Licata friend in me
While Licata leads Bulls to new territory, No. 1 fan Cronin enjoys the ride
Chris Cronin (left) is freshman quarterback Joe Licata 's biggest fan. Cronin has attended all Licata's games since his days at Williamsville South High School. Courtesy of the Cronin and Licata Families
Chris Cronin is a stat machine. If someone asks how many touchdowns the Bulls threw for last season or when the Bulls last won on the road, he will rattle off the numbers without thought.
The 17-year-old knows the game. Sports are engrained in his life.
But there is more to Cronin than his analytics. He is a motivator, a contagious spirit and redshirt freshman quarterback Joe Licata's biggest fan.
Unlike most of Licata's fan base, Cronin isn't family. At the end of the home football game on Nov. 10, Cronin stood outside the entrance to the Buffalo Bulls' locker room, pacing and waiting to congratulate his favorite player on a big win over Mid-American Conference rival Western Michigan.
Licata took over as quarterback for the Bulls late this season and posted a 3-1 record to go along with 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns. He helped ignite the program's first three-game winning streak since the 2009 season.
But Cronin knew this already. He had been following Licata all season.
Cronin has a learning disability and is unable to go on the field because he was born with a foot deformity, so Cronin's parents refused to let him play the game he loved. They were worried about the risks. So the high school junior manages West Seneca East's football team. It's his way of being connected with his passion.
His optimism and love for the game are contagious to those around him, according to Jim Cronin, his father.
"That's how Chris is in life: he's a motivator," Jim said. "Chris is that sunshine on a cloudy day. His teachers even say he is so enthusiastic and they wish every kid could be like him."
Two years ago, while others on the West Seneca East team were hanging their heads in defeat after a loss to their rivals, Williamsville South, Cronin was on his way across the field to congratulate the opposing quarterback. He was amazed by the offense Licata and his high school team, the Billies, were running.
It was a surprise to the former Williamsville South quarterback. However, for Cronin, it was just part of being an avid sports fan.
"I didn't know who the kid was," said Licata, who holds the New York State passing record for touchdowns in a career (87). "I guess he just liked what our team was doing. You know, we were pretty successful whenever we played at West Seneca East, and I think he just admired what we were doing as a team."
Even though the coaches at West Seneca East were caught off guard as their manager walked across the field, to Jim, it was no surprise that Cronin walked up to the quarterback. He knows Chris has no boundaries.
"With Joe [Licata], I think he just reminds you that [football] is just a game," Jim said. "Yeah, it's the opponent, but he's always happy to go congratulate the other team on a win. He's always proud, regardless of who the other team is."
A few months later, Cronin saw a line in the local newspaper - "Joe Licata, quarterback of Williamsville South" - and he got excited. Licata was set to compete in a local all-star game.
"I thought: this is going to be great," Cronin said. "I kind of walked up to him after the game and said 'good game,' and I re-introduced myself and he looked at me and he said, 'I already know you, buddy.' And I said: 'Really?!'"
Cronin was shocked Licata remembered him. Since then, the two of them have become great friends.
From that point on, Cronin followed Licata throughout the quarterback's career. According to Cronin, they are able to talk about anything and talk to each other a few times a week either through texting or Facebook.
"I love the kid because he's so down to earth," Cronin said. "You don't get that with every Division I quarterback you talk to. And that is what makes Joe separate from the rest. He is, to me, like the story of an underdog. He's the underdog of the UB Bulls. The first game he started, I said: 'This is going to be something great.' It was."
Licata thinks of Cronin as his "biggest fan" and values the friendship they have developed over the past two years.
For Cronin, one of the best moments was when Licata decided to stay local and play football at UB. Licata had offers from other schools. MAC rival Akron and the Big East's Syracuse showed interest in recruiting the highly touted athlete who earned the moniker "Western New York's most decorated quarterback."
However, Buffalo made the most sense to Licata. He wanted to stay home and play in front of his friends and family.
Aside from his relationship with Cronin, Licata is very close with his family, especially his grandfather, Dana Warman, who has been alongside Licata every step of his football career. Warman played football at Michigan, and he has been watching Joe since grammar school. According to Warman: "The nice thing about Joe is that he's a nice kid. He's not cocky or anything."
"I lost my wife this year and Joe's the closest thing I have to family and [his sisters]," Warman said. "Joe makes my life a lot easier. It's wonderful to watch him."
Rachel, Claire and Grace - Joe's sisters, in order of age - agree if they needed anything, Joe would be there "in two seconds."
When he is not throwing spirals on the football field, Joe drives five minutes to his house to spend time with his family.
When Joe was looking at colleges, Grace never thought the day would come when he had to leave home. And he hasn't. Though he lives in Ellicott Complex, he comes home to visit all the time, she said.
His family supports him at every game - including this year's season opener at the University of Georgia, a game in which Joe did not see the field.
"We are here wearing his jersey, but if it were any of us out on that field or that court, he would be [there]," Rachel said. "He is at every one of Grace's [high school] basketball games. He's there for us 110 percent of the time."
Before the 2012 football season, the Bulls' last road win was against Bowling Green on Oct. 2, 2010.
Licata changed that.
He helped the Bulls capture their first road win in over two years against UMass on Nov. 19. Cronin remembers when the Bulls were down 13-0 at the end of the first half.
"They put up 29 points in the second half with Joe Licata at quarterback," Cronin said. "That's unbelievable. That's crazy what Joe Licata did at Massachusetts, what he did against Western Michigan and what he did against Miami Ohio."
The excitement continues for Cronin as he counts down the days until the Bulls' season opener against Big 10 powerhouse Ohio State at Ohio Stadium.
Along with Jim, Chris will make the trip down to Columbus to cheer on Licata and his comrades. Chris could have seen Ohio State play Michigan instead, but he said: "No, I just want to go see Ohio State versus Buffalo because that's [my favorite team]."
UB is Cronin's favorite team largely because of his favorite player.
"Every time I'm waiting for Joe, I'm excited," Cronin said. "I can't wait to see Joe after a win. I'm so pumped! It's kind of like opening gifts on Christmas and just waiting for [Licata] to come out [so I can] say, 'Hi, Joe!'"
Whether Licata will lead the Bulls back to the MAC Championship promise land UB saw in 2008 remains to be seen. But one thing is certain - Cronin will be cheering for No. 16 at the top of his lungs.
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