There's no place like home for Buffalo QB Joe Licata
This goes back to when Levy coached the NFL’s Bills to four consecutive AFC championships (and, alas, four straight Super Bowl losses). He was a learned man, owner of a degree in English literature, and a man who knew what to say to his players, and how.
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So when the Bills pressed around him before a big game, he often asked them this: “Where else would you rather be, than right here, right now?”
Licata long ago concluded that the answer to that question was, simply, nowhere.
A native of the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville, he never seriously considered playing his college ball anywhere but UB. And the experience, he said, has been fulfilling.
No, the Bulls have not won a lot. They finished below .500 in two of Licata’s first three seasons - the only exception being 2013, when they went 8-5 and lost to San Diego State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl - and carry a 2-4 record into Saturday’s home game against Ohio (5-2).
And yes, there are a lot of what-ifs. This year alone Buffalo has lost by six to Bowling Green, three to Nevada and trailed Penn State by six on the road after three quarters before losing, 27-14.
Yet Licata, widely believed to be the finest QB in school history, has been productive. He owns the UB record for touchdown passes in a career (68) and a season (29, last year), as well as the single-game mark for yards (497 against Toledo, in ’13). He is also second on the all-time yardage list (7,891).
Moreover, he has been able to perform before his family, which includes his parents, Gil and Paula, as well as his sisters, Rachel, Claire and Grace. And he has continued to feel the warm embrace of a community that celebrates his triumphs, and supports him after his setbacks.
“Obviously we wish we would have a couple more wins here, but it’s given me a lot,” said Licata, who this season has completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 1,375 yards and eight touchdowns, with six interceptions.
His dad played basketball at Medaille College, and later coached high school ball. His sisters all played (or play) hoops, too. Joe still relishes beating his dad for the first time in one-on-one, in fifth grade, and finally taking down Claire, one of his two older sisters, a year later.
“That (sport) was my first love,” Joe said, “and I grew up expecting to play college basketball.”
He changed his mind after becoming the starting quarterback at Williamsville South as a sophomore, with the turning point a wretched five-interception outing against crosstown rival Williamsville East the final game of the season.
“The next morning,” he said, “I woke up and was like, ‘All right, this is a new challenge, something I really want to do.’ There’s not a lot of 6-2 guys playing in the NBA, but there’s a couple 6-2 quarterbacks playing in the NFL, so I kind of fell in love with it, right then and there, and really wanted to make a run at it.”
He wound up throwing 87 career touchdown passes, a Western New York record, while still starring in basketball. Syracuse offered him a scholarship. So too did Akron, and later North Carolina. But his dad had always taken him to Buffalo games when he was a kid. It was close. It was familiar.
“My heart,” Joe said, “was always home.”
That hasn’t changed, even as he has endured physical setbacks (two hip surgeries) and a coaching change (from Jeff Quinn his first three seasons to Lance Leipold now) – to say nothing of the losing.
He earned a history degree last spring, and would like one day to get into coaching himself. But not just yet. He wants to play as long as he can, hopes his career doesn’t end six games from now.
It’s been nice, though. There is nowhere else he’d rather be.
Above: Buffalo quarterback Joe Licata has taken the comforts of home to become the Bulls' best. (Courtesy Paul Hokanson)