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Licata’s success on football field is a family affair

The phrase “family over everything” is more than just 20 characters that look nice in a tweet or following a hashtag on Instagram for the Licata family. § When a sister runs up a Hamburg bleacher to yell at a father participating in a chant against her younger brother, or a brother flies back early from a Cancun vacation to see a younger sister play in a state semifinal, or a family travels around the country to attend a game shown free on the Internet, it’s taking those words to heart. § The Licata’s Williamsville residence is more than home to one of the more successful quarterbacks in UB history, Joe Licata. It’s a place that welcomes anyone with a connection to the family. The initial and strongest bond may start with the Licata name, but it doesn’t end there. § When former UB wide receiver Fred Lee’s car broke down, he didn’t contact AAA. He called Gil Licata, the patriarch of the Licata household, to help him in a pinch. When Division I football players are looking for a hot meal before a big game, Paula Licata, the matriarch, is cooking up a whopping 10 pounds of pasta and sauce with the help of her daughters, Rachel, Claire and Grace. When Khalil Mack and Branden Oliver were in Buffalo during July, they stopped by the Licata household. Joe had previous plans. No matter. The professional football players caught up with Gil for more than four hours.

This will be Joe’s final season as UB’s quarterback. After starting only four games as a heralded freshman out of Williamsvile South, where he set Western New York career records for passing yards and touchdowns, he’s on his way to one of the great statistical careers in Bulls history.

At UB, Joe already holds school single-game records for yards and completions. Last season, he set school single-season marks for QB rating and passing touchdowns and finished third for yards, completions and completion percentage. He trails Drew Willy by 2,232 yards and 306 completions for No. 1 all-time in those categories and leads Willy by eight in all-time touchdown passes.

Starting quarterback for the University at Buffalo. It’s what Joe dreamed of since he was in seventh grade. It’s what he thought of when he looked toward the UB Stadium lights from his bedroom window.

The dream wasn’t only for him. It was for his family, community and friends. Licata remembers the feeling around the 2008 Mid-American champion Bulls. He also remembers the down years that led to frustrations.

He knew he couldn’t build a culture alone. Not single-handedly, but with the help of teammates, community and family.

“When it comes down to it,” Joe said, “walking off the field, seeing my sisters and mom standing there and my dad pacing around the 200 level, I couldn’t see not doing that every Saturday.”

And Joe’s been able to walk with his head held high for the majority of his first three seasons. He’s 11-3 in 14 home starts. He has a 26-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio at home and had a 15-to-4 ratio last season.

But to really understand what these UB years have meant to Joe it’s necessary to note the group of people he calls most important in his life: family.

United they stand

The Licatas are as close as a family can be.

The father, Gil, is a former basketball coach with a state title at Turner-Carroll. Gil played basketball at Medaille College after the coach found him playing in Delaware Park. He’s entering his 17th year as Starpoint principal, and the humble father refuses to take any credit for his children’s successes.

Joe calls Gil his “hero.” Joe, who earned his history degree in four years at UB, has goals of playing professional football, whether in the NFL or CFL. Eventually, he wants to become a high school football coach. Coaching is in the blood.

Paula Licata is the classic doting Italian mother, the woman who turned Joe into a proud-to-declare Mama’s Boy. Paula works with the elderly to help get them started on Medicaid when they can’t afford private plans. She can even guilt a stranger into having dessert.

Then there are the sisters, who are some of Joe’s closest friends. Rachel, 26, played more of a motherly role among the siblings. After working with the Bills for about five years, she’s recently been promoted to work in digital media for Pegula Sports and Entertainment. She played basketball and field hockey in high school and when it comes to organizing family events, she’s both offensive and defensive coordinator.

Claire, the second oldest, may have been Joe’s first sports rival. Claire, 25, is three years older than Joe. The two used to play basketball for hours in their driveway and Claire was taller than Joe, with a self-proclaimed deadly hook shot that the future Division I quarterback couldn’t stop.

“She used to kill me,” Joe said. “She used to make fun of me. She used to bully the heck out of me when I was a kid. She’d make fun of me all the time but I think that’s what made us pretty close.”

Claire was allowed to tease her brother, but nobody else could. When a Hamburg crowd chanted at Joe for an off game, Claire was the first one to run up the bleachers and put the hecklers in their place.

“If someone is talking bad about me, she’s the first one to get on ’em,” Joe said. “She gets that from my dad, the sticking up for the family and pride in your name.”

Now Claire is a ninth grade special education teacher at Olmsted. She’s getting her master’s in education at Buffalo State and happens to be quite the coach as well. Last year, she guided a modified girls basketball team to an undefeated record.

Grace, 18, is the baby of the family. She played a pivotal role in Williamsville South’s first girl’s basketball state championship last season. She’ll play at Buffalo State next year because, just like Joe, she couldn’t see herself playing away from home.

