TAMPA — Bobby Rainey was still clutching the football he carried across the goal line for his first NFL touchdown Monday night when he was reminded of just how difficult his journey to the end zone has been.
“One of my ex-teammates, (Dolphins linebacker) Dannell Ellerbe came up to me after the game and he was joking saying, ‘So, where else are you going to end up?’ ” Rainey said.
All kidding aside, it was a valid question.
Rainey, the fourth-string Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back who scored the game-winning touchdown in the Bucs’ 22-19 victory against Miami on Monday night, has been with three teams since he came into the league last year. After being let go twice by the Baltimore Ravens and once by the Cleveland Browns, this undrafted former Western Kentucky standout believes he has a chance to lay down some roots in Tampa.
In fact, he’s counting on it.
“I found a house over there somewhere in Westchase, I think it is,’’ Rainey said this week as he prepared for today’s game against the Falcons at Raymond James Stadium. “But I still have to pass the background check and everything. Hopefully, I’ll get approved for it.’’
Rainey already has earned the approval of his coaches and teammates. He did that against Miami when he ran eight times for 45 yards and scored that 1-yard touchdown in relief of injured running back Mike James.
It was a performance the ultra-confident Rainey has always considered himself capable of in the NFL, but one he had never really been given the chance to have.
His size is the reason. Rainey is officially listed at 5-foot-8, but he needs his cleats to get there. Even with the rock-solid 205 pounds of muscle he carries, his height has always scared teams off.
Coming out of Griffin (Ga.) High, where he played quarterback, running back and linebacker, Rainey got a sniff from Georgia Tech, but all the other major college programs ignored him.
“Because of his size, he didn’t get recruited by some of the bigger schools,’’ said Willie Taggart, the first-year coach at South Florida who inherited Rainey when he took over the Western Kentucky program in 2010. “But he plays with such a big heart. He shows he can play with anybody and he wants to prove you wrong. That’s why he has success.’’
Rainey, who chose WKU’s offer over those extended by Eastern Michigan and Albany State, certainly had a lot of success proving people wrong with Taggart’s Hilltoppers.
Rainey ran for 1,695 yards and 13 touchdowns, caught 36 passes for 361 yards and four TDs and even threw a pair of passes, including one for a touchdown — and that was just his senior year.
Rainey left WKU as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 4,523 yards and as only the eighth FBS player since 2000 to post back to back 1,500-yard rushing seasons. But NFL teams continued to be scared off by his size.
They were so scared they didn’t even extend Rainey an invitation to the scouting combine. That should have given Rainey an idea where he stood come draft day, but it didn’t.
Rainey went into the 2012 draft thinking he would probably be a second-day selection, perhaps a third-round pick. When reality struck late on the third and final day of the draft, it was a sobering moment.
Rainey had spent the whole day watching the draft, waiting for the phone to ring. When the Redskins, who had expressed some mild interest, drafted Alfred Morris out of Florida Atlantic in the sixth round, Rainey turned off the TV.
“I was one of the top five rushers in the country back-to-back years and that included going against some of the top teams like LSU and putting up good numbers against them,’’ Rainey said. “I just didn’t understand it.’’
The snub was nothing new, of course. But this one impacted Rainey in a different way. It humbled him. At the same time, it hardened him. And made him even more determined.
“It put a chip on my shoulder,’’ Rainey said. “I still have it. No man can tell another man what he can’t do. Anything is possible if you’re willing to work hard enough for it. That’s been my approach.’’
The Ravens were the first team to see it. The Redskins actually called Rainey first, but Rainey turned them down and signed as a free agent with Baltimore despite the fact he’d be playing well behind Ray Rice.
“That was a no-brainer,’’ Rainey said.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was a friend of Taggart’s, giving Rainey a connection with the Ravens.
“I felt it was better to go somewhere where at least I knew somebody instead of where I didn’t know anybody,” Rainey said, “because Coach Harbaugh had a background on me and I thought I’d be more comfortable with someone that knew about me, and not just as a football player, either.’’
Though he was let go during the final roster cut, Rainey was signed to the Ravens’ practice squad two days later and promoted to the active roster on Oct. 16. His season ended a month later when a knee injury landed him on injured reserve. But he has a Super Bowl ring to show for being a part of the Ravens 2012 title run.
“I only wore it for about two weeks, then I put it away in a safety deposit box,’’ Rainey said.
By the end of August, that Super Bowl ring was the only tie Rainey still had to the Ravens. They let him go on Aug. 31, but he found work again only a day later, this time with the Browns.
Rainey still isn’t quite sure why the Browns let him go in October, but he was happy the Bucs picked him up a couple days later, because it brought him to the same town as Taggart.
“We talk all the time,’’ Rainey said of Taggart. “He’s been a big help to me all along. He’s always telling me, ‘Just be patient, you’re time is going to come. Just make the best of it.’ That’s what he told me just before the game on Monday.’’
Rainey certainly did make the most of it. After James broke an ankle late in the Bucs’ first possession Monday, Rainey stepped in to give Brian Leonard a breather two series later. Then he found his groove in the fourth quarter.
His 31-yard run around left end and the 1-yard touchdown run on the next play were his two most notable plays of the night, but there were a couple more that helped Rainey prove he belongs.
One was an 8-yard run a series later and the other an 11-yard pass reception that allowed Rainey to show off some of his versatility. At no time, Bucs coach Greg Schiano said, did Rainey look out of place.
“He’s got a good feel, and when I say that I mean he’s a football player,’’ Schiano said. “He knows he can play and he’s got a good feel as far as patience and running the football.
“He gives the play a chance to develop, and he fits kind of what we’ve had around here. He’s a lot like (running back) Doug (Martin) and that body type. Yeah, they get hit, but we’ve been able to do well with those types of backs.”
Rainey certainly hopes he fits here. He’s already grown a little weary of bouncing from team to team and, as of Oct. 27, he has a whole new reason to want to make his home here.
“Her name is Kyvee,’’ Rainey said of his newborn daughter. “I talked to her after the game (on Monday) and told her what Daddy had done, but she couldn’t talk back, obviously. She didn’t understand.
“But that was big for me, a big moment. I’ve tried to be humble and stay patient, which is hard for me, and I think I’ve finally proved that I can play in this league, that I belong.’’