RAKEEM CATO STANDS among his teammates dressed in a white number 12 Marshall jersey. There's a gray beanie on his head and a tight beard covering his face. The team makes up a small part of the hundreds of students, fans and residents of Huntington, W.Va., who fill the courtyard outside the school's student center on a sunny April day. They have gathered, as they do each year, to turn on Memorial Fountain, a tribute to the 75 Thundering Herd players, coaches and boosters who lost their lives in the crash of Southern Airways Flight 932 on Nov. 14, 1970.
"Once you are here, you have a new and permanent home," says Sam Botek Jr., a tight end on the first Marshall team pulled together after the crash, which was dramatized in the 2006 movie We Are Marshall. "You truly become a son and daughter of Marshall." A few minutes later the fountain is switched on. As the water flows and the crowd breaks up, people begin to flock to Cato. Kids swarm him, asking for pictures, handshakes and autographs. He smiles at all of them.
By the time the senior quarterback leaves campus, he'll likely have more passing yards than anyone in school history and possibly a Heisman Trophy. In his first three seasons Cato threw for 10,176 yards, within striking distance of school record-holder Chad Pennington (13,143). Last year alone Cato threw for 3,916 yards and tied Pennington's mark for touchdown passes in a season (39). With a pedestrian schedule and a veteran team of 15 returning starters, Cato could easily surpass his 2013 numbers while leading his team to a 12--0 record and a place in the C-USA title game—the kind of season that gets the attention of Heisman voters.
For all the noteworthy things he has accomplished, however, the most remarkable thing might be that Cato, who was raised in Miami's downtrodden Liberty City neighborhood, ended up at Marshall in the first place. "He's about the most special kid I've ever been around," says coach Doc Holliday. "I've been around some good ones. I don't know if I've ever been around a quarterback who's gone through the adversity and has come as far as he has to be where he is."
GROWING UP [where I did] you could barely sleep at night," says Cato. "You heard gunshots every night. People getting killed and murdered every night." Cato's father, Keith Jones, was jailed for second-degree murder and armed robbery in 1986 and has spent most of Rakeem's life in prison.
Two things allowed Rakeem to endure. The first was his mother, Juannese Cato, who worked two jobs to provide for her seven kids. "If anybody was in need or they got in trouble in school," says Rakeem's sister Shanrikia, "she took over. She spoiled every last one of us. I don't know how she did it."
The other was football. When he was six, Cato started spending his days in nearby Gwen Cherry Park, which was turned into an oasis for neighborhood kids in 1996 with the help of a $1 million donation from the NFL's Youth Education Town program. There Cato met Tommy Shuler, who quickly became his best friend. They spent most days together at the park, and at the age of six, they joined the Gwen Cherry Bulls Pop Warner football team. The game gave Cato purpose and an outlet for his anger and energy.
"There are so many bad influences, and when you come up in the heart of the s---, you know a lot of those people," says Luther Campbell, the former front man of 2LiveCrew who used some of his rap earnings to cofound the Liberty City Optimist Club, a youth sports program for kids between the ages of four and 16. "[Cato] never really hung out with those people. But he had to walk past that to get to the bus. It's so easy to not get on the bus one day and stand on that corner."
Campbell, 53, first met Cato when the Bulls played the Optimist Club. Cato was about 12 and already making a name for himself as a football player. "Everybody in town knew about Cato," Campbell says.
With his mother providing a stable home and Gwen Cherry offering a safe haven, Rakeem was on the well-worn path from Miami's inner city to Division I stardom.
Until one night shortly after Rakeem's 13th birthday, in April 2005, when Juannese became ill. Rakeem's two oldest siblings, Antwain and Shanrikia, took her to the hospital in an ambulance after the younger siblings were put to bed. Rakeem went to school in the morning, and while he was there, Juannese succumbed to pneumonia. She was 39. "We never knew she was sick until she died," Shanrikia says. "I'm kind of happy we never knew."
Shanrikia, 18, and with a child of her own, was granted custody of all her siblings except Antwain, who was 23 and living on his own. Their grandfather Eddie Green, a lumberyard worker, helped provide for them. He bought school supplies and backpacks, and if the kids had trouble paying the bills, Green would pitch in.
But nothing was the same. Even with all his brothers and sisters at home, Rakeem felt lonely and haunted. Juannese's absence was inescapable. "He didn't want to stay in the house with his mother not there," Green says. "He missed her that much."
