AP Sports Writer
CHARLESTON (AP) — Marshall University’s mantra, shaped from the worst disaster in U.S. sports history, is “From the ashes, we rose.” The same could be said for quarterback Rakeem Cato.
Tragedy to glory is still a work in progress for Cato, who brings big expectations for a senior season at Marshall that starts Saturday at Miami, Ohio.
Like the Marshall program that was on the brink of extinction but persevered after a 1970 plane crash killed all 75 aboard, Cato overcame personal setbacks growing up in the Liberty City section of Miami, Florida.
His mother, Juannese, died of pneumonia in 2005 when he was 13. He had never met his father, who was in prison since before he was born.
Through it all, the ultra-competitive Cato never gave up. He recalled that on the same the day of his mother’s death, he went on to play in a baseball game. The next day, he went to school.
His passion was football, which his mother first had signed him up for at age 6.
“When my mom passed, I knew I had to man up quick,” Cato said. “I was always a leader. I never was a follower. I had to accomplish to be successful not only for me but my family to make her proud. I just wanted to do the right thing.”
The long list to help Cato make the transition from middle school to manhood included older sister Shanrikia, his grandparents, the families of teammates T.Y. Hilton, Tommy Shuler and Miami Central coach Telly Lockette.
In 2010, Cato transferred from Miami Springs to Miami Central for his senior season. Lockette “was the father figure that I never had,” Cato said. “He took me in like I was his own.”
But Cato’s bouts with anger got him in trouble.
“His dad going to prison before he was born. His mom dying at 13. Moving from house to house and there’s no real stability … he had a lot to be angry about,” said Lockette, now the running backs coach at South Florida. “You’ve got to understand, his sanctuary is the football field. He competes like crazy. If something goes wrong, he’s mad at himself and he’s mad at somebody on the field.”
It happened after Cato misread a play during a game in Texas. He was benched and, according to Lockette, nearly got kicked off the team.
In the state playoffs, Lockette’s wife found Cato crying near a back gate after a poor first half against Miami Northwestern. After some consoling, Cato responded with a great second half to beat Louisville-bound Teddy Bridgewater. Three weeks later, Cato rallied Miami Central from a 17-0 deficit to beat Orlando Dr. Phillips for the Florida 6A championship.
During his freshman year at Marshall, Cato had a sideline meltdown during a rainy loss at Central Florida. He played poorly and lost the starting job for a month.
He’s been clicking ever since.
Cato has thrown for more than 3,900 yards in two straight seasons, including a touchdown pass in 32 consecutive games. He’s poised to surpass former first-round draft picks Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich on Marshall’s career passing charts.
Cato’s father, Keith Jones, is now out of prison. The pair started talking about a year ago, trying in a small way to make up for 21 years of missed athletic events, family gatherings and simply bonding. And Cato got to hear the words every son wants to hear from his dad.
“We just talk about personal life. We talk about football, of course,” Cato said. “He was telling about all the mistakes he went through. He was always thinking about me. He also told me he loved me — he thought about me every day while he was in jail.”
Shuler remembered the times that Cato would come to his house and watch “We Are Marshall,” the 2006 film about the 1970 plane crash starring Matthew McConaughey.
“We watched it over and over,” said Shuler, who like Cato is a senior at Marshall. “We made our mind up that we want to play for that program and help that program come up and win a championship.”
For Cato, that quest starts Saturday.
“I’m just trying to get better as the days go on, to be the best quarterback of Marshall University,” Cato said.