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No Szczerbiak, but Cleveland gets its Wali world after all

A year ago, Miami of Ohio basketball standout Wally Szczerbiack turned Ohio into Wally's World. Now he has departed for Minnesota and the NBA. But don't fret, Ohio, you may still be living in Wali's world. Wali Rainer's world, that is.

Cleveland Browns linebacker Chris Speilman's recent retirement has thrust Rainer, Virginia's starting middle linebacker last season, into a much larger role than expected. In fact, Rainer may earn the starting spot in the middle of the Brown defense. And it couldn't have happened to a more deserving player.

Rainer, though not particularly fast and slightly undersized for an NFL linebacker, has an incredible nose for the football, always finding his way to the pigskin. Rainer is a ballhawk and he almost always gets his prey. But when Rainer entered the NFL draft last year, many critics felt that the West Charlotte, N.C., native's biggest weakness was his lateral movement - that his lack of speed would prevent him from making the tackle on the corners.

Well, Rainer continues to prove them wrong - just like he did when he wore orange and blue for the Cavaliers.

During my first three years, I had the distinct privilege of watching Rainer blossom from a formidable reserve to one of the ACC's most intimidating linebackers.

He rarely missed a tackle and often delivered bone-crunching hits in the middle. And in spite of his decided "lack of speed," I heard Wali Rainer's name over the loud speakers at Scott Stadium more times than I can count: The distinctive voice of PA announcer Chuck Young echoing throughout: "Number 44, Wal-i Rainer in on the tackle."

Young and other announcers included Rainer's name in conjunction with 347 tackles during his career; 201 times Rainer was the solo tackler. Last season he was the Cavaliers' top tackler, recording 134 with 82 solo stops in the regular season. Eleven of those tackles were for a loss, including five sacks. He also picked off three passes, returning one for a touchdown against Wake Forest.

Perhaps even more impressive than the overall statistics are the single game breakdowns. Rainer always played big in the big games. In the Peach Bowl last season, he recorded a team-high 11 tackles. It was the fourth straight game in which Rainer led the squad.

Against ACC juggernaut Florida State, Rainer registered 20 tackles. Toward the end of that contest, with Virginia well behind on the scoreboard, Wali slowly limped along the sidelines in Tallahassee. His face was tired and dejected - a warrior's eyes walking away from a battle that he wasn't ready to end. From the front rows of the Seminole fans a distinct voice called out. But a heckler he was not. Instead he simply yelled, "Hey 44, you played one hell of a game today." And such is the way of life in Wali's world.

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