How Rakeem Cato became pride of Liberty City, Marshall’s star QB

The SUV hums along slowly, five miles under the speed limit as you pass boarded-up homes, burnt out buildings and windows covered in bars. Your tour guide matter-of-factly points out the spot where someone was gunned down two days earlier. Welcome to the part of Miami tourists are warned to avoid. Liberty City is about six miles from downtown and its crime rate is more than triple the national average for violent offenses.

Your driver on this sweltering Wednesday morning in late July is Rakeem Cato, Marshall’s record-setting senior quarterback. Liberty City is Cato’s home. He weaves in a story about bumping into a childhood football legend from the neighborhood a day earlier. The guy was a five-star running back recruit who was so revered that when Cato was a little kid he’d rush over from his little league games to watch the guy run wild in high school rather than go home and take a bath and risk missing a play. But the five-star stud had all sorts of trouble in high school and didn’t last in college football. Now Cato says the guy is "just trying to provide for his family the best way he can."

Cato wheels around to the little league field where he played with — and against — a half dozen neighborhood kids who are already in the NFL. Those games would draw more fans than FIU does these days. He drives past another complex in the Pork ‘n Beans section and points out where someone else got killed earlier in the week. Gunned down, Cato says, around two or three in the afternoon. He says when you grow up here you get numb to these sorts of incidents. "You are going to see some rough stuff. You are going to hear some rough stuff. You are going to witness it all," he says. "You never know what you get yourself into down here. You try to stay away from it as much as possible."

He points out the area where his old middle school used to be. The school just got closed down. The SUV then pulls up to a small yellow house. Cato’s eyes glance around for a few heartbeats. For the first time on the ride his voice breaks just a bit.

"This little yellow house right here, this is where my mom stayed," he says. "It’s where we stayed after we moved out of the projects." Cato points to where his mom’s room was. He slept with her in the same bed till he was 11, which hardly sounds typical for most kids. Then again, it’s hardly typical to have to hit the ground when you’re nine years old and hope a stray bullet doesn’t find you — when a simple afternoon walk to the store is interrupted by a shootout 20 steps away and those five minutes feel like five nerve-wracking hours of terror. Or when you grow up without ever knowing your father because he’s in prison for the first 20 years of your life. This was Rakeem Cato’s childhood.

South Florida music mogul Luther Campbell, of 2LiveCrew fame, is the godfather of the Liberty City, the neighborhood where he, too, grew up. Campbell’s also the godfather of the local grassroots football scene having co-founded the Liberty City Optimist Club, which helps local boys and girls from 4-16 years of age. In addition to sports, the program also provides academic and computer tutoring for the kids.

"Liberty City is no different than Afghanistan," says Campbell. "The only difference is you do not have roadside bombs. I mean, seven, eight people get killed a day in Liberty City in that hole between the Pork ‘N’ Beans and Scott (projects)."

As rough as things were in Liberty City, Cato’s family was rocked by an even bigger jolt when he was 13. His mom, Juannese Cato, a woman who worked two jobs to take care of her family, died suddenly at 39. It started out as just a cold with a fever and then within a day or so, she was gone, leaving behind seven children. Doctors determined the cause of death to be pneumonia. Eighteen-year-old Shanrikia Cato was granted custody of all of her siblings except her older brother Antwain, who had already been living on his own.

Cato’s grandfather, Eddie, broke the news to Rakeem, who was devastated.

Juannese Cato had always been there for Rakeem. Every day she made sure Rakeem did his homework. As soon as he walked into their home, she made him show her his assignment and made his school work his No. 1 priority. If he didn’t get good grades, the kid would not be allowed to do the thing he loved most — play football. She always kept tabs on him. He was expected to either be at school or playing football. If not, Rakeem knew she’d be coming to get him. Walking late nights around the project or riding around town on buses were not options.

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And now, just like that, she was gone. The kid was overwhelmed. How could he make sense of something like that? How could his mother be taken away too? What would happen to Rakeem and his family now?

"He told my granddaddy, ‘I’m scared; Granddaddy, can I come with you?’" Shanrikia Cato recalled. (Some two years later, Cato’s grandmother passed too.)

Cato underwent counseling for around six months, according to his sister, to help him cope with the loss of his mom and all the nightmares he kept having. A skinny kid who was often sullen and prone to fits of anger, Cato says the counseling did help and eventually he was able to "release a lot of things out of me." He concedes being forced to grow up at such an early age without either parent was why many close to him say he was "mad at the world."

"I think it has a lot to do with that, just growing up and just not having your queen and king inside your house," Cato says. "And not knowing what to do and not knowing where to get your next meal from. Those things that were just constantly in my head. Like,  ‘Why don’t I have my mom? Why don’t I have my father here with me to lead me the right way?’ Those was the kind of things that stuck with me throughout my childhood life and still now to this day sometimes.

"I was basically thinking too much, just thinking about her constantly on my mind, 24 hours, every second of the day. So when it is time to go to sleep, she is still right there on my mind. And I cannot do nothing about it, because that is the queen of my household and that was somebody who I loved with everything in me."

