Rakeem Cato's only chance

SIXTY-FIVE DAYS before the NFL draft, Rakeem Cato takes a break near a box of Krispy Kreme donuts that he doesn't eat (but should), and contemplates numbers. There was a time, when news trucks rumbled through the West Virginia mountains to do feel-good stories on him, that he thought throwing for 14,079 yards and breaking records and winning games would matter. But now, the only thing scouts want to know is whether a miracle happened over the winter and he somehow morphed into the body of a stereotypical NFL quarterback.

The answer is an emphatic no. Cato's legs look like spindles on a staircase. He says he is 6 feet and a half-inch tall -- upon hearing this measurement later, his agent, Joe Schulz, will say, "I told him to say he's 6-1!" -- and weighs 188 pounds. But even that number is inflated; in a few weeks, at his pro day at Marshall University, Cato will tip the scales at 178. Unlike 99.9 percent of the earth's population, he does not seem to enjoy eating. He turns down an offer to go out to lunch because he's not hungry. "He's got a small stomach," Schulz says.

It's an early spring day in Boca Raton, Florida, and Cato and Schulz are sitting in the lobby of a dance studio, which at the time is also a workout facility for XPE Sports. The building looks small and nondescript on the outside, but come April 30, the start of the draft, XPE will crank out perfectly chiseled first-rounders, from Vic Beasley to Shane Ray.

Those guys were invited to the NFL combine; Cato wasn't.

Cato was devastated when he heard he couldn't go to the combine. It was something he dreamed about, to be on that field in Indianapolis, surrounded by the best. The process went something like this: He called a number at the NFL, said he was Rakeem Cato, quarterback from Marshall, and a person on the other line scanned down a list. The first time Cato called, in January, he was told to try back later. So he called again as the combine got closer, and a polite woman told him she was sorry, he didn't get an invite, but encouraged him to keep working.

That week of the combine was scary-quiet at XPE. Nearly everyone was in Indianapolis except Cato. He watched on TV, watched Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota dazzle their way to future riches, all the time believing he belonged on the same stage as those guys.

So that is his resolve -- to get bigger, yes, but mainly just to get noticed. And Schulz, a first-year agent whose certification is still wet, will have to hustle to get Cato's name out there. On this particular day, Schulz is fresh from a trip to the combine, where he went to pitch his client to the scouts. Every time he gushed to someone about Cato, Schulz was cut off by the same question: How big is he?

"I got a present for you," Schulz says to Cato as he tosses him a jar with a protein supplement he grabbed in Indianapolis. "Put that in your milk and eat that.

"They were giving away free s--- -- stuff -- I'm sorry. As much as I could fit in the bag, I brought home."

Selling Cato is a full-time gig, which would be easier if Schulz didn't have another job as a personal injury lawyer in Boca. Lawyering pays the bills for him right now. Much like his client, Schulz is learning and doesn't completely grasp the ways of the NFL yet. But he's loaded with energy and enthusiasm, which is good because Cato, at times, seems indifferent, encased by a cast-iron shell that does not seem to crack.

Much of that comes from growing up without parents in Liberty City, a neighborhood in Miami so crime-ridden and poor that it's the backdrop for the video game "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City." There's this emptiness in Cato's eyes; often, even Schulz has no idea what he's thinking. Is he angry because he believes he's a superstar and isn't being treated like one? Or is he terrified about what he'll do if this doesn't work out?

CATO AND SCHULZ are flying around the edges of the NFL, eyes wide, knuckles white. It's easy to feel lost here, in this world of insiders and secrets. There is no way to know where you stand. The reality in the NFL is that if you are not Winston, Mariota or one of the locks for the first few rounds of the draft, you are in four months of limbo.

The phone doesn't ring. Maybe a team is really interested and doesn't want to tip its hand; maybe the player just isn't good enough. But how does anyone truly know?

Schulz has three clients -- Cato, Marshall wideout Tommy Shuler and Auburn defensive back Robenson Therezie. None of them was invited to the combine. This is a typical haul for first-year agents, a handful of fringe players, a ton of selling.

Schulz is 37 years old and does not totally understand the way young men think, which is why he occasionally asks his 23-year-old girlfriend, Sarah Conwell, advice on helping him relate. Shuler has grown close enough to Schulz that he calls him "Pops." Shuler is indeed making a dig at his age, but the nickname is more endearing than that. He considers Schulz a father "when our fathers are not there for us."

Cato has been a tougher connection. The quarterback rarely smiles. He looks older than his 23 years with a receding hairline and face hardened from disappointment. "He smiles when he wins," says his college coach, Doc Holliday. Schulz, conversely, is almost always wearing a schmoozy grin. He has a goofy side. He can be seen on his law firm's YouTube channel doing the Harlem Shake while wearing a panda hat.

Because of Cato's limitations, because this league chews up and spits out even the prototype quarterbacks, Schulz did not see dollar signs when he met Cato. The quarterback was sort of a package deal with Shuler, his childhood friend from Liberty City. But once Schulz met Cato, he was desperate to land him.