Within months the family moved to public housing in the Overtown neighborhood, which was as dangerous as Liberty City. Rakeem became convinced that he could rely on no one but himself and grew nearly obsessed with the idea of "being a man." He walled off his emotions and began staying with relatives and friends around Miami, including Antwain, his grandparents, Campbell, Shuler and T.Y. Hilton, another Pop Warner teammate who's now a wide receiver for the Colts. "This is a kid who [for a long time] no one hugged and told him they loved him," says Campbell, who became a mentor. "People don't know that about him; he just wants a hug."
"No one can understand what he was going through when he lost his mom," Hilton says. "We just kind of took him in, raised him from there. At that point, some people would've given up their dreams."
Rakeem clutched his dream even tighter. Football was all he had left.
TWO YEARS AFTER his mom died, Rakeem arrived at Miami Springs High, where Hilton was already enrolled and which counts NFL stars Willis McGahee and Lomas Brown among its former players. Although only a freshman, Rakeem established himself as the starting varsity quarterback by the time classes started. Over the next three years he threw for 6,424 yards and 72 touchdowns, with 17 interceptions. But the team struggled, going 19--9 without a playoff appearance.
The losses wore on Cato, so after his junior season he transferred to Miami Central High, where Campbell was an assistant. Coach Telly Lockette, now the running backs coach at USF, was building a powerhouse behind players like Charles Gaines Jr. (Louisville), Devonta Freeman (Florida State) and Durell Eskridge (Syracuse). To further bolster the ranks, Cato recruited Shuler, a wide receiver, to join him. Lockette, who had coached quarterbacks Jeffrey Godfrey (UCF) and Jacory Harris (Miami), first watched Cato play in middle school and liked what he saw. "He was the kid that was going to be a great one," Lockette said. "It was just a matter of time."
That time almost ended as soon as it began. After an early-season win at Madison (Texas) High, Cato exploded, yelling at teammates and coaches. The outburst led to a coach's meeting about Cato's future with the team. He was allowed to stay only after Campbell agreed to take charge of him. "His personality was so feisty, and he was very outspoken," says Campbell. "He could rub some people the wrong way."
Given one last chance, Cato kept his cool and led his team to the the playoffs, where he shone in a 42--27 win over a loaded Miami Northwestern squad headed by Teddy Bridgewater, now a rookie QB with the Vikings. Cato finished his senior year with 2,988 yards, 31 touchdowns and six interceptions, leading his team to the 6A state title and earning a trip to the Nike South Florida All-Star game.
Despite his success, Cato attracted sparse recruiting attention. Local stars like Bridgewater and Godfrey (a year ahead) overshadowed him, and although he was listed at 6'1", coaches feared he was too short to be a big-time college quarterback.
Except for one. Between Cato's sophomore and junior seasons Florida International offensive coordinator Bill Legg visited Miami Springs on a recruiting trip. As the coach watched a 7-on-7 camp, he noticed how Cato was "running the show," directing traffic and leading others in drills. He was impressed, and the following fall FIU offered Cato a scholarship. It was a mixed blessing, since it would allow Cato to play Division I ball, but it would also keep him home, where the distractions and memories lingered. "I wanted him to get out of Miami," Green says. No other offers materialized, though, so before his senior year Cato made a verbal pledge to the Panthers.
But after the season Legg took over as the offensive coordinator at Marshall and offered Cato a scholarship. As fate would have it, Shuler had already committed to the Thundering Herd, and in a twist he now recruited Cato to join him in West Virginia. It wasn't an easy decision, but in January 2011, Cato flipped from FIU to Marshall.
CATO WAS NAMED the starter as a true freshman, but he struggled with the transition. Once on campus Cato stayed up all night, showed up for meetings late and acted out. In weightlifting sessions he could barely lift the bar. Cato had taught himself to be a man without really knowing what that meant. "Rakeem had to learn how to be self-reliant at a very early age," Legg says. "When you're giving yourself the answers to the questions, they might seem right, but they're not always the right answers."
In high school Cato could get away with skipping a class or showing up late for practice. No one even cared where he slept. "Other kids were going home to mom and dad," Campbell says. "He wasn't going home to nothing." But at Marshall even his eating habits were monitored and regimented.
Cato had his moments early on, including a three-touchdown performance in a 26--20 win over Southern Miss and strong play in a 17--13 defeat of Bridgewater and Louisville, but his act wore thin with Holliday, who sat the quarterback in October after a disastrous performance in a 16--6 loss at UCF. The shock was enough that for a moment Cato questioned his desire to keep playing but chose to stick it out. "I knew what I wanted to do and what I had to do to be successful," Cato says. "I had to man up really fast. I missed my family, but I had to stay out of trouble and focus on school and football."
Within a few weeks he had regained the starting job, and in the final game of the season he led Marshall to a 20--10 win over his friend Hilton and FIU in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl while throwing for 226 yards and two touchdowns.
