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PAOLI HAS GAME, WILL TRAVEL
WINDING ROAD FOR QB FINALLY LEADS TO UB

Talk to any junior college transfer, and he usually comes fully equipped with a yarn about his lengthy, drama-laden path to football glory.

That makes Tony Paoli no different than the hundreds of juco athletes who enter the Division I-A level each autumn.

But the University at Buffalo quarterback has his own unique story.

Like the time he was a heavily recruited high school quarterback out of Florida until all the offers dried up because of an injury. There was a stint at an all-boys prep school in Maine before rolling the dice to try and earn a scholarship at UNLV. After realizing he was little more than a practice dummy, he drove down the California coast for two days looking for a junior college to call home.

After two seasons of putting up enough numbers to raise eyebrows, Paoli finally landed at UB, where he'll compete for the starting quarterback job in the fall.

The 6-foot, 220-pound junior from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., worked with the second string for most of spring practice, which concluded Saturday at Walter Kunz Stadium with the annual Blue-White scrimmage.

It should be a lively competition in the fall when Paoli competes against Stewart Sampsel, Chris Moore, Datwan Hemingway and incoming freshmen James Starks of Niagara Falls and Drew Willy of New Jersey. It's a competition coach Jim Hofher said is wide open, and he anticipates it will extend deep into training camp.

"I want to be the starting quarter back," said Paoli, who was 3 of 7 for 48 yards and one touchdown Saturday. "That's what I'm here for."

Sampsel, 3 of 8 for 24 yards and one touchdown Saturday, worked with the first team for most of the spring. Sophomores Moore (shoulder) and Hemingway (academics) missed the entire spring. Sophomore walk-on Rob Boyer was perfect on both of his throws Saturday, totaling 50 yards and a touchdown.

If Paoli does win the job, it will be a long time coming.

His journey for a Division I scholarship began in 1999 when he left Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale and transferred to the more prestigious Plantation High for his senior year. But a right shoulder injury sidelined Paoli for the entire season, and Division I schools took a pass. He then attended Bridgton Academy in Maine and competed against Ivy League I-AA schools.

Paoli threw for 1,800 yards and 16 touchdowns and gained interest from UNLV as a walk-on with perhaps a scholarship in the future if he panned out.

"I wanted to play Division I football," he said. "I didn't care if I walked on or whatnot, but I just wanted an opportunity to play. Being up in Maine you don't get big-time looks, but (UNLV) really liked my tape, and they gave me an official visit for the Spring Game."

He stayed for one season, but the Rebels were set at quarterback. Paoli figured he wouldn't see anything more than scout team action.

"Nothing against UNLV, but I wasn't going to play no matter what," he said. "So I said I'm not going to sit here and do nothing. After the spring game I was like, 'This is a dead end.' There was no ladder to climb."

So Paoli packed up his 1991 Nissan 300ZX with more than 180,000 miles and an engine running hot and drove from Las Vegas to California looking for a junior college. He started in Los Angeles, worked his way down toward San Diego and made stops at seven junior colleges along the way.

"I called more than that, but I wanted to be sure I was in the right place," he said. "I didn't want to have any more situations where I was like, 'Man, this is not a good opportunity for me.' Junior colleges love bounceback players. I didn't get a 'no' from anybody. They were like, 'Come throw it for us, man, hell yeah.' "

He settled on Palomar Junior College in suburban San Diego because of its shotgun, five-wide receiver offense and threw for over 2,600 yards and 23 touchdowns in two seasons. He caught the eye of UB recruiting coordinator Doug Socha and has been enrolled in the school since January.

"I had never been to Buffalo," he said. "I heard about the chicken wings. I pictured the Buffalo Bills, but I didn't know what else to expect."

At least he does now.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could win the job," Paoli said. "It's fun competing, and the bottom line is whoever makes plays and puts us in a situation to win is going to get the job. I'm just excited to be here and have a chance to compete at a Division I school to play football and be the starting quarterback."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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