeders from cashing their perfect 9-0 home slate and 15-2-1 regular season record for a ticket to the Grey Cup next week.

The Lions have other playmakers on their roster, from Emmanuel Arceneaux, the emerging Bryan Burnham, strong running from Jeremiah Johnson and quarterback Jon Jennings. But they are all threats that can be neutralized by a team that is as fundamentally sound as the Stamps.

Rainey is flat-out simply different, his speed and ability to juke defenders into various states of embarrassment perhaps good enough for the Lions to pull off the upset.

He already has a pair of punt return touchdowns this season against Calgary but is the potential of what he can do on offence that has the Lions salivating. Coach Wally Buono has been all season careful not to make Rainey too much part of the offence, mindful that an injury to a 5’8”, 190-pounder would be fatal.

But last week’s concussion suffered by Arceneaux in the second half forced the Lions to change their thinking in a hurry, and Rainey responded in such a way that will likely leave them no choice but to increase his workload.

It’s the playoffs after all, no tomorrow and all that.

“All good with me,” said Rainey, told that his 17 touches against Winnipeg represented a season high. “I’ll take at least 20, I’ll take whatever they give me, definitely.”

Acting as a lobbyist for added playing time has been second-nature for Rainey ever since he briefly became teammates with fellow speedster Percy Harvin and was part of coach Urban Meyer’s Florida program.

Rainey has also required his share of second-chances just to get this far. His backstory, born in prison, a stranger to his father and raised by a grandmother with dependency issues, set the foundation for what was to come.

He managed to avoid more serious trouble around the time he admitted he accepted cash and fancy clothing in exchange for his autograph when with the Gators but he couldn’t dodge a battery charge, his second relative offence, after being drafted in 2012 by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I’d still be there as the star running back probably,” Rainey said, suggesting the charge that prompted his release has had a lingering effect. “I think about it all the time but I can’t let it get to me too much, otherwise I get mad.”

He admitted there were times that he spoke before thinking, which is why it can still be difficult to open up about his past, though he is unfailingly polite when outsiders approach.

The safe place for Rainey was the CFL. After joining the Montreal Alouettes he went public about his past, seeking to clean up misconceptions, only for former general manager Jim Popp to choose Brandon Rutley over Rainey as the team’s return option.

Predictably, Buono wasn’t snoozing, though it was impossible not to overlook Rainey’s 77-yard rushing performance for the Als in a 2014 blowout playoff win over B.C.

That ability to use his speed to slice through miniscule running lanes, plus the prospect of zooming by pass defenders covering Rainey out of the backfield, carries the prospect of opening up the Lions entire offensive playbook Sunday.

Rainey doesn’t say anything to suggest he can get the Lions to the Grey Cup by himself. But all year long he has maintained he can better help with a few more touches and it’s entirely possible Lions offensive coordinator Khari Jones is about to let him try and prove a point.

“The player I am, you don’t want to be on a team that the ball is only going to you. It ain’t going to help. You need other players so other teams can’t key on one person,” he said.

Buono isn’t about to broadcast his intentions with Rainey, but it doesn’t require the football intellect of John Madden to suggest the Lions might try to seek matchups where they can get a former Florida track star bounding in front and behind an opposing linebacker.

“Rainey’s not a receiver. I don’t know if you can line up and beat the Calgary Stampeders with Rainey as a receiver. They’re too good of a team,” said Buono.

But Rainey is too good of a player not to become the centre of attention Sunday. He had 2,862 combined yards this season, setting a franchise record, which might seem impressive were it not for the fact he had similar numbers in college.

Like Calgary returner Roy Finch, a fellow Floridian, Rainey bolts past players at a jaw-dropping pace. But in his eyes the game is at a different speed.

“The game always seem slow-motion to me,” Rainey said. And the stats? “It only matters to me when we get significant numbers when we get the championship,” he said. “That makes it worth it.”

Second prize, at least for now, would be having his son in one arm as Rainey celebrated a Lions playoff win.


Lowell Ullrich has covered the Lions since 1999 and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also a contributor to TSN1040.