DEREK REDD: Marshall’s Cato, Shuler prepare for final run with Herd

HUNTINGTON — The chances of jumping from high school football to college are slim. The NCAA’s own research shows that only about 6.4 percent of all high school players reach the college ranks. But for two grade-schoolers to not only star on the college level, but do so together since Pop Warner? That’s an Olympic-level stunt.

Marshall’s Rakeem Cato and Tommy Shuler stuck the dismount.

Since the day that Cato the quarterback and Shuler the wide receiver joined forces in sixth grade, since the day the “bony” signal-caller (Shuler’s words) and the “chubby” wideout (Cato’s words) realized they had an almost supernatural knack of finding each other on the football field, the duo talked about leaving inner-city Miami and succeeding in college football together.

Now both are walking into their final spring practice seasons, fine-tuning themselves for one last run in Marshall uniforms. It was a dream born from the first days Cato threw a football and Shuler was there to snag it.

“We were like, what if we do play together?” Shuler said. “How would the outcome be? The outcome’s been great so far.”

For them and the Thundering Herd.

The Cato-to-Shuler connection has helped both become among the most prolific at their respective positions in both Marshall and Conference USA history. Cato will walk into the 2014 season with 886 completions, 10,176 passing yards and 91 touchdowns. He’s second in career touchdowns and third in career yards and completions in team history, with the chance to finish first in all three. He’s also sixth in completions, ninth in yards and fourth in touchdowns in C-USA history, with the chance to catch everyone but former Houston star Case Keenum.

Shuler enters 2014 with 230 receptions for 2,425 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’s fourth in Marshall history in career receptions and ninth in career yards. He’s 12th on Conference USA’s career receptions chart. He’s only the eighth major college football player with two 100-catch seasons. A third would give him the conference career receptions record.

Anyone who watched the two through high school knew that potential was there. Between Miami Springs High and Miami Central High, Cato left Dade County with several passing records. Shuler left with more than 3,000 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns himself. Through that journey, the two have been comfortable enough to dispense some tough love when necessary.

“If he throws a bad throw, I’ll get on him,” Shuler said. “If I make a bad route, he’ll get on me. But it’s all love. We know at the end of the day that we’ll be back with each other, laughing. It’s tough love when we’re on the football field, because we want each other to be great. We want each other to strive for excellence.”

The support doesn’t end once they leave the field, and their talks go far past the Xs and Os of football. They’re confidants and support systems for each other. Cato said Shuler and his family were crucial in helping him get through many tough times, like the 2005 death of his mother, Juannese, and the 2009 death of his grandmother, Gwendlyn Harris.

“He’s a hell of a guy,” Cato said. “Not only him, but his family. They’ve just been special to me and have been my backbone. Whenever I’ve needed things, I just go to him and talk to him about things or his family. We’ve been a connection forever.”

One day soon, that on-field connection likely will end. As slim as the chances were of two Pop Warner teammates starring on the same college football team, the chances are even slimmer that they’d find themselves in the same pro locker room.

Yet neither of them have worried too much about the more distant future. Both Cato and Shuler said their focus always on the next practice and the next game. They’ll try to build upon a 2013 season where the Herd won 10 games, the most since 2002, and attempt to trump their C-USA East Division crown with an overall conference title.

They know the path they’ve taken through college football is unique, and they won’t forget what led them down that path.

“We’re just blessed,” Cato said. “We thank God every day we’re here with each other and supporting each other as strong as we’re doing right now. Every time we touch the field, every time we work out off the field, we try to put everything into it. I know this is our ticket out and we have to put everything in it.”

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