Cato thought more and more about his father, too. When Cato was about eight, he says his mom told him where his father actually was and why he wasn’t around, which only tormented the kid even more. "That just stuck with me, like, ‘Why did he have to make that choice, of not being with me or not being with his son?’"

Cato’s primary outlet was football and his combustible spirit often came out.

"When he was a little kid, he very, very competitive, very feisty," Campbell says of Cato. "Cato was like Floyd Mayweather — a little skinny guy with a big mouth. He would always talk trash before the game and even after we beat (his team), he would still be talking trash after the game."

Campbell, now 53, often serves as a father figure to many of the kids in and around the Liberty City football scene who know him as "Coach Luke." Much as he was for former Florida State star Devonta Freeman (later a high school teammate of Cato’s), he became a father figure to Rakeem. In reality, being a youth coach in places like Liberty City often means being a counselor, too.

"When you sign up and coach football here in Miami, in any city in America, you have to be that counselor. I mean, in football, I tell people all the time, it is 95 percent being a shrink and 5 percent coaching. I am more of a shrink than anything.

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"When you see them down, 99.1 percent of the time there is something going on at home. Unfortunately, in Cato’s situation, he was living it every day. His granddaddy would bring him to practice or his older brother would bring him to practice, and he would keep it all in.

"When there would be a rough time or he would have a rough day, he probably was thinking about his mom or something like that, and he would have an outburst. Knowing that, you would have a conversation with him about it, because you are talking about a young kid who lost his mother at an early age and you would hear him and, it would be like, ‘All you other guys are kids. You are all kids to me. I am grown. I am a grown man.’ Because he lived the life of a grown man. So when you see the outburst, you know that is what it was coming from. We’d have conversations about that. Anytime he would get upset, a large part of that had to do with the frustration of his mother not being there. He would break down and we would talk about it. That is how I learned about everything that was going on in his life."

Campbell also could relate to what was chewing Cato up inside since he, too, had lost his mother at about the same age. The bond between Cato and Campbell only grew after the young QB transferred from a struggling Miami Springs program to state powerhouse Miami Central, where the rap star was an assistant and served as the team’s punishment coach.

At Central, despite only weighing about 150 pounds, Cato shined. He led the team to the 2011 Florida 6A state title and threw for a Miami-Dade record 9,000-plus yards and 103 touchdowns with just 23 interceptions in his prep career. But he also had an incident that almost got him booted off the Central team. While playing on the road in Texas, in the midst of a 48-6 romp over Madison High, Cato had an emotional meltdown, where he ranted at his coaches and teammates.

Cato’s explanation of what happened: "We was beating them bad and it was not even halftime. I was being pulled, because I was doing too good. I was a senior in high school, and I told myself, ‘I want to play the whole game.’ So, I got pulled just so the other guy can play. And I went off."

The outburst triggered a staff meeting among the Central coaches who had had it with Cato.

"We were in their room in Dallas and every one of those coaches voted him off the team," Campbell said. "I sat there and I was like, ‘No, that ain’t what we are here for. We are here to save lives, not to put lives in the street.’" Campbell believed Cato’s meltdown was rooted in the fact that it was the first road trip far away from home for lot of players, including Cato, and while many kids on the team had their families there to watch, Cato didn’t.

The rest of the staff made Campbell the one who’d deal with Cato. Campbell was put in charge of handling the fallout from his outburst and his punishment, and explaining why Cato was "dead wrong" in his actions.

Cato winces now about the incident that almost cost him his career. He doesn’t want to ponder what life would’ve been life without football, much less to have let down his friends and coaches. "I had to hold myself accountable for that, and come to practice since then trying to be a great player and be the quarterback that the team needed," he said. "And, I had to learn that quick."

While Cato’s high school stats were gaudy and he excelled at the highest level, few college coaches were ready to go all-in on a 6-foot, 150-pound QB who at best could be described as high-strung. Marshall, though, was intrigued. Doc Holliday first noticed Cato when he was "a little, skinny, 130-pound" ninth grader, but the head coach loved the fire in his eyes during practice and how he interacted with other kids.

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"You could tell what he was all about," said Holliday, who coached both Tim Tebow and Philip Rivers in college and calls Cato the most competitive player he’s ever been around.

No FBS head coach in the country has been more connected in South Florida or Liberty City in particular than Holliday, who has been loaded up on athletic talent from the Sunshine State at every stop on his three-decade coaching career. Holliday says he’s scouted Liberty City since 1980.

"When I first went down there, you didn’t have cell phones or GPS and all that, so you learn to get around," he says. "It’s a unique place, but it’s a great place. I love those kids down there."

The feeling seems to be mutual. "He’s welcome everywhere down here," Cato says of Holliday. "He can walk through the neighborhood. He does not have to drive. He can walk, and, I think he would be untouched."

