A Gentle Giant
Sept. 28, 2001
By Trent Packer
At 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, former Virginia linebacker Wali Rainer cuts an intimidating presence. His profession does little to put people at ease. As an NFL linebacker, Rainer spends his Sundays chasing down opposing quarterbacks and zeroing in on unsuspecting opponents.
In reality, Rainer is as mild-mannered as professional athletes come. On the field he has established himself as a perennial starter and a team leader, but off the field, Rainer takes pride in the volunteer work he does in and around the Cleveland, Ohio area. Rainer grew up in Charlotte, N.C. where, as he recalls, life wasn’t always easy. Now that he has reached his goal of playing in the NFL, he feels a responsibility to get involved in the community.
“I get a real joy out of it,” Rainer says of his volunteer work. “I just try to give back to the community to show how much I appreciate the opportunities I’ve been given.”While Rainer is excited to be living out his dream of playing in the NFL, he derives more joy from the work he does at the Children’s Hospital in Cleveland.
“Going to the Children’s Hospital is the most rewarding experience,” Rainer says. “There are four- and five-year-old kids with two or three weeks to live and all they want to do is meet an NFL player. I think of myself as a regular guy, but they see me as some kind of super hero. To see them smile is the biggest joy I get.”
In addition to his work at the Children’s Hospital, Rainer supports the Taste of the NFL fundraiser for hunger programs, Shoes and Clothes for Kids, and serves as the spokesperson for Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Cleveland.
Rainer’s dedication to his community has not gone unnoticed. His teammates chose Rainer as the team’s recipient of the Unsung Hero award, which recognizes the NFL player from each team who best exemplifies a dedication and love of football, fans and community. In addition to that award, Kaleidoscope Magazine named Rainer to their 40/40 club, which goes to 40 top professionals who have made an impact in their community.
“I try to live life to the fullest every day because it can be taken from you so quickly,” Rainer says of why he has remained so involved despite a grueling NFL schedule.Although Rainer gives his time freely, Cleveland fans offer an extra incentive for him to stay involved. Browns fans are notoriously loyal to their home team and unendingly committed to its players. Rainer experienced the fervor of college football fans on numerous occasions at Virginia, but nothing he experienced in college compared to the raucous Cleveland Browns supporters.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Rainer says of the town’s commitment to its team. “If you aren’t a Cleveland Browns fan up here, you’re nothing. It’s wild. The whole area is like that. They are just as into the game as the players are. The town always backs you up.”The fans’ devotion helped ease Rainer’s transition to the NFL. After being drafted in the fourth round of the 1999 NFL draft, Rainer began his rookie season with the Browns as a backup linebacker. The team hoped that veteran starter Chris Spielman would help accelerate Rainer’s development, but when Spielman experienced a preseason enjury that forced him into early retirment, Rainer was thrust into a starting role. He immediately ingratiated himself to the Cleveland faithful by leading the team in tackles (191) as a rookie.
“(The transition from college football to the NFL) went fairly smoothly,” Rainer says. “Chris Spielman went down during my rookie season and I had to jump right into the fire and play.”
Despite his early success, Rainer recognizes the difficulty many players have making the leap from college to pros.
“The hardest thing for rookies is that you’re not at the top anymore,” Rainer says. “The game is a lot faster and tougher. It is a full-time job. You have to do a lot more game preparation and you play a lot of games.
“My main thing is I didn’t let the NFL distract me. I just did what I had to do. I play with passion and I always strive to get better every day because once you stop, there is someone there to take over for you.”
Rainer’s work ethic has worked wonders in terms of establishing him as one of the most consistent players on the Browns’ defense. In addition to leading the team in tackles for each of his first two seasons, Rainer has started all but one of the 32 games in his professional career. The lone missed start was due to the fact that Cleveland started the game in a dime package, which left Rainer on the sidelines only momentarily.
Rainer’s resilience and hard work have quickly caught the attention of fans and front office personnel. In fact, Rainer, who plays with a number of Virginia graduates in Cleveland, notes that UVa graduates have earned a reputation in NFL circles for constantly pushing themselves to improve.
“It feels good when the guys upstairs say that Virginia guys play well and are always pushing to get better,” Rainer says of the reaction he gets from front office executives. “They look at us as smart players.”
Among the UVa players currently on the Browns’ roster is former Virginia All-America safety Anthony Poindexter. His offseason addition was a welcome sight for Rainer. The two spent countless hours together on the practice field in Charlottesville and cultivated a close relationship off the gridiron as well. Rainer gushed when asked to talk about his reunion with Poindexter in Cleveland.
“I love it,” Rainer says. “He’s such a great player and a great friend of mine.”Poindexter was a member of a group of Cavaliers who Rainer says made his time at Virginia that much more memorable. Rainer fondly recalls his days with the Cavaliers, making specific reference to the time he spent with Poindexter and others.
“My senior season when my brother (Jami’h), Poindexter, (Aaron) Brooks, (Terrence) Wilkens and all those guys (was the most memorable),” Rainer says. “We set a goal to get our degrees and we got them. We had a real memorable season and were ranked as high as sixth at one point. We bonded and became almost like brothers and we reached all the goals we set for ourselves. I talk to my friends from Virginia all the time.”
Wali Rainer has made a name for himself through a combination of spectacular play on the football field and exemplary community performance off of it. He has earned the respect of fans, coaches and teammates alike by leading the Cleveland Browns defense from his middle linebacker spot. Perhaps more importantly, he has never taken his success for granted. Despite two years as a starter in the NFL, Rainer remains close to the friends he had at Virginia and is committed to staying involved in his community. His success serves as a model for future UVa professional athletes.