Rakeem Cato focused
By GRANT TRAYLOR
HUNTINGTON — As an 18-year-old, 145-pound quarterback from Miami, Fla., everything was bigger than Thundering Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato when he stepped on the Marshall University campus.
Now, the 22-year-old, 6-foot, 192-pound senior has not only bulked up nearly 40 pounds, but his stature in the national football ranks has grown as well.
Heading into the 2014 season, Cato is being touted as one of several players in the running for the Heisman Trophy, given to college football’s most outstanding player. He has also been mentioned for the Maxwell, Walter Camp and Davey O’Brien awards.
With such preseason individual accolades it would be easy for Cato to look at his own well-being rather than that of the team.
But he quickly said the sign of a truly great quarterback is someone who looks to make his team, not himself, as great as possible.
“It’s much bigger than me,” Cato said. “That’s the whole motto and I think our players and coaches understand that. I haven’t seen one guy single himself out or one guy think he’s ahead of everyone. Our whole team has been level-headed.”
Cato is now the unequivocal leader of the Herd and Marshall head coach Doc Holliday has full trust in his signal-caller as he goes into his final season.
“We have a lot of players back, of course led by (Cato),” Holliday said. “Anywhere I’ve ever been where you had the opportunity to have a good football team or a great football team, it started at that position. We’ve got that guy and I’ve said many times, he’s the most competitive quarterback I’ve ever coached. I’m glad he’s on our side.”
Holliday’s trust was one of many things Cato had to earn the hard way.
After earning the starting quarterback job during his freshman season, Cato was benched midway through the year for, in part, caring more about his own personal thoughts on how things needed to be done rather than what the coaching staff envisioned for the good of the team.
That benching turned out to be the best possible thing for Cato.
He came back onto the scene later in that freshman year and led Marshall to three consecutive wins to end the 2011 season, including a win over FIU — his hometown team — in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl that began an up-tick for Marshall’s football program.
Given Cato’s childhood, it is almost understandable that there was a selfish side to him entering college.
Cato’s father was in prison for much of his childhood and his mother, Juannese, unexpectedly passed away from pneumonia when he was 13 years old.
That situation was difficult enough, but the streets of Liberty City — arguably Miami’s most dangerous neighborhood — offered no condolences. Liberty City is a dog-eat-dog neighborhood where residents have to scrap, fight and grind for everything.
Nothing is free, as Cato readily found out as a young child.
Instead of being consumed by the impoverished and crime-ridden lifestyles, Cato used sports as a coping mechanism for his mother’s death and as a ticket out.
“Growing up where I’m from is very hard,” Cato said. “I surrounded myself with sports and school. I knew I had to go to school to play sports, which I loved. I played football, basketball and baseball throughout my whole childhood career and that’s one of the things that I attached to so I could get out of the struggle of where I’m from.
“I wanted to come to Marshall, start fresh, become a better man on the field and off the field, become a better guy and a level-headed person.”
Following that freshman benching, Cato realized what he had to do to become a better football player and teammate.
Quarterback is a natural leadership position and Cato got to know each of his teammates instead of being alienated like what was the case, at times, during his freshman year.
More importantly, however, his teammates got to know the real Cato too.
They got to know the struggle he went through to make it to college football. That, and his uncanny competitive work ethic, became his testimony for players looking to him for leadership.
Whether in his personal life, in the streets of Liberty City or on the field at Marshall, Cato’s perseverance instantly gave him credibility with teammates.
Now, Cato is reaping a bit of the rewards for his growth over the last decade as a man and a football player.
He’s doing national interviews, he’s seeing his name put up on boards in the Heisman mention and he’s spending more time in the spotlight.
But, he’s not forgotten the humble beginnings of his life or his college football career.
“Bigger than me,” Cato said of the preseason hype. “If me being mentioned puts Marshall University back on the map, I’m great with it. I’ll take it in and enjoy it, but I’m going to be respectful of my teammates and my coaching staff with everything that’s going on because they put me in this position.”
Fittingly, Cato is spending his last free week before the Herd convenes for preseason camp back in the place where his climb started — Liberty City.
While he enjoys the time with family and getting to see friends before his final college season, the trip back home is also a reminder of everything he went through to get where he is.
He’ll look around.
He’ll soak it all in.
And, he’ll get back to work.
“There’s no relaxing for me,” Cato said. “Every time I get the chance to go home, I work out every day. I know I have to grab (Marshall wide receiver Tommy) Shuler and a couple of friends and work with those guys to be a better quarterback than when I woke up. I work on my craft at all times, so I don’t relax.
“We are right around the corner from Aug. 30 (season opener) and my job is to make sure all the guys around me are well-prepared and ready for that day. We can’t slip up against anyone. If we work hard and get better every day, good things will come this way.”
Cato’s grind has paid off as he’s built himself from a scrawny, 145-pound player who threw the football into a 190-pound quarterback in every sense of the word, meaning tangibles and intangibles alike.
He’s gone from not being able to bench press the bar when he came to college to carrying the weight of the Marshall program on his shoulders.
That’s a weight he embraces because he realizes and accepts that everything is bigger than him.
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