It ended just over 40 miles from where it began. Rakeem Cato, proud owner of just about every Marshall passing record, capped off an incredible career by helping the Thundering Herd past Northern Illinois in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl, 52-23, at FAU Stadium.
Cato, a native of Liberty City, made his way out of Miami and found himself in Huntington, W.Va. after being recruited by Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg and head coach Doc Holliday. Holliday, a former West Virginia, NC State and Florida assistant, recruits the state of Florida hard and found a real gem at quarterback who started his football career playing for Pop Warner team the Gwen Cherry Bulls.
SI.com’s Thayer Evans recently reported that Holliday earned an extension after winning Conference USA and leading the Thundering Herd to a 13-1 record. Marshall started the year 11-0 before falling in overtime in the last game of the regular season, 67-66, to Western Kentucky, ending the Herd’s chances at being named the Group of Five’s automatic New Year’s Six Bowl automatic entrant.
Despite the culture shock that is moving from south Florida to West Virginia, the Huntington community embraced Cato and made him a part of their family, giving him a permanent home he was lacking after losing his mother Juannese to pneumonia at the age of 39 before Rakeem turned 13.
"Just walking by a stranger down the street, they're going to speak and make eye contact," Cato told SI in April, the day before Marshall’s spring game. "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."
The senior was joined by childhood friend and wide receiver Tommy Shuler at Marshall, and the pair eventually led the Thundering Herd to three bowl wins in their four years and 23 wins in the last two seasons. Shuler, who had 18 catches for 185 yards and a touchdown against Northern Illinois, leaves Marshall with 308 receptions and 3,441 yards in the last three seasons alone. Cato walks off FAU Stadium as arguably the best quarterback in Marshall history.
Cato had 281 yards and three passing touchdowns (with no interceptions) to go with two scores on the ground against the Huskies, who were coming off their fifth straight season of 11 or more wins after beating Bowling Green in the MAC championship in Detroit. Northern Illinois avenged last year’s loss in the conference title game when the Huskies fell to quarterback Matt Johnson and the Falcons, 47-27. Bowling Green was coached at the time by Dave Clawson, who is now at Wake Forest.
Northern Illinois got the spark it needed on the second half kickoff, executing a successful onside kick down 24-13, but the Marshall defense held on fourth and one to suck the life back out of the Huskies.
Miami Central product Cato pulled out the win in an unfamiliar jersey and threw a touchdown in his 46th straight game, an FBS record, and tied the all-division NCAA record set by Mike Reilly of Division II Central Washington in 2008. The Marshall faithful have grown accustomed to seeing Cato in No. 12, but he donned No. 31 in honor of injured teammate Evan McKelvey, who tore his ACL against Old Dominion on Oct. 4.
Cato's NFL prospects are still to be seen. Legg says “somebody out there is going to take a shot on him, and they're going to be pleasantly surprised because of his intangibles.” But his legacy at Marshall is set in stone. Tuesday’s win close to where he grew up was just an extra line etched into an already memorable college career.