Holliday admits there have been a few times when he’s felt unsafe recruiting in Liberty City. He remembers one night recruiting a kid who ended up going to Tennessee and they heard gunshots right outside the house. Another time in the late 80s, he and his boss, West Virginia coach Don Nehlen, were going to see a promising offensive lineman, Lorenzo Styles. "I pulled up and my car got surrounded," Holliday says. "Lorenzo’s mom came out and beat them off with a broom."

Holliday’s won a lot of games thanks to recruiting a bunch of kids from very troubled backgrounds. Sometimes, as was the case early on in his time as the Thundering Herd’s head coach, a handful of those players got into some hefty legal trouble and didn’t last with his program. Critics say he’s all too willing to roll the dice on marginal kids in the pursuit of "upside" while bringing aboard some prospects other programs wouldn’t touch. When Cato arrived at Marshall he was one of 28 Florida products Holliday had brought up to West Virginia.

Maybe the best response Holliday can give isn’t last season’s 10-4 record or what Cato and his teammates may do this year on the field as the FBS team with potentially the best shot at an unbeaten season. The real proof is guys like Styles — an immense man at 6-3, 350-pounds and looking like he could play in the NFL right now — who is assistant principal at North Miami Beach High School. A Liberty City product, Styles doesn’t know Rakeem Cato — only knows of him — but like the Marshall star, Styles, too, used to be mad at the world.

"I lost my dad at 13," Styles says. "I was very angry so that led to a lot of trouble, that led to a lot of difficulties in school as well, but sport was that avenue to kind of change everything and get everything back in perspective. I had never played a contact sport before but I was pretty aggressive. So to go out and play a sport that you could hit people and people cheered about it, was a good thing and it was an exciting thing for me. It kept me in line and doing the right things."

At WVU, Styles went on to earn a 4.0 GPA and started three seasons for the Mountaineers. He says he’s living proof of what happens when you don’t write a kid off and instead surround them with structure and support.

"Me going to college inspired my sister to go to college and she finished college and she has her Master’s degree," said Styles. "And it can take just one person in the family to break the chain."

Huntington, West Virginia, is over a thousand miles from Liberty City. For Cato, it might as well have been on a different planet. It didn’t take Cato long to win the starting QB job at Marshall, but by mid-October his temperament got the worst of him again. Adapting to a much faster game and to new teammates and coaches, the undersized quarterback often boiled over as a freshman. In games, it could’ve been a wrong route or busted assignment that set him off, or him missing a read. There were also days in practice where Cato would get so frustrated he’d take the football and fire it up onto the roof of the facility.

Holliday benched Cato to let him know his behavior was unacceptable, and whenever the QB did act out, it was Campbell who the Marshall staff called to try and focus his protege.

"It was basically just about my growing up, and me earning their trust and about them earning my trust," Cato says. "As a player, I had to get on their page, so I had to be a player first and not come in thinking I know everything. And, that is the way I come off, thinking I know everything. I had to learn that quick, that I don’t."

Getting benched and having to sit out a few games was quite an eye-opener for Cato.

"When he first got here, he didn’t know how to lead," said Holliday. "He wanted to be a leader. He wanted to run the show. He wanted to do all that but he didn’t know how. (Marshall offensive coordinator) Billy Legg has done a tremendous job of developing him. (Cato) has learned to control his emotions at times at quarterback. The competitive part of it’s not wavered which we don’t want it to. I think he’s just grown up and matured in a lot of areas.

"I got to experience firsthand down there in what the kid grew up around and how he grew up. I guarantee that if you or I grew up like that we’d have some anger issues too ’cause he couldn’t understand why things would fall on his shoulders."

Cato won back the starting job and led the Thundering Herd to a 20-10 victory over many of his buddies and FIU in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl at the end of his freshman season. As a sophomore, Cato blossomed for Marshall. He led the nation in passing yards and in completions, and set a bunch of school records. He also was named Conference USA MVP. Last season, Cato put up more staggering numbers, throwing 39 TD passes, tying Chad Pennington’s school record. Cato capped off the year by shredding Maryland in a 31-20 win in the Military Bowl.

His father, released from prison, also entered his life. They first met at Cato’s grandmother’s house and talked for about 30 minutes. Cato said seeing him was "a blessing" to just try and "get that connection with my father."

These days, Cato is feeling very blessed. He’s made hometown proud.

"Cato is big in Liberty City, bigger than Teddy Bridgewater, bigger than Jacory Harris, bigger than any quarterback that has come through Liberty City," says Campbell, who calls Cato the king of Liberty City. "Everybody knows Cato. I think if Cato was to get drafted by the Dolphins, there would probably be another 20,000 people buying tickets from Liberty City — more than they would if it was a Bridgewater or a Jacory Harris."

Campbell said he feels that way because Cato’s story resonates so well back home not only because of what he’s done on the field, but what he’s overcome. Cato will graduate from Marshall in the spring with a degree in business management. He breaks into a smile when asked about what his mom would probably say after seeing her son graduate from college, especially after all he’d been through.

"She’d be very proud," Cato said. "It was all she ever wanted."