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Rainey comments lead to investigation

Lakeland, Fla., loves its Lakeland High School Dreadnaughts.

The vaunted team, situated halfway between Tampa and Orlando in central Florida, seeks a third consecutive state title Friday when it takes on St. Thomas Aquinas in the Class 5A championship game.

That's if the team is allowed to play. Lakeland might love its Dreadnaughts a little too much.

Tuesday, star running back Chris Rainey told the Miami Herald he has received gifts from local school supporters, including a bag of jerseys in exchange for an autograph and a wad of money handed to him at a restaurant.

"I didn't even count it," Rainey, ranked the No. 32 in the ESPN 150, told the Herald. "When I walk around, people are buying me food, giving me money. I'm like, damn, I'm glad I'm Chris Rainey. It's real nice to be me.

His comments have prompted an investigation by the Florida High School Athletic Association. Accepting gifts of any kind from a fan would forfeit Rainey's amateur status, according to FHSAA bylaws. Depending on what the FHSAA investigation concludes, Lakeland could be force to forfeit games and Rainey, a senior verbally committed to Florida, could be suspended.

His comments also prompted Rainey to seek help from prominent Lakeland lawyer Robert E. Puterbaugh, who released this statement Wednesday:

"I want to make it clear to everyone that the statements made by Chris were not meant by him to be taken seriously and were made by him in a joking manner and not as fact. Anyone listening to or reading his comments should be able to hear or see the hyperbole in those comments. Chris unequivocally denies having accepted any remuneration, gift or donation for participation in any sports activity."

Though Rainey's comments sounded a lot more off the cuff than exaggerated, he has put one of the top high school football programs -- and its huge booster club -- under the microscope.

Lakeland has no doubt seen revenue for its program explode recently, traveling on a private jet to compete in the Kirk Herbstreit Classic in Ohio earlier this season and playing another game on national television on Fox Sports Net. According to the Tampa Tribune, the team averages 7,000 fans at each home game, and fees to join the Lakeland booster range from $100 to $1,350.

The FHSAA investigation may not be completed before Friday's title game, but a decision on whether Rainey can play Friday is expected to be made late Thursday by Lakeland High School principal Mark Thomas.

As for Rainey's future at Florida, NCAA rules state that high school athletes who receive gifts worth less than $100 can keep their eligibility if they return them or donate them to charity.

The investigation continues a busy year for the FHSAA, which earlier this year put Nease High School (St. Augustine), another powerhouse program, on probation for recruiting violations.

Henry Gola is the recruiting editor for ESPN.com