Joe Splendorio wasn’t always a stand-out wide receiver.
In fact, back in his flag-football days in middle school, he bided his time on the opposite side of the ball, at safety — a lonely position completely subjected to the whims of the offensive playbook.
“My dad was an assistant coach, and at the end of [one] game, he told me not to let anyone get past me,” Splendorio recalled.
Young Joe, however, had different ideas when the ball was hiked.
“The receiver ran a post and beat me deep,” he explained, continuing, “I thought I could knock the ball down, but the guy got behind me.”
Splendorio was burned for a touchdown, and had to deal with the wrath of a disappointed father.
“And I remember my dad just screaming at me from the sidelines,” he reflected, laughing at the distant memory.
Suffice it to say, things have changed quite a bit since Joe’s unsuccessful days languishing in the secondary. Now, it’s Splendorio who strikes fear in the hearts of defensive backfields throughout the Ivy League. As the first-option wide receiver and primary playmaker on the Cornell football team, Joe has gone from flag-football washout to college football sensation.
Last year, Splendorio managed to pick up nearly every piece of individual hardware available; his accolades read like a laundry list: unanimous selection to the All-Ivy first team, the WHCU/Specialty Trophy and Awards , the Pop Warner Player of the Year Award, the Stone Travel “Big Play” Award for offense and the Victor Grohmann Award. He anchored the Red’s wider receiving corps, reeling in 65 passes for 944 yards and 10 touchdowns.
But for all his recent accomplishments, Splendorio, from Maraga, Calif., had a very humble beginning.
Because the Bay Area had no Pop Warner leagues, “I grew up playing flag football [he started in second grade]. I think I’m the only guy [on the team] that played flag-football growing up,” Splendorio said. “Ninth grade was the first time I put pads on.”
That’s when he began developing into the guy the that graces Schoellkopf Field every Saturday in the autumn.
Having entered high school at a lanky 5’9”, 135 pounds, Splendorio quickly ballooned to his current stature of 6’6”, 219 pounds.
However, when Splendorio first came to Cornell as freshman in 1997, it was a different story altogether.
“He used to be fat,” wide receivers coach Brandon Stott put it bluntly. “He used to be over 235-pounds at one point. There were times that we used to make fun of him, that we were going to make him a tight end.
“He was fat,” Stott reiterated.
Going from Campolindo High School to Cornell was, initially at least, a shock to Splendorio’s senses.
“I remember the first time I got in for an actual game [for Cornell],” he described. “Everything was moving so much quicker. I couldn’t believe how much faster the linebackers were moving. The first time I was in a game, my head was spinning.”
Not for long, though. If freshman year saw him catch a meager eight balls in the shadow of former Red great Eric Krawczyk ’98, then his sophomore season witnessed Joe grow into his own as a receiver and shoulder more of the team’s burden on offense.
With 46 catches for 677 yards and six TDs, Splendorio capped the 1998 season by earning a spot on the All-Ivy second-team.
However, gloating apparently isn’t one of Joe’s more noticeable traits.
“Sophomore year, for me personally, I thought I could have done more for the team,” he said, perhaps not realizing that his 677 yards that season ranks seventh all-time on the Cornell receiving list. “It was a growing year for me. I think I learned a lot.”
Whatever knowledge he did indeed pick up, Splendorio put to it good use in 1999 which, by all accounts, was a breakout year and one that would etch his name into the Cornell record books several times.
Cracking the 100-yard barrier in the squad’s first contest against Princeton, Joe accumulated 65 receptions to go along with 944 yards and 10 touchdowns.
A few moments from 1999 campaign both epitomize Joe’s hugely accomplished college career and forecast his capability for success on the next level.
On October 9th, Cornell held a razor-thin 24-23 advantage over Harvard, but with :03 on the clock, the Crimson lined up for a 40-yard field-goal that would have ended the Red’s Ivy title hopes right then and there. In a move that seemed desperate at the time, head coach Pete Mangurian sent Splendorio in to anchor the special teams crew. Not only did Joe vindicate Mangurian by swatting down Mike Giampaolo’s kick, but he also pounced on the Crimson’s Mike Madden who had recovered the ball to preserve Cornell’s 4-0 record.
“Blocking the kick to win was a tremendous feeling,” he said, adding, “It was so exciting.”
“He knew it, he knew when he went [into the game] that he was going to [block the kick],” Stott recollected. “He gets a bigger thrill out of that than catching TDs sometimes.”
In the Red’s final game, at Penn’s Franklin Field, Splendorio leapt over a Quaker double-team to haul in a 31-yard heave from Rahne on the opening snap of the fourth quarter. In addition to being the wideout’s 10th TD on the season, the score also came on a 4th down-and-25, propelling Cornell to a 20-12 win.
“Joe’s a dominant player at this level. He’s got tremendous size and good speed, and he’s a big play guy,” Mangurian described. “The best thing he does is catch the deep ball.”
“He doesn’t have too many weaknesses,” Stott stated, adding a few kudos. “He has unbelievable hands and body control. If the ball’s thrown up, he finds a way to get his body in position to make the play.
“And for guy his size, he runs pretty well.”
But Joe’s most audacious achievement last year may have been his performance in the Dartmouth game.
“He played the whole Dartmouth game last year with a separated shoulder, ’cause he’s dumb,” Stott explained. “Separated his shoulder on the first play of the game, and played the whole game.”
He still managed 11 catches for 130 yards.
As for those record books, Joe added his name to them when, the week before his blocked kick episode, he recorded a blistering 204 receiving yards (on 11 catches), outdoing Krawczyk’s mark of 171 set against Colgate in 1997.
And then, against the Quakers, his 4th-and-25 score was his 17th career TD, drawing him on par with Krawczyk.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know about [the records] until I got the stats sheet after the games,” Splendorio said unpretentiously.
Now, Splendorio has not only filled Krawczyk’s shoes, he has carved out his own place in Cornell lure. And being elected co-captain this season should only prove to further glisten Joe’s reputation.
“I don’t think I’m a guy to rally the troops; I’m not a big rah-rah guy. I know my role on the team is as a playmaker, and when it comes down to times when we need a play, I’m going to be the guy who has to do it,” he expressed.
Although this year’s corps of wide receivers seems to be the cream of the Ivies, Splendorio will nonetheless be the focus of the offense, and knowing him, will try to carry the Red on his shoulder.
“He wants the football in his hands,” Stott lauded. “I’m lucky to have him.”
Next fall, some NFL team could be fortunate to get its hands on Joe, too. According to Stott, several clubs have visited Cornell in order to find out more about Joe and view
some of his game tape.
But Splendorio’s focus nonetheless remains on the upcoming season, and on the Red’s quest for an Ivy title.
“No question about that. The Ivy League championship is something the team has concentrated on since the bus ride home from Penn [last season]. Everything else is secondary,” Splendorio said.
Despite all in individual accomplishments, Joe has never won a football championship. . . not even in flag-football.
The closest he’s come was a baseball title his senior year at Campolindo.
But if all good things come to those who wait, then Joe should be done waiting.
“I think I’m due.”
Archived article by Shiva Nagaraj