The journey began here 14 years ago at Liberty City’s Gwen Cherry Park.
Rakeem Cato and Tommy Shuler became best friends for life, joined at the hip by a football. Cato threw it. Shuler caught it.
On Tuesday night, the road ends for the two kids who helped rewrite Marshall’s record book.
The skinny quarterback with an attitude and the speedy undersized slot receiver who helped lead Miami Central High to its first state football championship five years ago will play their final game together when the Thundering Herd (12-1) takes on Northern Illinois (11-2) in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl at FAU Stadium.
“It’s a blessing how far we’ve come from little league to now,” said Cato, who, after breaking every high school passing record in Miami-Dade County history five years ago has become one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NCAA history, ranking fifth all-time in career touchdown passes (128) and eighth in passing yards.
“It’s been love and loyalty throughout the whole journey.”
The journey got a lot rougher for Cato when he was 12. When his mother, Juannice, died from pneumonia, Shuler’s family was one of the many in Liberty City who helped take Cato in.
The fifth of seven children, Cato had a hard time dealing with his mother’s death. He was always angry. His academics slipped. Being on the football field and throwing the ball to Shuler was the only time Cato felt at peace.
“Tommy Shuler, [former Florida State and current Atlanta Falcons running back] Davonte Freeman, [former FIU and current Indianapolis Colts receiver] T.Y. Hilton, [Syracuse safety] Durrell Eskridge, those guys were around me for the tough times, kept me going, kept saying don’t quit,” Cato said. “I thank those guys every day because without football, there’s no me.”
Without Cato (6-1, 178) and Shuler (5-7, 188) it’s hard for Marshall coach Doc Holliday to say the Thundering Herd would be where it is today. When Holliday, 57, took over at Marshall five years ago, he made it a point at Marshall to heavily recruit South Florida — his backyard as an assistant at West Virginia, Florida and North Carolina State. The Thundering Herd currently has 16 players from Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties on its roster.
Holliday got his first commitment from Shuler, who then convinced Cato to pass on staying home and playing for FIU (his only other scholarship offer) to follow him to Huntington, West Virginia.
“I told him we can go make our own name there and put this school on the map,” Shuler said.
They have. Shuler, who owns the school record for catches in a game (19 vs. Purdue in 2012) and a season (110 in 2012), needs three catches Tuesday to pass Josh Davis (306 catches) and become Marshall’s all-time leading pass-catcher. His 3,378 receiving yards rank fifth all-time at Marshall.
Although they both aspire to play in the NFL, Tuesday’s game will likely be the last time Shuler and Cato put on shoulder pads and helmets. Both undersized talents are not projected to be taken in next May’s draft. But they will get their college degrees from Marshall in business administration that same month.
For Miami-based rapper and high school assistant football coach Luther Campbell, who often had Cato, Shuler, Hilton, Freeman and Eskridge over at his house when they were growing up, seeing two of his former Miami Central players get this far is more than enough.
“In the end, this is what it’s all about,” said Campbell, who plans to attend Tuesday’s game along with dozens of family members and friends of Cato and Shuler. “Those two kids have worked their [butts] off.’’