By Grant Traylor
The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington
When Marshall University quarterback Rakeem Cato came to Huntington in the fall of 2011, he immediately spoke of what his goals were for his time with the Thundering Herd.
Cato said he wanted to make an immediate impact and he wanted to be remembered like Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich for taking the Herd program to great heights.
After a 2013 season in which he led Marshall to its first 10-win season since 2002, Cato earned a distinction shared by those great Herd quarterbacks he is aspiring to be.
Cato is the recipient of the 2013 Hardman Award, given to West Virginia’s top amateur athlete of the year from voting by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association. The award dates back to 1934 and is the oldest given by the 82-year-old WVSWA.
Cato will be honored at the 68th annual Victory Awards Dinner on May 4 at the Charleston Civic Center.
He won the award over several other high-caliber athletes.
The runner-up was West Virginia University baseball pitcher Harrison Musgrave, followed by North Carolina wide receiver-punt returner Ryan Switzer, West Liberty University basketball standout Alex Falk and WVU women’s soccer star Frances Silva.
“It’s a great feeling and I’m humbled and blessed,” Cato said, “I treat this as my second hometown here in West Virginia and the community has been great to me. I just want to continue my success and continue trying to do a great job on and off the field.”
With the award, Cato grows one step closer to the level that he wants to attain as a Marshall quarterback — being mentioned in the same sentence of Pennington and Leftwich as Marshall greats.
Pennington won the Hardman Award in 1999, and Leftwich backed that up by winning the award twice in 2001 and 2002.
Cato became the first Marshall football player since Leftwich to win the award, drawing him closer to etching his name on that list.
If you ask Leftwich, he’ll say that he’s already there.
“He belongs on the list, I’ll tell you that,” Leftwich said. “The way he’s going, he’s trying to take everybody off the list.”
In 2013, Cato finished the year with 3,916 yards passing and 39 touchdowns while also rushing for 294 yards and another six scores.
However, the bigger story was his progression as a quarterback in making reads and seeing the defense. Cato got the Herd in the correct run-pass options in offensive coordinator Bill Legg’s scheme and the Marshall offense finished at 7,005 yards of total offense for the season, an average of 500.4 yards a game.
While the season included marquee wins over Maryland in the Military Bowl and a 59-28 win over East Carolina in the regular season finale to clinch the Conference USA East Division title, it was another game that Cato said is his lasting memory of the 2013 season.
He noted a 45-34 win over Tulsa on Nov. 14, the 43rd anniversary of the tragic Marshall airplane crash, which killed all 75 members of the Herd football team’s traveling party following Marshall’s 17-14 loss at East Carolina in 1970.
The game marked the first time the team had played a road game on Nov. 14 since the crash, and the players wore “75” decals on their helmets in honor of the victims.
After building a big lead early, adversity struck the Herd and the team fell behind in the fourth quarter, but Cato led his team on a pair of late fourth-quarter scoring drives to clinch the win. He finished with a career-high 456 yards passing and five touchdowns.
“There were so many emotions going on the entire day with the plane crash ceremony going on in the morning,” Cato said. “We had that ‘75’ sticker on our helmets and we had to overcome that adversity because there was no way we could lose on that day for those who went before us. That was the most memorable moment for me.”
The 10-win season was the first since Leftwich led Marshall to an 11-2 record in 2002 and, with Cato returning, helped solidify Marshall as a potential Top 25 team heading into 2014.
Not only did the season earn the respect of the former Herd quarterbacks and those surrounding college football, it also earned the respect of those in the sports profession around the state with the Hardman Award honor over several other high-caliber athletes.
Musgrave, a fomer Bridgeport standout, was the Big 12 Conference Pitcher of the Year and a second-team All-America choice who was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies but opted to return for his senior season in 2014.
Switzer, a former George Washington athlete who won two Kennedy Awards, tied an NCAA record with five punt return touchdowns while earning All-America and All-Atlantic Coast Conference first-team honors as a Tar Heel true freshman.
Falk became the first West Virginia Conference basketball player named NCAA Division II National Player of the Year after leading the Hilltoppers to 33-2 record and the Elite Eight.
Silva was the unanimous Big 12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year for the nation’s No. 12-ranked team and conference champion. She also was a pro draft selection.