Joseph “Joe” Lopez ’11, a former SUNY Cortland athletic standout, recently signed a professional football contract. But back when he graduated from high school, his senior class superlative had nothing to do with athletics.
“It wasn’t ‘most likely to be signed to a pro team,’” said Lopez, the newest member of the Arena Football League’s Utah Blaze. “It was ‘best singer’.”
Consider Lopez a renaissance man.
Many people might recognize him as the star athlete who earned honorable mention All-America honors and set school records in Cortland. But then there is Joe Lopez, the former member of SUNY Cortland’s a cappella singing group, who sang without instruments as wonderfully as he covered wide receivers.
Lopez grew up as a casual singer who liked re-creating the songs of Michael Jackson and Usher. Although he won a talent show during high school, he considers singing to be a hobby and joined the a cappella group for fun.
In 2008, Lopez connected with Noelle Chaddock Paley, the director of the campus singing group known as A Cappella and the director of Multicultural Life and Diversity, when he took her hip-hop culture class. She grew to admire his singing and his personal values without ever realizing his football talents.
“I knew nothing about his football career, which really is a shame,” Paley said. “I just really liked him as a person.”
Lopez admitted that he was nervous when he tried out for the group in 2009.
“It takes a lot of nerve to just go out and perform in front of a group of people,” he said. “When you’re in shoulder pads and a helmet, no one really sees you. They just know you by your number.”
His raw singing talent and range were evident to Paley.
“The thing about a cappella music is you have to be able to sing,” she said. “There aren’t any holes or cracks to fill in someone who can kind of sing or sort of hold a tune.”
Lopez proved to be easily trainable. And Paley never had to offer the same instructions twice.
Even with Paley’s vote of confidence, Lopez said that learning a cappella was somewhat of a struggle. Growing up, he always tried to replicate what he heard. A cappella singing involved listening to the sounds of his fellow singers.
“It was an interesting dynamic, trying to learn on the go,” he said. “Luckily for me, there were a lot of members who could explain things to me in layman’s terms.”
When it came time for the a cappella group’s Senior Send-Off at the end of the academic year, Lopez carefully picked a song. He decided on “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” the 1991 hit recorded by Bonnie Raitt.
“When he brought it to me, I was like: Really, Joe?” Paley said.
When he performed it, he blew everyone away.
“Everyone got chills,” Paley said.
But the most impressive thing about Lopez is his humility and willingness to help others, she said. Paley remembers how he and other members of the ensemble helped her assemble a barbecue grill at her house during the a cappella group’s senior picnic. After eating with the group, Lopez taught her 10-year-old son how to catch a football.
“What’s most impressive about him is he sets his mind to being a good human being,” she said.
After his first professional game on July 16, a 62-58 come-from-behind victory for Utah, Lopez did something similar. He posed for dozens of pictures and signed close to 100 autographs.
“It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life,” he said.
Arena football is a fast-moving, indoor version of American football played on a 50-yard field with eight players per side. It has been played professionally for decades.
The Utah Blaze wrapped up its season in Cleveland on Friday. Even though he’s headed back to train in his hometown of Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., Lopez is hopeful he can catch on with another professional league, like the Canadian Football League, soon. The ultimate goal, he said, is to become the second SUNY Cortland graduate to play the National Football League, after R-Kal Truluck from 2002-05.
“It’s even crazy to think that the journey isn’t done yet,” Lopez said. “I know that if I keep doing what I do, somebody else will find some interest in me.”
When asked if he would pursue a singing career after football, Lopez laughed it off.
“You never know where life will take you,” he said. “For now, I’m good (singing) in the car and in the shower.”