For starters, there's an obvious appeal with quarterbacks. And Cato was a relatively well-known name. He broke Russell Wilson's FBS record for most consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass (39) in October, and, for a few glorious weeks in November, Marshall was flirting with an undefeated season and national prominence. But then came a crushing 67-66 overtime loss to Western Kentucky, ending Cato's chance for more exposure. He was inconsolable after that game. He blamed himself for the loss, then went home and slept for 14 straight hours.

Cato is convinced things would be different for him now had he not thrown four interceptions to go with his seven touchdowns in that game, had Marshall grabbed some of the spotlight. "I think it would be a lot different," he says. "Because undefeated is undefeated. Truthfully, I think I would've been invited to the combine off that."

But back to his courtship with Schulz. The agent wanted him so badly that he promised everything would be first class. He'd put up nearly $30,000 to pay for Cato's pre-draft training, lodging in Boca and the rental of a brand-new Ford Mustang. Gotta spend money to make money, Schulz says. Since Schulz is just starting, and isn't flush with cash, he got help from Global Sports Management's Jon Rabinowitz and Shawn Freibert. They split the costs, and maintain their own agencies. Rabinowitz and Freibert know the business. They give Schulz contacts and legitimacy.

Schulz worries that Cato will eventually dump him for other representation if the quarterback doesn't get the results he's hoping for. Schulz calls or texts his clients constantly, trying to give them a personal touch that the big-time agencies might not be able to do because they're too busy.

But Schulz is plenty busy, too. Boca Raton is full of snowbirds and money and weirdness, and Schulz's day job has him dabbling into just about everything. He recently wrapped up a lawsuit dealing with a dog bite. His client needed plastic surgery. He also handles car wrecks, medical malpractice, and slips, trips and falls.

He chuckles at the term, "ambulance chaser."

"The perception is that anybody who files a lawsuit is a bad person or a bane of society," Schulz says. "I learned that 99 percent of that is media-driven or insurance-driven. Like any other business, there are scumbags who milk the system. I tell people, if you go in with good intentions, those are the people who always do well."

The personal injury business is ultracompetitive in South Florida, Schulz says, which makes it similar to being a sports agent. He's more of a salesman than a contract negotiator. He wanted to be an athlete, and played college basketball for a couple of years at Averett University, then he wanted to be an athletic director but didn't want to toil away making $25,000 a year to start at a lower-end job. Being an agent allows him to still be around sports and have a stake in it.

He says he got into the agent business for the personal relationships. He's OK with just breaking even right now. But he wants to do more than that eventually. Schulz knows it will take time. It will take some good experiences with the right clients. He believes that if Cato can get into an NFL camp, the right camp, he can impress the team personnel with his arm and possibly stick.

"I love the kid," he says. "I want him to succeed. Whatever ups and downs he goes through … . It's just like having a girlfriend, for Christ's sake. You're kind of in it together."

CATO KNEW, by the time he was 6 or 7, that he was meant to be a quarterback. He had just started playing football. A coach tried to put him at wide receiver, and Cato hated it. After the second or third practice, Cato was throwing rocks into a lake. The coach noticed his arm and asked him to throw a few footballs. Cato didn't play wide receiver again.

He was 13 years old when he lost his mother. Juannese Cato was a single mom who worked two jobs, cooked and cleaned, and made sure Rakeem did his homework. She signed him up for football and went to his practices. And then she caught pneumonia and was gone. He called his mom his "Queen." He still calls her that.

"When she left," Cato says, "it kind of put me back in a place where I didn't know where I was going to get my next meal from, where I was going to get clothes from. I didn't know where I was going to lay my head."

His older siblings tried to raise him, but they were kids, too. Cato said he had to grow up and be a man. At 13. Football was always his way out of Liberty City, and now he was even more desperate. He vowed to use his rocket arm to support his family.

At Marshall, he could escape the sadness of home and the dangers of Liberty City and focus on football. And although he weighed just 155 pounds when he arrived, Cato was good enough to earn the starting job as a true freshman. Holliday loved his competitiveness. Because he'd already been through so much adversity, nothing seemed too big.

But Cato did lose his cool that freshman year, getting into an animated spat with former Marshall quarterbacks coach Tony Petersen on the sideline phone, and Holliday benched him for four games. He didn't blame Cato for the outbursts. "Here's a kid for 18 years who'd never been told when to go to bed, when to get up, when to go to school, when to eat or anything," Holliday says. "So, when we got him he had no clue what discipline even was. The only way he was going to learn was to take something away from him that he loved, and that was football."

When Cato finally got to play again, it was with a new resolve. He won a bowl game that freshman season, and eventually amassed the equivalent of more than eight miles in completed yardage in a four-year career. He became the most prolific quarterback in Marshall history, surpassing Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich.

At night, Cato would talk to his mother in bed. He'd tell her he loved her. He'd tell her she was the best mom ever. He believed his dreams were coming true.

