UB quarterback Joe Licata plays for the name on the front - and the back
For Licata, it’s always been about playing for family and team
Joe Licata often can’t sleep the night before a game. At 5:30 a.m. Friday morning, hours before the Buffalo senior quarterback’s final college game, he texted his mother, father and three sisters in a family group chat.
“I hope you get the same thrill I do every time they say our last name,” the text message said.
The Licata family has heard its last name over the UB Stadium PA system a lot over the past four seasons. That’s what happens when your son and brother is the program’s all-time leader in touchdown passes and passing yards and is featured on just about every UB football billboard, poster and graphic. And for Joe, it’s always been about using the spotlight to represent his family as well as his team and university.
Senior quarterback Joe Licata hugs freshman center James O'Hagan after a tough, season-ending 31-26 loss to Massachusetts at UB Stadium Friday. It was the final game of Licata's UB career.
“People talk about not playing for the name on the back of the jersey but the name on the front, but I really think that if you have pride in yourself and you play for the name on the back, it’s all encompassing,” Joe said. “I’m proud to represent our family and I’ve always tried to make my entire family proud and I hope I did.”
Joe’s played every single game of his college career with family in the stands, and they were there once again for his last game Friday despite wind, rain and a heart-breaking season-ending 31-26 loss to Massachusetts. His father Gil and mother Paula have never missed a game – home or away – while his three sisters have only missed a few.
It’s what Joe, who grew up in Buffalo and chose UB so he could play practically in his own backyard, always wanted.
“It’s a lot easier to walkout onto that field and perform and play your best when you got five people there that are always going to support you and I’m lucky enough to have that,” Joe said.
Bulls home games are self-described family reunions for the Licata family. A crowd of 60 people – composed of cousins, aunts, uncles and Joe’s Williamsville South High School coaches and teammates, some clad in No. 16 jerseys – gather on the 200 level standing section on the East Side of the stadium.
They might just be the liveliest group of fans in the stadium – rowdier than True Blue and at times even louder than the marching band. No Buffalo positive yardage gain or defensive stop goes without some cheering and when Joe throws a touchdown, the three Licata sisters Rachel, Claire and Grace always find one another to embrace in a group hug or as Rachel appropriately calls it, “a huddle.”
The Licatas have always watched Joe’s games from the little-used East side standing section. That’s because Gil can’t sit in the crowd. He likes to pace back and forth as his son and the team moves down the field.
Paula, wearing her own No. 16 jersey and holding Joe’s Senior Day rose, watches the game as any mother would: cheering after her son’s every completion and touchdown but holding her breath every time he’s hit.
“Don’t do that to my son,” she says under her breath as Joe is knocked to the ground after getting off a pass.
Consider Rachel, Joe’s oldest sister who works in digital media for Pegula Sports and Entertainment, as the Licata family’s personal sports information director. She’ll set up interviews with cousin Laura or Williamsville South head coach Kraig Kurzanski for a complete stranger.
Kurzanski, who made it to Joe’s final five home games, says Joe “is Buffalo.” When former Bulls head coach Turner Gill left for Kansas in late 2009, Kurzanski remembers then-head coach Jeff Quinn asking him if Joe was still interested in UB despite the coaching change.
There wasn’t any question about it.
“I think Buffalo is his family now,” Kurzanski said. “It’s wonderful what he’s done and stayed home.”
Paula admits Friday’s game was “melancholy.” Joe’s been at UB for five years and the family has watched him start every game under center for nearly four full seasons.
Joe was visibly upset at the post game press conference and who could blame him? His final pass is a game-ending interception that went off the hands of an open receiver. After leading Buffalo to a bowl game in 2013, his final season will end on a three-game losing streak with no chance of bowl eligibility.
But Joe’s always found support in his family. They usually get together after every game, and they feel the same emotions Joe does – whether it’s the highs of a win or the lows of a loss. In a time when athletes are so publicly criticized by media in newspapers and fans on Twitter, Joe says he loves knowing he can throw five interceptions and his dad will still be standing on the field after the game ready to give him a hug.
Joe, who graduated last May, now turns his attention to going pro. He’ll start looking for an agent and will train for the next few months and as he says, “hopefully get picked up and just go for it.”
“I hope that’s not the last time I took off shoulder pads,” he said after Friday’s game.
As for the rest of the family, it will be a “different way to live life” without watching Joe’s games at UB Stadium, Paula said.
“We were talking about that this morning like, ‘Oh my god, what are we gonna do on Saturday when we go to the mall and do whatever and not have to worry about wearing an extra set of socks or have hand warmers in our pockets?’” Paula said. “It will be very weird.”
As for Joe trying to make the NFL, Paula said her son has the family’s full support – no surprise. It’s what Joe’s wanted since he was a child.
“He wants to live out his dream and we’re there to help make that happen,” she said.
Speaking just minutes after his final game, Joe admitted it was tough in that moment to think about his UB legacy. He’ll probably get his photograph placed somewhere in the new expansion of UB Stadium’s team facilities. The stadium Jumbotron will probably turn to him whenever he visits Bulls games in the future.
“When people look back I just hope they’re happy that a local kid stayed local and had fun playing for the city,” Joe said, “That’s all I ever wanted.”