MARYVILLE, Mo. – For the first time in his collegiate playing career, Darby Raines learned what it felt like to be on the losing end of a football game.
In fact, for two weeks straight, the Northwest Missouri State senior wide receiver saw another team celebrate at the end of the game against the Bearcats.
It was a view he never got to witness last year as the Bearcats rolled to a 15-0 record and a second straight national title in his first year on the roster.
Since that national championship game last December, the Fort Osage High School product has been on a roller coaster of emotions from to staggering heights to the lowest of lows. The chance to return to the gridiron amidst personal tragedy has provided an escape for Raines.
On April 23, Raines and his girlfriend, Morgan, welcomed a daughter into the world a little bit earlier than expected. Eight days later, they had to say goodbye as she died.
Each time he takes the field he thinks of Quinn Kay, the little girl he only got to hold for a few days before tragedy struck on May 1.
That day he took to Twitter to post about the loss.
“God gained another perfect little angel this morning,” he tweeted from @D_Raines83. “Quinn Kay you are the best thing that's ever happened to me, and I'm extremely blessed to call you my daughter. There are no words to describe the amount of love I have for you!”
UNEXPECTED BLESSINGS: Raines wasn't recruited much out of high school despite helping the Indians reach a Class 5 championship game against Kirkwood. He decided that playing college football wasn't in the cards, so he chose to become a student at Northwest Missouri State in Maryville.
It was close to home and the education department was well-respected around the teaching community. After a year, Raines shifted his major to recreation management.
During the first semester of classes last fall, Raines was playing in a pickup basketball game and one of the foes was former Northwest head football coach Adam Dorrel.
“He said he wanted me to come play football for us and I laughed it off,” Raines recalled.
Wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Joel Osborn – a former Northwest quarterback – was there and later confirmed it wasn't a joke. Now at 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, Raines had grown in height and added weight since playing for Fort Osage in the fall of 2012.
“He was serious about giving me a shot, and obviously at that point I haven't played football in three years. But playing for the best team in Division II, I might as well give it a shot,” Raines said. “I have been on the team for two years. I don't get the most playing time, but I make the most of what I have got. It is more than the playing time, it is the atmosphere and environment.”
Before Osborn got in contact with Raines, he made a call to Ryan Schartz, Raines' high school football coach and now the activities director at Fort Osage. He wanted to know what kind of person they were getting and if he would fit in, and Schartz gave Raines a glowing review.
“He told me I'd be a fool if I turned it down, and he knew I had what it takes to play at the next level,” said Raines, who also talked with Schartz in that time frame.
It didn't take long for Raines to tell Osborn “yes.” A physical followed and within a week, Raines was among the defensive backs for the Bearcats as the 2015 season got underway with a rout of top-10 ranked Emporia State.
Raines, who had five interceptions and two fumble recoveries for the Indians, didn't stick at defensive back for long. Injuries at the wide receiver position opened up a spot for him there as well.
He practiced at both positions. At some point, he was a wide receiver trying to beat his fellow secondary mates. Later, he lined up at defensive back and tried to stop the wide receiver on routes he just ran.
“It was a little hectic jumping back and forth and being three years out of football,” he said. “I still had a lot to pick up.”
He was an alternate for the playoff run for Northwest and watched from the sidelines in street clothes but was there in the sub-freezing temperatures with a win against Ferris State in the semifinals and then on the sidelines at Children’s Mercy Park as Northwest beat North Alabama in blizzard-like conditions, 29-3, to repeat as national champs.
“Oh my, it was so many emotions,” he said. “We went to state my senior high school and lost and that was the last time we played. That stuck with me going out with a loss, and winning the national championship at Northwest was unbelievable and something I will always remember forever. Playing in KC and I'm from KC, playing that game at home was pretty amazing.”
During that playoff run, Raines learned he was going to become a father. He learned the news from his girlfriend of three years the week of the Ferris State game.
He kept the news to himself but disclosed it to the coaching staff shortly after winning the national championship game.
That was one of his first discussions with Rich Wright, who was named the Bearcats head coach the night of the national championship game as Dorrel left to become a coach at Abilene Christian.
“I told Coach Wright I wasn't going to be able to play, and I was going to go home to be with her and help her,” Raines said. “Coach Wright, he is a very outstanding guy, and he told me he was proud of the decision I was making to take care of my family. Coach Wright is a great guy outside of football and he is almost a dad-figure to me, and a lot of other players can say that. He cares about his players.”
