Longtime Marshall teammates Cato, Shuler are close off the field, too
HUNTINGTON - Rakeem Cato remembers the word that went through his head the first time he met Tommy Shuler when both were fifth-grade youth league quarterbacks in Miami.
It's not the word many would assume.
"Fat," Cato said with a smirk. "He was a chubby kid."
"He doesn't know what he's talking about," Shuler retorted.
Then Shuler offered the first word he thought when he first met Cato.
"Bony," he said. "He was skinny and short."
Shuler grew up into a lean, 187-pound wide receiver. Cato grew up into a 6-foot quarterback. And the two grew up together - joining the same team in sixth grade and staying on the same team through Miami Central High School and Marshall University.
That relationship developed by slinging a football on practice fields and neighborhood streets and has kept growing in Huntington.
Once the chubby receiver and skinny quarterback joined forces as sixth graders, they realized it was a potent combination. When Cato needed someone to run under one of his deep throws, Shuler was there.
And whether it was on or off the field, they made sure their chemistry stayed strong.
"Even if we weren't doing anything, we'd just go out in the street and throw the ball and get that connection down," Cato said. The two led Miami Central to a Class 6A Florida state title as seniors. Cato finished with 9,412 passing yards and 103 touchdowns as a high school quarterback, while Shuler finished his high school career with more than 3,000 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns.
When the two arrived in Huntington, Cato vaulted into the starting lineup as a true freshman in 2011, throwing 2,059 yards and 15 touchdowns.
As a backup receiver, Shuler played in 10 games, catching 14 passes for 122 yards. But even in the limited times they were on the field together, Shuler said their connection remained solid, not needing to say a word to get their messages heard.
"The gestures and head nods started coming along in high school," Shuler said. "Second or third down, we'd need a play.
He'd look my way. He'd give me a check and I'd give him a head nod. I know where he's going to be and he knows where I'm going to be."
In fact, Cato said coaches are stunned when their signals get crossed.
"The other day, he did a flat route and our timing was off," Cato said. "The whole coaching staff was shocked. They'd never seen it before."
The duo's relationship hasn't only helped on the field. In knowing each other since grade school, Cato and Shuler have a confidant on the team to talk about goals, frustrations and life. Cato's freshman year wasn't entirely smooth. He lost the starting job to A.J. Graham in the middle of the 2011 season before regaining it following a Graham injury. But having Shuler there helped Cato through tough times. "We talk about everything," Cato said. "We already talk about football. We talk about what we have to do for our families, how we need to make it and things like that. Whenever I'm down, I'll talk to him and he'll lift me up. He's a great friend."
With Cato firmly entrenched at the starting quarterback and Shuler climbing up the depth chart - he's No. 2 behind Andre Snipes-Booker at the slot receiver - the two will have plenty of opportunities this season to find each other on the field. And when they do, Shuler said it will be like second nature.
"He knows if he throws a bad ball, I'll lay out for it," Shuler said. "He knows he can put the ball anywhere and I can get it.
He knows where to put the ball and, nine times out of 10, the ball will be there. I'll cut and the ball will be there. That's chemistry you can't break."