WITH NO COMBINE to impress the scouts, March 11, Marshall's pro day, was one of the biggest days of Cato's life. Cato said it was his day to show the world what he could do. Schulz gave him a pep talk the night before. He told Cato he was praying for him.

"'Preciate it," Cato casually replied. "I got ya."

Then Cato stepped on a scale the next morning and underwhelmed. He was lighter than his college days. Cato pulled his hamstring during the workout, but he managed to finish. Eleven NFL scouts were represented.

Schulz took Cato and Shuler out to lunch when it was over, ordering a bunch of food. Cato ate half of his meal.

Then Cato went back to Liberty City to stay with his sister, and silence reigned. The NFL Network's Gil Brandt put out a list of the top 26 quarterbacks in this year's draft, a group that includes Miami backup Ryan Williams, who attempted one pass in 2014 (an incompletion). Cato was not in the top 26.

Brandt is concerned about Cato's size, his speed and the competition he played.

"I think he might've been somewhat of a product of the system he was in," Brandt says.

"He's one of those guys that's done well at the college level but has failed to move on. … There are very productive players on the college level that don't get drafted in the National Football League."

Those who have seen Cato up close refuse to believe there is not a place for him in the NFL. Holliday scoffs at the scouts who say he's too small and frail. He says Cato never missed a practice in four years at Marshall.

"Sometimes I wonder what these people are looking for," Holliday says. "I talk to the NFL people and I talk to the scouts and [they say], 'Well, he's 178 pounds and he's not big enough. Well, there's a lot of quarterbacks in that league that aren't very good. And he can make all the throws and do all of those things."

Ken Mastrole, a quarterback trainer who worked with Teddy Bridgewater before last year's draft, believes Cato just needs a chance. He remembers the knocks on Bridgewater last spring -- that he was too skinny, that he was going to drop out of the first round of the draft. That didn't happen, and Bridgewater became one of the biggest rookie success stories of the 2014 season at Minnesota.

Bridgewater was such a student of the game, Mastrole says, it was like watching film with a 10-year veteran. Mastrole hasn't seen that exact passion for film study from Cato, but he believes Cato can throw as well as anyone in this year's draft.

"You're going to get the best out of every throw," Mastrole says. "There's never going to be a dull moment. I don't think there was one throw during the whole time we worked together that he didn't make a statement on every rep that he took out there.

"Most guys, they have reps where they take some time off. They don't go full speed. Not with Cato. It's almost like he puts his stamp where … you feel everything he's gone through throughout his life in every rep."

But in South Florida, things are quiet. Schulz won't come out and say that he hasn't gotten much feedback on Cato. But he will say he's gotten calls on Shuler and Therezie. He thinks Therezie should be drafted.

Schulz shifts to rah-rah mode when talking about Cato. The kid's been dealing with people counting him out his whole life, Schulz says. Did he listen when the critics didn't believe he was good enough to be a college quarterback? He lives for this, people doubting him. But even the most Pollyannaish agent would have a few doubts right now.

If Cato can't latch onto a team and get into a camp this year, his window likely will close. Next year, there will be a new batch of quarterbacks, younger and bigger.

Cato says he won't allow himself to think about that. "I can't," he says, three times. He has more riding on this than ever before. Cato, who is single, has two daughters, Jaela and Chloe, who are under the age of 3. He wants to give them a better life. He has to make it.

A FEW WEEKS AGO, Schulz talked to Cato about the Canadian Football League. It's a great Plan B, Schulz told him. It's a lifeline, just in case. Schulz could not tell how receptive Cato was to this. Cato barely said a thing.

Schulz arranged for Cato to go to a CFL workout in Tampa in early April. First, he'd go to a workout the Miami Dolphins hold every year for the top local players, then he'd hop on a plane and go to Tampa to audition for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Schulz got a call over the weekend. Cato never got on the plane.

Schulz called him to ask what happened, and Cato said that he had a hard workout with Miami and that his body wasn't ready to do the CFL minicamp. Translation: Cato doesn't want to go down that avenue unless it's his final option.

Schulz was dumbfounded that a kid so desperate to play football would jeopardize a chance to save his career. "But what are you going to do?" he says.

Cato is convinced he can play in the NFL. But no one can bank on him getting that chance.

On the third day of the draft, Schulz plans to throw a party. He'll grill hamburgers and have the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight on at night, when he hopes to be fielding a flurry of calls from NFL teams. Shuler and Therezie plan to be there. Cato will not.

Maybe that's appropriate. Cato won't let Schulz in to see his emotions, good or bad.

They have bonded a couple of times -- in Los Angeles, driving around before Cato competed in an all-star game, and last winter when Schulz's mother died. One of the last things Schulz did with his mom was watch Cato and Shuler play a football game. He was glad he was able to do that, that she could sort of get to know the young men who will help shape her son's future. Even if Schulz still doesn't truly know Cato himself.

"Sometimes I think he hates me," he says. "Other times, it's like I'm all he has."