JOY AND TEARS: The pregnancy was rolling along without any issues for the first 20 weeks, but then problems forced Morgan onto bedrest. Doctors said she could have the baby tomorrow or in three months like expected.
On April 23, Quinn Kay made her arrival into the world at Overland Park Regional Hospital.
Morgan, a Liberty native and 2016 Northwest graduate, was only 23 weeks along when she had the couple's child.
Born so early, Quinn was already fighting an uphill battle. Doctors warned the two that the odds were stacked against their daughter. Then, when Quinn was diagnosed with E coli, her tiny body couldn't fight off the disease.
“They came to us and said there wasn't much they could do for my daughter and anything else they would do would hurt her,” Raines said. “She had to fight for eight days.”
Morgan was at the hospital 24 hours a day for those eight days, while Raines was there when he could be in between taking finals in Maryville and shuttling back and forth between Interstate 29 and Highway 71.
“Some days were good and in a blink of an eye she wasn't doing well. … It was one of those things you never know,” he said. “You don't take things for granted because you don't know when your last day is or when your whole world will be taken from you. May 1 was the lowest of our lows and shortly after that we had to face every parent’s worse nightmare and bury our daughter. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. It is one of the worst feelings.”
HEALING WOUNDS: Shortly after the tragedy, Raines reached out to Wright, who had just wrapped up his first spring ball session as the head coach.
“We cried and he let me know everything will be OK,” Raines said. “He let me know if I needed anything, the team would be there for me.”
Raines sat down and talked with Morgan and her parents about possibly playing again. He didn't want to live with the regret of walking away from something he loved.
After talking with Wright, Raines was back on the team, but at the bottom of the depth chart at wide receiver.
He didn't care about his spot.
“It wasn't about playing, it was about being back on the team and with the guys,” he said.
He was surrounded by a second family and football allowed him to take his mind off the low points he suffered through since the national championship game.
Said Wright: “For Darby, with some of the challenges he had in the last year, to have a family to lean on and a support group is important to him. Football provides a bit of an escape, a time to have fun.”
“I can get away and clear my mind, but after practice it is back to reality,” Raines said. “I will never get my daughter back, but I know she is up there watching over me and she is proud of everything me and her mom are doing. That is the reason I'm doing it and the reason I continue to play football. She would've wanted me to pursue my dreams. It's been tough. We talk about her all the time and talk about how she would be watching me on Saturdays with my girlfriend. We carved a pumpkin with a Q on it and we continue to do things if she was still here and still try to go and have fun.”
The week of Halloween, a couple of the coaches checked in with Raines to see how he was doing as many of them had children trick-or-treating on what would've been Quinn's first Halloween.
“We kind of kept it to ourselves at first,” Raines said of the loss of his daughter. “We have taken it as a life lesson and we want to be there for other people and help other people that are struggling. You never know what will happen in an hour or a year from now. People ask about it and we tell them about her. People understand where we are coming from. We can take it and help other people get through a tough time and talk about what we went through.”
WHAT'S NEXT: Raines has one catch for 14 yards in three games played this season. A total of 19 different players have at least one catch in an offense that has multiple weapons.
“I'm proud of him,” Wright said. “I'm proud of anybody that isn't getting to play a lot that sees value in what we do and still have the determination to go out and practice and play football at the college level, at Northwest, isn't easy. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Raines has only one final guaranteed game in his college career and that is Saturday at Ashland (Ohio) University. The Bearcats, after defeating rival Missouri Western 30-0 last week in the regular season finale in St. Joseph, made the NCAA Division II championship playoffs again. Instead of being the favorite for their third straight national championship, though, the Bearcats are the No. 6 seed, facing the No. 3 seed on the road.
Raines, who expects to graduate in May, is already planning for what is next in his life regardless of how the playoffs pan out.
He will move back to Kansas City soon to be with Morgan, who is a flight attendant for American Airlines. His next step is to apply for a spot in the Kansas City Police Academy in hopes of following in his mother's footsteps. She and his stepfather both work for the Kansas City Police Department.
“It is bittersweet being up here and playing football,” Raines said. “I got a lot of friends up here, but I'm at a stage where I had a daughter and my girlfriend I have been with for three years I want to get home to be with as much as I can. We are still in the grieving process and it is hard for her being home by herself. It isn't ideal. It is something we need, honestly.”