Millions of young people aspire to become professional athletes, yet very few ever realize that dream. Only 3% of high school football players make the transition to NCAA football while a meager 0.08% make it to the pros. We asked AFL CB Joe Lopez of the Cleveland Gladiators a few questions about his ongoing experience with professional football.
Hook: Tell us a little bit about your background, where are you from?
Joe: Well I’m from Port Jefferson Station NY. Its a nice size town on Long Island. Lived here all my life. Parents moved here from the city to make a better life for my sister and I and it has worked out very well for everyone.
Hook: How long have you been playing football?
Joe: I’ve been playin’ ball every year since 5th grade. I’m almost year out of college now, wow how time flies. In 5th grade It was just backyard football during recess periods. At first I used to just sit back and watch some of my friends play ’cause I just didn’t get it. Then one of them picked me to be on the team. That game I picked off 3 balls and it was a wrap after that. I wanted to play forever. I didn’t start playing organized ball ’til 7th grade and I was horrible. I was a blocking TE and middle linebacker and I was skinny, tall, and not into hitting. It wasn’t ’til the next year I got moved to running back where I really started to love the game.
Hook: Tell us about your collegiate career. What was it like playing for SUNY Cortland?
Joe: When I got to C-State it was definitely an eye-opening experience. It was almost like a job with the time commitment I had to make with practice, meetings, lifting etc., but I loved it all. It was amazing because everyone at Cortland loves sports and everyone who loves sports loves football right? We got great support from not only the student body but faculty, the town, and alumni. I felt at home at Cortland. My family made it easier making sure they made the 4 and a half hour trip to every home game and traveled to the away games as well. In my 4 years I had 3 different positional coaches all of which I highly respected and I’m very thankful for each of them ’cause they all taught me something different to bring to my game. The head coach, Coach Mac, ran a tight ship so it was consistent every year and we won. We won a lot. I loved it! I played with guys I’ll remember for the rest of my life and they are by far some of the best guys I’ve ever met. We poured our heart and soul into every game and never left anything for regret. I’ll always be proud that I was a Red Dragon. We are the only football team to have a Dragon mascot too, that’s legit (laughs)
Hook: At what point did you know you wanted to play professionally?
Joe: I knew I wanted to be a Pro after watching my first ever game, which was the Super Bowl between the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans. I was invited to my friends house down the street to watch the game. I understood only the basics of football at that time. But the excitement surrounding the game, the yelling and screaming at the TV by everyone in the house when something good or bad happened. How that game came within an inch of going entirely in favor of the Titans, I was in awe. Even understanding just the basics the emotions I felt watching like anything can happen and someone can make a play here or there. I got a high off of it (laughs). From then on I wanted to be on TV playing that sport. I wanted to be in the NFL. I wanted to be a Pro football player.
Hook: What has your professional football experience been like so far?
Joe: My opportunity in the Arena Football League has been a blessing man. Truly a blessing. I cried when Utah Blaze called me asking me come in for a TRYOUT! That’s how hyped I was. That whole day was just magical. And when I got there, worked out for two weeks before they signed me, I cried again when I signed the contract. I was so happy! When I put the jersey on for my first game against the New Orleans Voodoo, the arena was already bumping, my pulse was racing we lined up in the tunnel, I had to go to a corner again to shed some tears (laughs). I was emotional man but I don’t care I had a dream to be a pro football player and even though its not the NFL I accomplished it and I knew I could do whatever I set my mind to. That first game was literally an experience, the crowd, the game, how we won off an INT (Defense!) I loved it all. Then we traveled to Cleveland for the last game of the season, had the same amount of fun and loved every minute.
Hook: What teams have you played for/do you play for?
Joe: I got signed to Utah Blaze for the last two games of the 2011 season. I am now signed to the Cleveland Gladiators for the 2012 season.
Hook: How is the AFL different from the NFL?
Joe: The field! This field is so small! There’s little room for error. We play with 8 on each side. The rules are very different but the talent is all the same. Just think of guys running 4.3s and 4.4s (40 yard dash times) but have only 10 yards to get to the endzone. It’s a VERY offensive minded league. I’m going to have my hands full but I’m ready for it.
Hook: How did you balance continuing your education and training?
Joe: During my last semester at Cortland I would lift early in the mornings before classes started. It was just the easiest way to stay on top of it and it kept me motivated knowing I was trying to do something not many have a chance to do, let alone have the guts to do it. After classes I would get another workout in either on a field or a run. When teams called for a workout or I had to travel for one, my professors were very supportive and flexible with my schedule. I just knew what I had to do to be successful and they gave me the opportunity to do it. I had to travel to Canada, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Ohio, New Jersey and some other places to try to make something happen. It wasn’t a question of how am I going to do all this but how long will it take. Once I got my degree, no teams called so I figured I’d pick up courses in Grad School. Thankfully I got in at NYU, but then Cleveland called so now its back to doing what I got to do to be successful.
Hook: What is your most memorable experience as a professional football player?
Joe: The whole opportunity in Utah was just amazing. Probably the most memorable was right before the game in the tunnel. We were getting called out one by one so I had time to find a corner, I took a knee and just looked back at all I had to do to get here, all the support I received, all the people that helped me get here, and what I am going to have to do to make it to the next level. I laughed, I cried, I got myself psyched all within a matter of seconds. Then my name was called, I ran out and told myself “this is only the beginning.”
Hook: What is your ultimate goal professionally?
Joe: The ultimate goal is to get to the NFL, and hopefully get a chance to ride in a parade at the end of the season (laughs).
Joe is a class act and all-around good guy. I’ve had the privilege of seeing him play on the collegiate level and he is truly a dynamic play maker with game changing abilities. While Joe’s professional career is in it’s early stages, he was a standout CB in college. Lopez tied a school record during his senior season with 8 interceptions, was an honorable mention All-American, first-team All-ECAC Southeast and All-New Jersey Athletic Conference honoree. He finished his collegiate career with 12 interceptions. We at TSB wish Joe all the best with his professional career and hope he can achieve his dream of making it all the way to the NFL.