"Football has always been his sanctuary," Campbell says. "He can go, and he doesn't have to worry about anything. I know deep down he plays for his mom." The difference came when he started playing for his new family too.
MARSHALL'S FOOTBALL TEAM means everything to the city of Huntington. The 75 people killed in the plane crash are never far from the community's mind. Get a drink at a local bar and a patron will mention someone he knew from the crash. Take a tour of the campus and the guide will point out filming locations from We Are Marshall.
"Just walking by a stranger down the street, they're going to speak and make eye contact," Cato says. "It's the smaller things that really matter in the community. Huntington made me see a lot of things that I haven't seen before in Miami. Where I'm from, you just walk past and you keep going."
Cato blossomed as a sophomore, even if the team's 5--7 record didn't reflect it. He completed 69.5% of his passes and threw for 4,201 yards with 37 touchdowns. He took the next step as a junior; he started letting people in, building relationships with his teammates, Legg and Holliday. The results were eye-opening: Cato passed for just short of 4,000 yards as Marshall went 10--4, the first time since 2002 the Thundering Herd reached a double-digit win total.
After torching Maryland for 337 yards with three scores in a Military Bowl win last December, he entered the off-season with lofty expectations. But he had other matters on his agenda. Having strengthened his ties within his football family, he sought to do the same with his biological clan.
Cato reached out to his father. After several stints in prison, Jones had gotten out in 2012. Rakeem has met with his dad in Miami, but building a connection with a man he knows almost nothing about is a process. When the two are together, they talk mostly about life and football. "That's my father," Cato says. "He will be up [to Huntington] for a game this year. That'll be a lot of fun. Right now we're just talking and trying to get to know each other."
Cato also has two young daughters, Jaela, 2, who lives in Miami, while Chloe, 1, is in Huntington. Even though he didn't have a traditional family dynamic growing up, his experiences taught him the type of parent he wants to be. Says Campbell, "A lot of these kids are put in these bad situations where they lost everything, and they become the best parents in the world."
THE DAY BEFORE Marshall's spring game Cato walks around campus with Pennington and ESPN analyst Herm Edwards. The game acts as a homecoming for the Thundering Herd family. Eagles defensive end Vinny Curry brings a film crew. Pennington and Byron Leftwich coach the teams, and on the first play Pennington steps under center and tosses a quick out route to Randy Moss, to the crowd's delight.
Cato appreciates the continuity and deep roots the alumni represent, and he knows he can reach out to elders like Pennington and Leftwich when needed. "At this level when you get to the point where he's at, it's bigger than X's and O's," Leftwich says. "We try to help him understand that we know what he's going through. We can help him because we've seen it, and he hasn't seen it all yet."
Cato compares himself with the Seahawk's Russell Wilson, another short, accurate QB who can run and extend plays but looks to throw first. "Somebody out there is going to take a shot on him, and they're going to be pleasantly surprised because of his intangibles," says Legg. "There are a number of smaller quarterbacks in the league, and they're all dealing with the same issues, but a couple of them are pretty good and they're able to overcome it. I think he will as well."
"I've heard people say he may be the most underrated player in college football," says Holliday. "If you look at what he's accomplished to this point and what he has ahead of him, he might be."
Cato goes back to Gwen Cherry when he's home. The park that meant so much to him as a kid now serves a similar purpose to a new generation. And he's trying his best to help them on the way. "When he does come down, they have football practice out there with the smaller guys," Shanrikia said. "They go out there playing and stuff. They love Rakeem."
The next Rakeem Cato might be out there at Gwen Cherry. Maybe all he wants is a hug.
"Football has always BEEN HIS SANCTUARY," Campbell says. "He can go, and he doesn't have to worry about anything."
39 TD passes thrown by Cato in 2013, tying Pennington for the school record.
69.5 Cato's completion percentage in 2012, a season in which he threw for 4,201 yards and 37 TDs.
Photograph by Brian Smith For Sports Illustrated
D. BRADLEY HELTON/MARSHALL VIDEO SERVICES
FATHER FIGURE Cato and Holliday (below) had their problems at the start, but the quarterback's ability to put his past behind him and connect with the coach led to improved production.
PETER CASEY/USA TODAY SPORTS
[See caption above]
ROB CARR/GETTY IMAGES (WITH HOLLIDAY)
[See caption above]
D. BRADLEY HELTON/MARSHALL VIDEO SERVICES
HELPING HANDS Cato has leaned on former Marshall star Leftwich (below, far left) and his best friend since age five, Shuler (below, 1), who's both his teammate and roommate.
BRIAN SMITH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED