Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato awaken from Liberty City nightmare


NORFOLK, Va. — Saturday’s game at Old Dominion marks the half-way point in the final season for Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato. With a potential professional career looming, Cato could not have a successful future without overcoming the challenges in his trying past.

A cold with a slight fever started it. At first, Juannese Cato thought it was no big deal.

But things quickly deteriorated.

Though just 39, Cato was worn down from taking care of her seven children and the three neighborhood kids who bunked in her five-bedroom house. She worked two jobs — at a hospital and at PetSmart.

Mark Zerof | USA TODAY Sports Images
Cato started every Marshall game since his arrival.

She checked herself into the hospital and was diagnosed with pneumonia. Within days, she died.

There were no true adults left in the family to care for her shattered, grief-stricken kids. Their father was serving 20 years for armed robbery.

Shanrikia Cato, then 18, was awarded custody of her five younger siblings. She sobbed as she held her mother’s hand while she slipped away, and promised to take care of her brothers and sisters.

Among them was 13-year-old Rakeem, who seemed destined for the kind of tragic life all too common in the Liberty City area of Miami.

Liberty City is a densely populated, poverty-stricken community just northwest of downtown. It has a violent crime rate much higher than the national average. The Miami Herald reported that 15 young people, including an 11-year-old, were shot in a club Sunday night.

Rakeem Cato recalls a shootout occurring 20 feet from his front porch when he was 9.

For five years, he moved from house to house, staying with friends and with his grandfather, then returning to his siblings.

Somehow, Cato rose above it all, led Miami Central High School to a state football championship and is now one of the country’s most celebrated college quarterbacks. A senior, he will lead Marshall into Old Dominion’s Foreman Field on Saturday.

He has completed 955 career passes for 11,339 yards and 101 touchdowns, and was Conference USA’s Preseason Player of the Year.

He likely will pass former Marshall greats Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich to become the school’s career passing leader. Marshall is pushing Cato for the Heisman Trophy.

2011 182 304 2,059 15
2012 406 584 4,201 37
2013 298 499 3,916 39
2014 69 121 1,163 10
TOTAL 955 1,508 11,339 101

But probably more remarkable is the story of his rise from life in Liberty City, a story chronicled by ESPN, Fox Sports and USA Today.

“For every kid like Rakeem Cato, there are 50 or more, unfortunately, who don’t make it,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “He’s a shining example for those who have no hope.”

Before his mother died, Cato already was a Pop Warner superstar. Although slight of build and short for his age, he had a rocket arm.

He befriended some of the great football players to emerge from Liberty City, including Devonta Freeman, the former Florida State star who plays for the Atlanta Falcons; Tommy Shuler, his best friend and Marshall teammate; and Syracuse safety Durell Eskridge.

At one time or another, they all gave Cato a place to stay. They fed him, bought him Christmas presents and helped celebrate his birthdays.

“They were so good to me,” Cato said. “Their parents treated me like I was their child. They didn’t have to do that.”

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He’s a shining example for those who have no hope

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Shuler and Cato met in the first grade and have been close ever since. They played Pop Warner together and both starred at Central High, where Cato threw for 9,412 yards and 103 touchdowns.

That may sound storybook-like, but trouble was brewing: Cato was an angry young man.

“I was always thinking, ‘Why don’t I have my Mom? Why isn’t my father here with me?’ ” Cato said. “I thought about it all the time. I thought about it too much.”

And the anger festered.

He had a temper tantrum as a senior in Texas. After Central took a huge lead, coaches made wholesale substitutions. Cato screamed, wanting to know why he couldn’t play the entire game.

Central’s coaches nearly kicked him off the team.

Mark Zerof | USA TODAY Sports Images
Cato spent most nights with friends and teammates.

Cato was rated a 3-star recruit by Rivals, but at 6-foot, 150 pounds, power conference schools passed. Rivals reports that Marshall and Florida International were the only FBS schools to offer him. He originally committed to FIU, but was persuaded by Shuler to follow him to Marshall.

Let’s get out of Miami and see what life is like outside Florida, Shuler told him.

Most quarterbacks redshirt as freshmen, but Holliday didn’t have the luxury. Cato was his best quarterback.

Marshall was 6-6 during the regular season in Cato’s freshman year. He led the Herd to an overtime victory against East Carolina in the regular-season finale and a 20-10 victory against FIU in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl.

But Cato’s anger again boiled over, and again nearly cost him his career.

In his first college game in Florida before friends and family, Cato was awful. Playing in a driving rain, he completed 11 of 29 passes for 87 yards and no TDs in a 16-6 loss at Central Florida. He was caught by TV cameras shouting and slamming a phone down while talking to the offensive coordinator.

Holliday benched Cato.

“I had to do it,” Holliday said. “He wasn’t going to learn any other way.

“For 18 years, no one told him when to get up or go to bed. He never had anything to eat before he went to school. He fended for himself. To come in as an 18-year-old kid and play quarterback for us, he wasn’t ready. But we had to play him and had to live with some tough times. He’s grown from it.”

Holliday, who has recruited the Miami area for 30 years, told Cato he understood his anger.

“I’d be angry too in his situation,” he said. “He was mad at the world and probably should be.”

But you can’t let the anger boil over, Holliday told him. And you need to figure out how to become this team’s leader.

♦ ♦ ♦

He was mad at the world and probably should be

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He sat out three games, and after returning, has been Marshall’s starter — and leader — ever since.

“He’s learned to control his emotions,” Holliday said. “His competitive nature, that’s still the same, and we didn’t want that to change. He always wants to win.”

Marshall was 5-7 in his sophomore season, but he led the nation in passing yards per game and was the C-USA’s MVP.

Last season, he was C-USA Offensive Player of the Year after leading the Thundering Herd to 10 victories, including a 31-20 triumph against Maryland in the Military Bowl.

Right now, Marshall is 4-0 and close to landing in the national rankings.

ODU coach Bobby Wilder said Cato’s difficult upbringing has made him a tougher football player.

“When Marshall is a touchdown behind late in the game, that’s not even close to the type of pressure he faced growing up,” Wilder said. “That’s probably one of the reasons why he’s so relaxed in competitive situations that some kids just can’t handle. When it’s winning time in the fourth quarter, he can handle it.”

Cato will graduate in May and said he’s fulfilled the dream that he’s had since his mother died: to become a successful football player and student.

“I know that somehow, someway, she knows what I’ve done,” he said in a recent interview with Fox Sports.

“I never gave up on myself. I thank God for that. It’s a blessing to be here just to tell this story.”

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