Joe Licata’s first love, actually, was basketball. It figures. His father, Gil, coached high school hoops for years in Western New York. His earliest memories involve holding a ball that was orange and round.
“I idolized Michael Jordan, just like every other kid,” Licata, UB’s star sophomore quarterback, said Thursday at the UB Stadium.
And what was Jordan’s most famous inspirational quote? He said he had failed “over and over again” in his life, and that’s why he succeeded.
Licata has always been that way as a competitor. It wasn’t his successes that drove him so much as his rare failures. Like so many great athletes, his motivation didn’t come from being patted on the back, but from being knocked down.
When Joe was in second grade, a coach saw him shooting around at halftime of a high school game and told his father to bring him to a camp with much older boys. Paula Licata told her husband it was out of the question. He was too small. Gil took him anyway.
“I go to pick him up from the camp,” Gil recalled. “He gets in the car and starts crying. I thought, ‘Oh, she was right’. I asked Joe why he was crying. He said. ‘I was open and they wouldn’t give me the ball.’ ”
Gil told him to go back the next day and shoot whenever he had the chance. He didn’t need to tell him twice. Joe became one of the finest shooters this area has seen. He started as a freshman at Williamsville South and left as the state’s career leader in three-pointers.
Licata didn’t play football until seventh grade. His athletic ability, touch and natural leadership qualities were ideal for a quarterback. But throwing a football wasn’t as easy as, say, knocking down your free throws.
“Sophomore year, I threw five picks against Williamsville East,” Licata said. “We lost, 14-7. I decided that day that I wanted to play college football.”
You would expect a basketball junkie to do the opposite, to walk away from football and commit to his first love. Instead, failing made him even more determined to succeed as a QB.
“It was a challenge, a new challenge,” Licata said. “I decided I really needed to work on it. I like a challenge. What quarterback doesn’t?”
Licata went on to become the best high school football player in Western New York. He set Western New York records for touchdown passes and passing yardage and led Will South to a sectional final at Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the Billies lost to Sweet Home, 48-15.
Then he took on a new challenge – playing quarterback for the hometown college. A lot of athletes run away the first chance they get. Who wants to stay home and perform under the skeptical eyes of the local fans? It’s a lot safer to go away and tempt failure among strangers.
“Think of being the starting quarterback for a Division I team in your hometown,” said Paula Licata. “Sometimes, I worry about the pressure. But he really does thrive on it.”
Licata dipped his toe in the water. He looked at other schools. Syracuse wanted him. So did Akron and some other small schools. Notre Dame and North Carolina showed interest. But his heart was in Buffalo. When Joe signed, Gil told people, “We drove all over the country to find UB!”
“I love this city,” Licata said. “I really do. I grew up here. I’ve been coming to Bills and UB games my whole life with my dad. I’ve always wanted to stay home and be that guy who brings a championship to Buffalo. That’s been my goal since high school.”
He’s the third of four children, a devoted son who considers his three sisters (Rachel, Clare and Grace) his best friends and brings his UB teammates home for home-cooked Italian dinners every Sunday.
“He’ll be the first to say he’s a mama’s boy,” Paula said. “Honestly, it makes me die laughing when he puts it on Twitter. He has one picture of me bending over the railing hugging him after a game.”
Licata has become an ambassador for UB and Buffalo in general on Twitter. He’s a natural vocal leader, though it took him some time to settle into the role on a UB team loaded with talented upperclassmen.
After he took over the starting QB role last year, the Bulls won three out of four games. After the season, coach Jeff Quinn told Licata he needed to assume more of a leadership role.
“I am the quarterback,” he said, “so I need to step up and be that leader. I think I’ve embraced my role on this team. I have Branden Oliver to hand the ball to. I know we’re a running team. I know I’m not going to throw 50 times a game – unless we need to.”
The Bulls needed it two weeks ago at Toledo, when they fell behind, 38-0, early in the second half. Licata threw for 382 yards and four TDs in the second half (he finished with 497 yards passing) as UB staged a furious rally before falling short, 51-41. Still, it was another example of Licata’s ability to lift himself and his team in trying circumstances.
It will serve him well this Friday, when UB hosts Bowling Green at Ralph Wilson Stadium in a game that will decide the MAC East champion and a trip to the conference title game. Licata will become the first quarterback to start a high school and a college game in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“My mom texted me about it the other day,” he said. “She said, ‘You’re playing at the Ralph for a second time, but let’s change the outcome this time.’ ”
Joe didn’t need reminding. Losses stay with him. The background on his cell phone is a photo of him being sacked a year ago in a 21-7 loss to Bowling Green. Licata played poorly and felt he let his team down. He was sacked seven times. He’s reminded every time he uses his phone.
“It wasn’t a fun game for me, because I didn’t play well,” said Licata, who has thrown at least one TD pass in every game this season. “But I’m more prepared than I was last year. I’ve got a lot more experience. I’m more ready now.”
Gil Licata said Joe always wanted the ball in his hands. He was the type of player coaches trusted, even against older kids. Still, Gil can barely stand to watch. Paula and the girls have seats at the 50-yard line, but he paces around at the top of the 200 level.
Deep down, any parent worries about his child failing. But it’s nice to know your son isn’t afraid, that he embraces the challenge and sees any setback as a chance to make himself and his team better, and to make his town and family proud.
Licata will be able to look back and say he led his team to the Ralph as a high school and college player. He’s not afraid to say he’d like to do it at the NFL level.
“That’s my ultimate dream,” he said. Licata, who is 6-foot-2, knows people will say he’s not athletic enough. But there are some great QBs who can’t run very fast. “There’s room for guys that can throw the ball.”
There’s always room for guys who won’t back down from failure. As Michael Jordan knows, they can be the most dangerous of all.