Dec. 24, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Past greeted present on Tuesday at Marshall’s Military Bowl practice.
Byron Leftwich, one of the Thundering Herd’s quarterback greats, warmly hugged the guy who now has his old job – Rakeem Cato – and the two chatted about football, life, another of their legendary predecessors, and themselves.
Then, they talked about each other, too.
Leftwich, a Washington, D.C., native, has a home in the area. He will be one of four honorary Thundering Herd captains for the Military Bowl against Maryland on Friday afternoon at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md.
“Hopefully I can get that right … tails,” Leftwich said, laughing. “Other than that, it’s just about being here to spend some time with the guys. I mean, this is in my heart.
“I love that place. I’ll always love it. I’ll always bleed green. I have some fond memories. Some of my best memories in football have been with that M helmet on.”
Leftwich will be joined at Marshall honorary captains by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), retired U.S. Marine Hershel “Woody” Williams of Ona, W.Va., the Medal of Honor recipient for his bravery in World War II at the Battle of Iwo Jima; and Jack Lengyel, who coached the 1971 “Young Thundering Herd” as the MU program began its rebuild following the 1970 football team plane crash that took 75 lives. He later spent 14 years as Navy’s athletic director.
“I grew up here,” said Leftwich, who was the No. 7 overall pick by Jacksonville in the 2002 NFL Draft and played 10 years in the league with four teams. “I’m a D.C. guy. I was very excited to see this green coming up to D.C., get a chance to see ‘em, get close to ‘em. It was good to see these guys out here with the M’s on their head.
“It makes me remember the days when I was one of those guys, a 17-, 18-, 19-year-old guy out there just loving the game of football with that M on the helmet.”
Cato, elected by his teammates as one of five captains for the 2013 season and the bowl game, said the visit by Leftwich – unannounced to the Herd players beforehand – warmed a very cold day on the practice field at St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes School.
And one of the subjects in their discussion was the man most consider the Herd’s greatest QB – Chad Pennington. Leftwich and Cato are pretty much looked upon as Nos. 2 and 3 – but the former said that order might be changing.
“We have one,” said Leftwich, when asked about Marshall star quarterbacks. “He belongs on the list. The way he’s going, he’s trying to take everyone off the list.
“That’s the great thing about it. With Chad, it wasn’t about doing it for myself or my teammates. I just couldn’t allow Chad to view me as a failure or as not being able to handle that job the way he left it. I remember, that’s how I thought about it all of the time.
“I wanted to prove to the guys I played with, the older guys who went undefeated in 1999 (a 13-0 record in Pennington’s senior year). I mean, that was a beautiful team, a team hard to beat, unbeatable.
“When they left (Pennington and his fellow seniors), I put so much so much pressure on myself to make sure that … I may not be able to beat Chad this year, but I was going to sure try. And it worked out for us.
“It was a responsibility I felt, a responsibility I felt toward Chad, and I’m quite sure the same responsibility he felt toward Eric Kresser (Pennington’s predecessor), the same Stan Hill (who followed Leftwich) felt toward me.
“Seeing that young guy (Cato) out there throwing that ball, it’s a beautiful thing to see. He reminds you of when you were that age, out there playing on a week-in, week-out basis. And I’ve told Chad, he (Cato) is trying to take us off the list.”
Leftwich followed Pennington at Marshall as the starter from 2000-02, leading Marshall to a 30-9 record, three bowl wins and two Mid-American Conference titles. His most memorable game was leading the Herd back from a 38-8 halftime deficit to a double-overtime victory over East Carolina in the 2001 GMAC Bowl.
“Yeah, that was a good one, a good one,” Leftwich said. “I can remember it like it was yesterday. I still talk to a lot of the guys, the (Steve) Sciullos the (Nate) McPeeks, Josh Davis, the (Darius) Wattses. I still talk to everybody. Sometimes we get together and we don’t bring it up, and sometimes, every time we get together, we bring it up, man.
“And that’s the part about it out on that field, when you’re that age in college, you make a lot of friends with teammates that you’re going to have forever. That’s what it’s about, experiencing all those moments, enjoying all those moments, talking about all those moments. It’s a good thing”.