Grace wore No. 24 at Williamsville South – just like Joe, a talented shooter, did in his basketball days.

“I just thought it would be a cool thing to do,” Grace said, “to wear it because my brother wore it and he was so successful and hopefully I would be like him and be as good of a person and be as good of a basketball player as he was.”

Joe is extremely proud of Grace’s basketball skills – a look at his Twitter account from last winter makes that abundantly clear. Exactly how much does Joe care? Enough to shorten his Cancun vacation with friends to surprise his sister and be at the state semifinal game.

“Honestly, I was surprised, don’t get me wrong,” Grace said. “But thinking about it later and even right now, he would never have missed it.”

All four Licata children starred on the basketball court. When Joe’s football career is over, he wants to get all the siblings to play in the three-on-three Gus Macker basketball tournament in Buffalo. The team name? “Gil’s Creation.”

Hometown hero

Even with strong family support, it’s not always easy playing for your hometown school.

Licata was being touted as a savior even before stepping on campus. As a high school senior he won the Connolly Cup as Western New York’s top football player and was The News Player of the Year. The university student newspaper, The Spectrum, wrote an article when he committed titled, “Help is on the way.” Licata’s mother loves the title, but Joe said it just added to the hype.

“There was some pressure, obviously,” Joe said. “Hometown kid, supposed to start right away, I’m supposed to save the city. Actually my mom and I talked about it when I was being recruited like ‘Are you sure you’re going to be able to handle it?’ and I was like, ‘Mom, I love challenges.’ Obviously I wouldn’t play quarterback if I didn’t.”

He hasn’t only accepted the role but embraced it. Joe has no issues being in front of the camera. And behind the scenes, he’s giving graduation speeches, like the one he made this summer at Buffalo’s Global Concepts Charter School.

Gil said Joe’s maturity really shined in early moments at UB. Gil knew it wasn’t always going to be easy for Joe. When Joe redshirted as a freshman and didn’t open the next season as the starter, he was upset. He wasn’t used to sitting and he wanted to show Buffalo that the hype around him wasn’t just talk. Joe relied on his family to get him through those times.

“It was tough,” Joe said. “I had a lot of conversations with my dad about that. Just asking him ‘What should I do? Why isn’t this going my way?’ But he just made me stick with it and keep working hard like he always taught me.”

Joe’s ability to play through pain certainly earned him respect. He had offseason surgeries after his sophomore and junior years. He’s played the majority of his college career injured but trying to conceal it as much as possible.

But this year is his chance to do what he always dreamed of – bring a MAC championship back to Buffalo. It won’t be easy as UB is coming off a 5-6 season and graduated key defenders and three of the five starting offensive linemen. But Joe’s excited about the addition of head coach Lance Leipold and the new offense.

He enjoys how “it puts a lot of reads on the quarterback. The system is based around the quarterback.”

The Licata way

Paula becomes emotional just thinking about this being Joe’s final season at UB. She’s seen all the work and rehabilitation he’s put into becoming the best player he can.

Joe’s parents have never missed a game and there’s been at least one Licata sister at every game except when Buffalo played at Baylor in 2013.

The family will never forget Joe’s first touchdown to Alex Neutz, which came on his first collegiate pass. They were watching up in a box and nervously holding each other once Joe stepped on the field. When he threw the touchdown they were screaming and jumping up and down to the point where someone from the next box came over to make sure everything was OK.

That someone was former Bills play-by-play announcer Van Miller. Rachel, who knew Miller from her work with the Bills, explained to him that Joe was their brother. Then, the Licatas asked Miller if he would call the touchdown pass for them. Miller obliged.

“It was surreal because he was Van Miller doing what he does best and talking about my kid,” Paula said.

Senior wide receiver Ron Willoughby, also Licata’s roommate since freshman year, said it’s nearly impossible to go out with Joe in public without being stopped by a member of the community. Joe obliges and never turns anybody away, a trait that comes from his family.

Even with all the praise, records and accolades he’s earned, Joe said the best compliment he received was when a kid asked to take a picture with “Buffalo Joe” after a UB game.

When Willoughby hurt himself two years ago, Paula offered to drive him to the doctor.

“Some people that are a little homesick,” Willoughby said, “you can go to Joe’s house and you are with his family and you kind of feel like you are home almost.”

Whether it was Gil keeping Joe on the right path, Paula making sure he was well fed, Rachel’s open ear, Claire’s security or Grace keeping the name strong at Williamsville South, Joe’s always had someone he can turn to. It’s a major reason he wanted to go to UB.

“There was pretty much no chance I was leaving,” Joe said. “It’s deeper than football.”

It’s family.

email: oobrien@buffnews.com