The curiosity about Bobby Rainey in Baltimore built steadily throughout August. First Ravens head coach John Harbaugh singled him out for praise early in training camp. Then Rainey scored a highlight-reel touchdown in his first preseason game. Soon, diehard Ravens fans were asking reporters, "Who is Bobby Rainey?"
But down in Bowling Green, Ky., the home of Western Kentucky University, the Ravens' diminutive rookie running back was the big man on campus. Rainey rushed for more than 1,600 yards in each of junior and senior years -- making him the eighth FBS back since 2000 to post consecutive 1,500-yard seasons -- and scored 32 total touchdowns in his final two years. In 2010, he was the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year.
"Bobby was the offense at Western Kentucky," Jeff Woods, the sports director for WBKO-TV in Bowling Green, told me on Thursday. "The guy was a workhorse. The WKU offense centered around him and he flourished. He left as the school's all-time leading rusher and single-season rushing leader. As I'm sure you know, Rainey also has great hands and can catch out of the backfield and he even threw a touchdown pass his senior year. I knew he was a longshot entering Ravens training camp, but I still can't say I'm that surprised he made the team. He's not the fastest guy and he's undersized, but Rainey just outworks the other guys."
Woods sought me out two weeks ago to chat about Rainey. Down in Bowling Green, Western Kentucky fans were buzzing about Rainey, the first player in a while to make an NFL roster (notable Hilltoppers alums include fullback Jeremi Johnson and running back Rod "He Hate Me" Smart). He wanted to know if Rainey had become a cult hero here, too, and chatted with me for 10 minutes about Rainey's chances of making the Ravens.
"Rainey has generated quite a bit of buzz," Woods explained. "He was and still is a fan favorite and fans are anxious to see what he can do in the NFL. A lot of the support for Bobby comes in the form of Twitter, fans just letting him know they're cheering for him. And I know a few who have also drafted Rainey in their fantasy football leagues. It wouldn't shock me if I see a couple of Ravens jerseys with No. 34 on the back in the not-so-distant future."
Asked about all the love Friday morning, Rainey sheepishly smiled.
"It's a great feeling, period. We haven't had that from football in a while, and for them to see me in the NFL, getting here and making the team, it gives them something to talk about. It feels great to know that I have their support, though," said Rainey, who is generously listed at 5-foot-8 and is a shade shorter than Ray Rice. "It's humbling. It's still surreal to me, this whole process, being here in the locker room with these guys that I used to watch on TV."
And being in the "Madden NFL" video game is new for Rainey, too.
"My rating is low. I'm mad at that. But my speed is up there."
Rainey, who rushed for 55 yards on 23 preseason carries and had 14 catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns, was one of three undrafted rookie free agents to crack the Ravens' 53-man roster. He is third on the depth chart behind Rice and 2012 third-round draft pick Bernard Pierce, but the Ravens may try to find creative ways to utilize Rainey's soft hands and shiftiness out of the backfield. He could also see snaps as a returner.
He is excited to make his debut against the Cincinnati Bengals, though he isn't sure how much he will play. He isn't looking back at the preseason anymore knowing he can't rest on those laurels.
"It feels great [to make the team]. It's a blessing," Rainey said while defensive tackle Terrence Cody heckled him. "I haven't really done anything yet, so I still have got a lot to work to do. I'm looking for a chance on 'Monday Night Football' to get out there and play."
But whatever his role is Monday night, count on a ton of television sets in Western Kentucky being tuned in for for Rainey's debut.
"I think fans have latched onto Bobby because he is a very likeable young man and you cannot help but root for the guy," Woods said in an email. "Plus, fans enjoy pulling for the underdog. And not only is Rainey an underdog, but so is [Western Kentucky] in a way. The program is still searching for an identity in the FBS and Bobby is a great representative for the Hilltoppers. So I think Rainey's likeability and the exposure for WKU kind of go hand in hand."