It's deja vu for long time Marshall football fans. There is a Heisman dark horse at quarterback, entering his senior campaign, and he's poised to shatter school records as he leads The Herd to an undefeated season.
But this isn't 1999, and the quarterback isn't James Chadwick Pennington. We're talking about the force of nature known as Rakeem Cato.
His Early Years
Coming out of Miami Central High School, Cato had a reputation for two things; winning games, and losing his cool. He was a small prospect, only about 150 pounds, and many were convinced he had never seen the inside of a weight room. Never the less, he led a star studded Miami Central team to a state championship. Whether it was his commitment to the game, or just freakish athleticism, the only thing certain was that Cato played angry.
With his father in prison, Cato was raised primarily by his mother, Juannese, who worked hard so that her children wouldn't go without. At the age of 13, Cato lost his mother to pneumonia. From that moment on, he was raised by his older sister, and Miami's Liberty City community.
Though other family members and coaches would look after Cato, it would be his high school friend and Miami Central team mate, Tommy Shuler, who would make the biggest impact.
Joining The Herd
Too small. Out of control. Hot headed. These were the reasons the big boys passed on Cato. One of the most prolific quarterbacks in one of the most fertile recruiting areas in the country wasn't good enough to make their rosters. Originally committed to staying in Florida and attending FIU, it was Shuler who would convince Cato that his destiny was at Marshall. But once on campus, his infamous temper would get the better of him.
Doc Holliday had taken a shot on Cato when he offered him a scholarship, but took an even bigger risk when he named the true freshman his starting quarterback. Only seven games in, Cato's temper would get the better of him. It was in the middle of a monsoon, when the shortness with his team mates, and a sideline outburst would force Holliday to bench the freshman four games.
Despite his talent, the point was made that Cato would have to be part of the team if he wanted to continue being part of The Herd.
The Heisman Candidate
In his last two seasons, Cato has over 8,000 passing yards. He has the NCAA's longest active streak of games with a touchdown, at 32. Russell Wilson currently holds the record with 38. School records for touchdowns, yardage, attempts and completions, previously set by first rounders Pennington and Byron Leftwich, are all within Cato's reach.
Doc Holliday refers to Cato as the "most competitive kid I've ever coached." In his off time, he studies tape of Tom Brady and Cam Newton to better his game. He calls former college studs and NFL draft picks Devonta Freeman and T.Y. Hilton friends, frequently spending his off time with their families.
But most telling of all, his favorite receiver and the team leader in receptions is Tommy Shuler. Some things have changed, but Rakeem Cato has mostly stayed the same. He's always been a winner. He's scrapped and fought, and he's put his heart and soul into his team.
This is usually where I'm supposed to claim that he's only successful because his team mates are the only family he's ever known, then inspirational music commissioned by Disney starts playing. The sun then begins to set, and Denzel gives a half smile and nods. But that's all bull.
Rakeem Cato plays so hard, because that's how he was raised. His mother worked hard, and when she passed away, his sister worked hard. And when it all comes down to it, we should all appreciate Cato for the miracle he is. He may not go undefeated, and he probably won't win the Heisman. He'll be picked apart before the NFL draft, and passed over in favor of more ‘"prototypical" quarterbacks. But that shouldn't take away from what Cato has accomplished.
Few people make it long with the hand he's been dealt. Even fewer flourish, and even fewer still can make a legitimate claim as one of the greatest of all time. Cato can.