To say Rakeem Cato had a tough life growing up would be putting it mildly.
He lost his mother when he was 12. He has yet to meet his father, and says he only recently considered starting lines of communication. He spent much of his childhood in Miami raised by his 14-year-old sister.
Like many players who had it rough like Cato, he was able to find an escape through football.
“When I’m on that football field, everything else just blacks out,” Marshall’s quarterback told the audience as one of the keynote speakers at Sunday’s Big Atlantic Classic Tip-Off Banquet.
More than 1,000 people braved streets and parking lots that were still a bit dicey from Saturday’s substantial snowfall to hear Cato and Marshall head coach Doc Holliday at the annual event. The two represented the Thundering Herd not quite a month removed from its 31-20 win over Maryland in the Military Bowl.
That win capped off a 10-4 season — Marshall’s first 10-win season since 2002 — that saw the Herd average 500 yards of offense en route to its first-ever Conference USA East Division championship.
Cato, of course, was a huge part of that.
On Sunday, he was recognized with the Hardman Award as West Virginia's amateur athlete of the year.
The rising senior was named C-USA’s Offensive Player of the Year last month after completing 298 of 499 passes for 3,916 yards and 39 touchdowns, and was intercepted just nine times. The 39 TDs tie him with Chad Pennington for the most ever at Marshall in a single season.
He has 91 career touchdowns, second only to Pennington’s 115.
Cato was named Most Valuable Player of the Military Bowl after completing 28 of 44 passes for 337 yards and three touchdowns.
One of the more remarkable stats for Cato has been his performance under pressure. In his three years, Cato has 50 touchdowns and only one interception in the red zone.
“When the game’s on the line,” Holliday said, “I want the ball in his hands.