Marshall football: For Herd, a Sunshine State of mind
HUNTINGTON,W.Va. -- The first time quarterback Rakeem Cato saw snow, it was on Marshall's campus.
A Miami native, he was used to the palm trees and sweltering heat of South Florida, a place where sweaters get as much use as surfboards in Huntington.
He grabbed his teammate, and former Miami Central teammate, Tommy Shuler and a couple more friends and headed outside.
"That was great," he said. "Me, Tommy and all those guys went outside, played in the snow, made snow angels. It's always awesome. Every time we see the stuff, we want to go outside."
When it comes to members of Marshall's football roster, Cato and Shuler weren't alone in that experience. Not by a long shot.
There currently are 33 Floridians on Marshall's football roster, second in Conference USA only to Central Florida's 68. And while there may be a culture shock in moving from metropolises like Orlando and Miami to West Virginia, the Sunshine State players have plenty of teammates who are sharing those same feelings.
Florida long has been known as a recruiting gold mine, where some high schools churn out multiple Division I players every year.
Marshall Coach Doc Holliday knows all about it. As an assistant coach at West Virginia, North Carolina State and Florida, that's been his territory - and a fertile one at that - since 1979.
"We've got big-time ties down there and people that know us," said Holliday, who is in his third season at Marshall. "I love those kids down there. Football's important to them and they're extremely tough kids."
Marshall's 33 Florida players nearly triples the number of third place in Conference USA, Southern Mississippi's 12.
With so many standout athletes in Florida, there are only so many spots in Florida schools, so many have to look beyond the state's borders.
"Every kid in Florida wants to go to Miami, Florida State or Florida," said running backs Coach JaJuan Seider, a Belle Glade, Fla., native who is the Thundering Herd's recruiting coordinator. "But there's only so many (openings). You do a good job (in recruiting) and kids fall to you."
With so many Floridians on the roster, there come instances where former high school adversaries become teammates. Cato and Shuler, a receiver, lined up across the field from defensive back and South Miami High product A.J. Leggett. Pahokee native Antavious Wilson and Belle Glade native Demetrius Evans were on opposite sides of the Pahokee-Glades Central "Muck Bowl," a rivalry that normally features an army of Division-I football signees.
But when the high school uniforms are shed and get replaced with Marshall uniforms, the adversarial relationships disappear. Seider said it can transform into a feeling of glee as those players form what amounts to a Florida all-star team.
"They've been the best of the best at their high schools," he said. "You know how it is. If Joe Schmoe is the best on his team, I want to play with Joe Schmoe. Now we're getting to the point where we're starting to get those better players who played against each other."
It also helps off the field. For many of the Florida transplants, the change in environment is massive. Some are coming from massive cities to the much more intimate setting of Huntington. Some, like Cato and Wilson, had never seen snow and lived in a state where a trace snowfall is front-page news.
But with nearly three-dozen Floridians playing for Marshall, there's little chance of feeling lonely. Any football players feeling like a fish out of water know there are more than a few teammates in their same boat.
"It's like a home away from home," said Remi Watson, a native of Lakeland, Fla. "When I first got here, all us Florida boys together were struggling. We were coming up and putting our heads together figuring out how to survive. 'Hey bro, what you putting on today under your sweatpants?'
"But it's like a home away from home," he continued. "We come from the same place and from similar environments, so we push each other and jell together like brothers."
And when those players feel more comfortable in their new surroundings, it's easier for them to blend in to those surroundings. Holliday said there's no provincialism, that the players come together no matter where they're from.
"They're a very tight-knit group, but they also understand that when they get here, they're not from Miami, they're not from Fort Lauderdale. They've got an 'M' on their helmet and they're at Marshall," he said. "They fit in just like everyone else and they take care of each other."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.