Former Alcoa standout shines in ETSU track

Monday, April 17, 2006

-- Courtesy of the Maryville Daily Times (April 14, 2006)

JOHNSON CITY -- Hurdles aren't James Rainer's specialty on the track, but the ones off of it don't slow him down.

The former Alcoa state champion sped through East Tennessee State's record books this winter in the 60 meters, and currently stands 10th nationally in the 100 meters.

Not bad for a guy who's had to deal with injuries after transferring from one football program he didn't like to another that wasn't liked by the right alumni. Rainer initially signed with Western Carolina but left after a year when it fired Bill Bleil, the coach that signed him.

He transferred to ETSU for the fall of 2002. When it killed football following the 2003 season -- Rainer returned kickoffs and scored twice on blocked punts that year -- he was strongly considering another move.

The thought of giving up football was agonizing. He led Alcoa to a 15-0 record and the 2000 state championship, scoring two touchdowns in the 27-20 championship defeat of Union City. They were the 49th and 50th TDs of his career.

But ETSU track coach Michelle Byrne helped convince him to stay at ETSU and make a run at excellence by concentrating on track.

He did in the fall of 2004 and the results were promising. But he injured an Achilles tendon that November which essentially cost him the 2005 indoor and outdoor seasons.

``That Achilles injury was devastating,'' Rainer said. ``I'd worked so hard in the fall.''

Byrne said the injury, which amazingly didn't deny him a Southern Conference 60-meter indoor title in one of his scarce 2005 performances, proved to be a blessing in disguise.

``I think he realized how much he loved running during all of that down time,'' Byrne said. ``He came out of it much more mature and goal-oriented.''

When you have an older sister battling pancreatic cancer there's a whole new perspective for the passion of rehab. Sheree Bass has been fighting cancer for four years in a courageous manner that chills Rainer with admiration.

``That's why I work hard every day,'' Rainer said. ``I don't take anything for granted. I don't talk about it much, but I've dedicated my whole career to her.''

Rainer has improved his sleep habits and sworn off soda and junk food.

``I love sweets, love ice cream,'' Rainer said. ``But they were getting in the way.''

Heck, the movie buff would probably quit watching Kiefer Sutherland in ``24'' and Denzel Washington flicks if it would increase his chances of glory to share with Bass.

``He's made some huge lifestyle changes,'' Byrne said. ``I think that difficult period allowed him to figure out what he needed to do better if he wanted to be among the elite. He's extremely focused.''

Rainer qualified for the NCAA regional with a 10.40 recently -- ironically, in a meet at Western Carolina. He and Byrne both believe that he could deliver a sub-10.30 when he heals a hip flexor. That could win an NCAA regional and/or advance him to nationals.

``The exciting thing is that he's capable of going a lot faster,'' Byrne said. ``When James gets past the hip flexor and can start doing more block work he's really going to be a force to be reckoned with. And he competes well in the big environment.''

That's always been the case. Along with his state championship scores in football, Rainer was at his best in state track meets at Alcoa.

Rainer won three state championships in the 100. He also won two in the 200 and anchored three 4x100 relay victories. The seven state titles remain a record.

Rainer is majoring in education, and intends to coach football. His godbrother, Randall Cobb, is expected to be the Alcoa quarterback for the next two years.

Rainer attended several Alcoa games last year, including the state semifinal and, of course, the Maryville game.

``I go to the Maryville game every year,'' he said. ``Sometimes I wish I was still playing when I'm watching the Maryville games. I get just as nervous. There's just something about that rivalry.''

In track and field, your No. 1 rival is internal. Rainer's only formidable opponent at this weekend's Atlantic Sun Conference championship in Clermont, Fla., figures to be the clock.

The NCAA Regional in Knoxville the last weekend in May is what he's really striding toward. Rainer grew up competing in AAU at Tennessee's Tom Black Track, and he expects Alcoa to be well represented for his sort of homecoming.

``I'll probably have the whole town there,'' Rainer said laughingly.

Certainly his mother, Gail Dean, who works as a nurse's aid at UT Hospital, and sister Chrissy Rainer will join Bass in the stands to watch Rainer make a run at the NCAA nationals.

``My mom and my two sisters are my motivation,'' Rainer said. ``I was the baby and they looked out for me. My mother's my biggest fan. She always believed in me, especially when I had doubts.''

These days, the confident Rainer is almost dashing toward doubt while running down a dream.

``I haven't surprised myself yet,'' Rainer said, ``but I'm getting there.''

In a hurry.

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