Most Herd fans view that GMAC Bowl game as Leftwich’s memorable game. Leftwich picked a different “moment,” this one from his senior season of 2002.
“Whoa!” Leftwich responded when asked for his best Herd memory. “We did some special things on the football field in that time frame. I just think a lot of people remember the East Carolina bowl game, but to me, as crazy as it sounds, it’s the Akron game where I broke my leg (and linemen Sciullo and Steve Perretta lifted Leftwich off his feet and carried the QB from one from one play to another on one drive).
“It’s because it wasn’t about win or loss (Akron won, 34-20); it wasn’t even about football. You saw what we were. We were a group of friends who would do anything for one another. We just happened to be playing on the same football team.
“And when you play like that, it shows. And all the things we accomplished came from us being great friends and teammates … Everything we did, nothing was done individually, it was done as a team, and you never forget that.”
Pennington, Leftwich and Cato rank Nos. 1-3, in that order, in career pass attempts, completions, yards, scoring passes and total offense at Marshall. And with a senior season to play in 2014, the current QB may own some of those Pennington marks, passing Leftwich on the way.
Cato enters the Military Bowl with 88 career TD passes, just one fewer than Leftwich had at Marshall. Pennington had 115. Entering Friday’s game, Cato is second in career completion percentage (.639) to Leftwich’s .651, while Pennington is third at .634.
When told that Cato looks to Pennington and Leftwich as more than predecessors – and as targets to chase -- in his position at Marshall, Leftwich nodded. He understood, he said.
“I think you kind of need it,” said Leftwhich, who turns 34 next month. “Everybody wants to be great, and when you put that added pressure on … We kind of want him to know we’re watching, you know? That’s the good thing about it. He knows we’re watching.
“And that’s the great thing about it, is he’s able to go out there and achieve things. History means everything and he understands that. Yes, it’s an added pressure, but it’s a pressure he wants. I know that, because I wanted it. I wanted to have that on my shoulder, so during the week on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, to Saturday.
“I never took a day off, because there’s this little butterfly telling you that you’ve got to do this.”
Cato is doing just that.
“Byron and me, we talk about life,” Cato said. “He’s a cool guy, a fun guy to be around, a fun guy to talk to. Those are great role models. Anytime you can get those two to come by and talk to you or just be around and share that moment, it’s special.
“Not too many guys get the opportunity to have people like that around them. I just cherish the moments to have those guys around me. I ask those guys for advice, not just in football, but how to be a father, how to do things in life. Those two guys, their standards are high and I want to set mine … and I want to follow my dreams just like they follow theirs.”
Told that Leftwich had said Cato was trying to push the two former Herd quarterbacks “off the list,” the current Herd QB grinned.
“He did tell me that; we just talked about it on the field,” Cato said. “He told me when he was chasing Chad, he’d always call Chad and say, ‘I got your number now. I got your completion number.’ He said the one thing was, Chad was in triple digits in touchdowns.
“We just had a cool talk with each other.”
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As it turns out, Lengyel – serving as an honorary captain – won’t be the only person with significant Marshall and Naval Academy history at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for the Military Bowl.
George Chaump, who coached the Herd from 1986-89 and then left for the Navy coaching job, will attend the Marshall-Maryland game with two of his daughters … Lynda Chaump is a 1992 Marshall graduate, while Melanie Chaump is a ’95 Maryland graduate.
Chaump, a Marshall Athletics Hall of Fame member, coached the Herd to the 1987 NCAA Division I-AA national championship game. His Herd teams went 33-16-1. He then moved to Navy, where he served as head coach from 1990-94.
Chaump, who came to Marshall after NCAA Division II coaching success at Indiana (Pa.), retired as a high school coach in Harrisburg, Pa., in 2012. He still lives in the Pennsylvania capital city.
Friday’s game will be Chaump’s first time back in Navy’s stadium since his coaching days at the academy. He and his daughters will be seated in Section 6 on the Marshall side of the stadium.