The SUV hums along slowly, five miles under the speed limit as you pass boarded-up homes, burnt out buildings and windows covered in bars. Your tour guide matter-of-factly points out the spot where someone was gunned down two days earlier. Welcome to the part of Miami tourists are warned to avoid. Liberty City is about six miles from downtown and its crime rate is more than triple the national average for violent offenses.
Your driver on this sweltering Wednesday morning in late July is Rakeem Cato, Marshall’s record-setting senior quarterback. Liberty City is Cato’s home. He weaves in a story about bumping into a childhood football legend from the neighborhood a day earlier. The guy was a five-star running back recruit who was so revered that when Cato was a little kid he’d rush over from his little league games to watch the guy run wild in high school rather than go home and take a bath and risk missing a play. But the five-star stud had all sorts of trouble in high school and didn’t last in college football. Now Cato says the guy is “just trying to provide for his family the best way he can.”
Cato wheels around to the little league field where he played with — and against — a half dozen neighborhood kids who are already in the NFL. Those games would draw more fans than FIU does these days. He drives past another complex in the Pork ‘n Beans section and points out where someone else got killed earlier in the week. Gunned down, Cato says, around two or three in the afternoon. He says when you grow up here you get numb to these sorts of incidents. “You are going to see some rough stuff. You are going to hear some rough stuff. You are going to witness it all,” he says. “You never know what you get yourself into down here. You try to stay away from it as much as possible.”
He points out the area where his old middle school used to be. The school just got closed down. The SUV then pulls up to a small yellow house. Cato’s eyes glance around for a few heartbeats. For the first time on the ride his voice breaks just a bit.
“This little yellow house right here, this is where my mom stayed,” he says. “It’s where we stayed after we moved out of the projects.” Cato points to where his mom’s room was. He slept with her in the same bed till he was 11, which hardly sounds typical for most kids. Then again, it’s hardly typical to have to hit the ground when you’re nine years old and hope a stray bullet doesn’t find you — when a simple afternoon walk to the store is interrupted by a shootout 20 steps away and those five minutes feel like five nerve-wracking hours of terror. Or when you grow up without ever knowing your father because he’s in prison for the first 20 years of your life. This was Rakeem Cato’s childhood.
South Florida music mogul Luther Campbell, of 2LiveCrew fame, is the godfather of the Liberty City, the neighborhood where he, too, grew up. Campbell’s also the godfather of the local grassroots football scene having co-founded the Liberty City Optimist Club, which helps local boys and girls from 4-16 years of age. In addition to sports, the program also provides academic and computer tutoring for the kids.
“Liberty City is no different than Afghanistan,” says Campbell. “The only difference is you do not have roadside bombs. I mean, seven, eight people get killed a day in Liberty City in that hole between the Pork ‘N’ Beans and Scott (projects).”
As rough as things were in Liberty City, Cato’s family was rocked by an even bigger jolt when he was 13. His mom, Juannese Cato, a woman who worked two jobs to take care of her family, died suddenly at 39. It started out as just a cold with a fever and then within a day or so, she was gone, leaving behind seven children. Doctors determined the cause of death to be pneumonia. Eighteen-year-old Shanrikia Cato was granted custody of all of her siblings except her older brother Antwain, who had already been living on his own.
Cato’s grandfather, Eddie, broke the news to Rakeem, who was devastated.
Juannese Cato had always been there for Rakeem. Every day she made sure Rakeem did his homework. As soon as he walked into their home, she made him show her his assignment and made his school work his No. 1 priority. If he didn’t get good grades, the kid would not be allowed to do the thing he loved most — play football. She always kept tabs on him. He was expected to either be at school or playing football. If not, Rakeem knew she’d be coming to get him. Walking late nights around the project or riding around town on buses were not options.
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How Rakeem Cato became pride of Liberty City, Marshall's star QB