At St. Joseph’s University they are fond of saying “The Hawk will never die.”
Neither will the confidence of Mike Fornaro, which made the two a perfect fit.
Fornaro’s self-assurance admittedly took a hit the previous three years but he never completely doubted himself. Despite being in the Rutgers men’s soccer program and not seeing one minute of play in an actual game, the Steinert graduate kept telling himself he could be a Division I player.
And now, he’s proving it to everyone else.
The former Spartan All-State player is a junior captain for St. Joe’s, where he started the first six games of the season at center back and played 610 of a possible 620 minutes during that stretch. He played every minute in all but one match. After winning just three games last season, the Hawks surpassed that by mid-September with a 4-3 record with two games remaining before Atlantic 10 play started.
“It’s definitely exciting to be back on the field,” Fornaro said. “It feels like it’s been so long since I’ve been playing seriously when it actually mattered. It’s been really fun. We started off pretty strong. I get along really well with the other guys on the team.”
Most notably, he is the Fornaro of old.
“I feel like I’ve got my confidence back that I lost a little bit at Rutgers,” he said. “When you’re not on the field it’s tough to be confident in yourself. I’m definitely happy again. That’s the most important thing. I’m really enjoying it now.”
Fornaro’s time at Rutgers was one of those life lessons that not everything goes according to plan, and you either adjust or get bowled over. As a walk-on he did not mind redshirting as a freshman while the Knights enjoyed a strong season. But when RU slumped badly the past two years and he still could not get off the bench, Fornaro knew it was time to make a move.
“A couple guys graduated after my first year; and my sophomore year I tried working into the lineup and nothing really came for me,” he said. “Going into my junior year they brought in some younger guys who were playing ahead of me. I saw the writing on the wall. I had to decide if I was going to be stuck on the bench the last two years of my career or try to go somewhere else and get back on the field. So I made the decision now I’m here.”
Despite his lack of playing time, Fornaro has no bitterness toward Rutgers coach Dan Donigan, a fellow Steinert alum.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “There was never any issues, we have good relationship. We never butted heads or anything. Soccer’s a pretty subjective sport, he didn’t see what he wanted in me, but I still have a relationship with him, I just moved on. It’s how sports is, you just have to understand it.”
In the end, Fornaro fell victim to a numbers game, and his abilities were better suited for another program. His ex-coach is thrilled that he found the right situation.
“I like him, he’s a great kid,” Donigan said. “St. Joe’s is a great fit for him, and we are very happy for him.”
Many players whose Division I dreams of glory get smacked down end up transferring to a Division III school figuring on guaranteed playing time. Fornaro still felt he belonged at a high level and never entertained such thoughts.
“I think I prepared myself over the years to play at this level,” he said. “Obviously things just didn’t particularly work out at Rutgers. I knew I could play, we weren’t winning; so to me there was no point in staying with them. Mentally, I felt I should keep challenging myself instead of going to a lower level.”
The schools Fornaro had in mind were St. Joe’s, LaSalle and Delaware, but he targeted St. Joe’s when some players he knew on the team mentioned their need for a center back. Fornaro did some self-promotional work by getting his trainer, James Galanis—credited for much of U.S. Women’s National Team star Carli Lloyd’s development—and U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Bobby Smith to contact St. Joe’s on his behalf.
“After we watched his highlight video, we felt Mike would be able to help us so we started recruiting him from that point,” coach Don D’Ambra said. “We did not recruit him (out of Steinert) because we were not looking for his position that year. But (this time) we felt he was athletic, tough and would add depth to our back line and challenge to get on the field. We also liked the fact that Mike was in a Big 10 program playing with high level players.”
Fornaro transferred to St. Joseph’s last spring and things did not look promising at the outset.
“Mike came in out of shape and actually did not impress much during the spring,” D’Ambra said. “He was not happy, and after several one-v-one meetings with Mike, we told him what he needed to do to be successful for our program.”
Fornaro took the advice to heart and threw himself into a rigorous training program once the spring season ended.
“It was definitely different this summer than the past three summers,” he said. “All the focus was on fitness, getting in the gym, being on the track, getting on the field. That took up my whole summer every day. I knew I had a pretty good chance of being on the field, and when the opportunity came, I wanted to make sure I was ready for it. I played a little bit for NJ Cobra, but in the area where I struggled I knew the games weren’t gonna get me where I needed to be; and having to work on my own was gonna be the real deal (clincher) for me. “
D’Ambra noted that Fornaro reported this fall in top physical condition and as one of the hardest workers on the team. And despite being a newcomer, his attitude made an impression.
“He most importantly showed excellent leadership with how he communicated with his teammates, and they voted him captain along with Ed McCusker and Lou Vilotti,” D’Ambra said.
“It was nice that people take notice of the things you’re doing, like coming in fit and just trying to bring intensity to training, bringing focus, doing all the right things,” Fornaro said. “ It was nice to see other people recognize that, not just myself and coaches. It kind of brought everything full circle back to where it used to be.”
It has been steady progression ever since. As one of the team’s oldest players, he continues to set a positive example of taking care of his body, getting in the training room and hydrating properly. His role in the back depends on the opposition, but he goes at it with zeal.
“Mike’s biggest asset is that he is a tough, fierce competitor and he has excellent leadership qualities,” D’Ambra said. “He works hard, holds not only himself accountable but his teammates as well. He’s very committed to the program on and off the field and loves his teammates. Some kids just excel in the right environment, and Mike gets along with the coaching staff well. He feels valued and he feels he can help the team.”
And while Fornaro’s time at Rutgers won’t make his Top 10 list of athletic achievements, he did take some positives from the experience. Fornaro is still friends with several of the Scarlet Knights players, and he felt that playing against Big Ten caliber players in practice helped make him a better player.
That had its limits, however.
“It’s hard to really learn from the game because you’re not really involved so you’re not as invested in it, Fornaro said.
But perhaps the biggest positive to come out of the situation, is that Fornaro learned that he has the guts and wherewithal to try and improve a situation that might decimate another player.
“I learned more about myself than anything,” said Fornaro, who is still on schedule to graduate with a political science degree in December 2019. “Dealing with adversity, not quitting, believing in yourself, making a move to a new school. There was a point where I was close to quitting, but I feel looking back on that 10 years from now it would have been pretty messed up if I never took a chance and tried to get myself on the field again.
“If I came here and didn’t play, I would understand it. I would understand maybe I wasn’t up to par. But I think deep down I do know I could play at this level, so instead of quitting and just kind of letting it be that, I moved on and got back to a place where I thought I could challenge myself again and have a little new breath of fresh air.”
Sounds like a true Hawk whose spirit will never die.