By Josh Gleason
"A beast on the field and a gentleman off it," senior safety Zeke Motta explained of how he hopes Notre Dame fans will recall his career, which enters its final season in 2012.
"Someone who was a silent, but important leader by the way that I carry myself and definitely a man who has tried to embrace what the University has given him."
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Motta has one final season to rush out of the tunnel at famed Notre Dame Stadium and make his impact on the field, but whether his future holds an extended tenure in the game he loves or a career in his selected field of industrial design, it is already obvious that Motta has done everything in his power to construct a legacy worth remembering.
Throughout each phase of his life, there have been two constants: football and family.
Even when he began to play football in a fourth grade recreational league, the sport was all about family for Ezekiel Edward Motta and his father Bill. The elder was a high school pigskin coach and readily "stooped" to the recreation leagues for the chance to coach his son.
"I was always around football, just on the sidelines watching their practice," the younger Motta recalls. "I would set up all the dummies and tackle them and I just thought it was really fun."
While the innocent tackling dummies provided the spark for his eventual passion, Motta was a well-rounded athlete as a kid. He dabbled in track, basketball and baseball at younger ages before settling into two sports known to many by the same name. In addition to American football, Motta also played competitive traveling "futbal" a.k.a. soccer.
"Soccer helped a lot with my footwork and my dad was also my coach for that up until middle school when I started traveling around and playing more competitively," he remembers. "I think that was a little too much for him. Soccer was never really his thing, but I think he liked it because he was able to coach me."
In eighth grade and after just four years of playing football, Zeke told his father that he wanted to emulate those he regularly watched on television and play in college and even, perhaps, the National Football League.
"I was pretty athletic and I knew that. I thought I would really like to give it a shot to play collegiate football and then hopefully play in the NFL," Motta says. "Once I told my dad that, he was very supportive to getting me on the right track to pursuing those dreams."
Father and son, the Motta's would head to school early for morning workouts throughout eighth and ninth grade. By the 10th grade, Motta was lifting weights with the Vero Beach H.S. team with dad still by his side as the team's defensive coordinator.
The rest of the former linebacker's high school career was one for the ages. In one of the nation's hotbeds for football talent, Motta was among the elite. A two-time Class 6A all-state selection, he capped his high school career with 137 tackles - eight for a loss - and six sacks as a senior. Ranked in the top 10 prospects in the state and 54th nationally in the Rivals.com rankings, Motta was a highly sought after commodity, but the path to college was still not easy. It took significant effort on-and-off the field to stand out in the cutthroat world of recruiting.
Who was there to lighten the load, though? None other than Bill Motta.
"Florida International was my first offer and from there they started pouring in after this trip me and my dad did the summer after my junior year," Zeke explains. "We went out and got exposure and did all the camps and workouts trying to get on some colleges' radars. That was really exciting and it was cool for me and my dad to travel around and do all that together."
An early sign that Zeke would be as successful off the field as on was how he went about making his college decision. His dream of playing at the biggest collegiate stage and potentially the NFL was always at the forefront, but his focus "on going to the school that I thought would provide the best well-rounded lifestyle" was priority number one.
"There is so much you can say," Motta says of his decision to head to South Bend. "It was my official visit that really sold me seeing the atmosphere that this school has. The nostalgia that goes along with it, the tradition, it is just such a special place. I wasn't willing to pass that up even for some of the bigger schools in the SEC like Auburn and Florida which were closer to home."
In three years at Notre Dame, Motta has played in 38-straight games, including making 16 starts. Despite still being a high school coach 1,200 miles away, his father has also not missed being in person for each one of those games. Much of the younger Motta's perspective on football and life come from the dedicated teaching of his father.
"He's taught me a way of life and how to approach the things that you want to be successful at," Zeke says of his dad. "There are a lot of sacrifices you have to make and I have been fortunate to have that type of leadership to look up to. Despite my mom never really being around, he has always been there for me and that has always been one of my main motivations to really provide for my family and to give back."
"I don't want to waste the talent that God has given me or waste the opportunity that I have here," he continues. "I am definitely approaching each day and cherishing each day, giving back to the Lord. That is the way I want to live my life."
While admitting to being a little distracted by all that is college football as a freshman, Motta has learned to understand and appreciate it all. After excelling in high school based on his athleticism, Motta's greatest hurdles have been in mental preparation and the speed of the game. He credits the Irish coaching staff as well as the example of former Notre Dame and current Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith for his development.
"I looked up to Harrison because he was a guy who was a similar body type and we were comparable in our game play so I tried to look up to him and emulate his style," Motta explains. "The coaching staff played an important part in helping me elevate my game to the next level and really slow things down and get that understanding of the game, knowing how offenses think and why they are trying to do what they are doing."
Motta's journey to elevate his game has also been largely based on experience. One of only a handful of Irish to play in every game the last three years, he ranks third among active Notre Dame players with 102 tackles. Some of his strongest outings came at the end of last season, including returning a fumble 29 yards for his first career touchdown in the Champs Sports Bowl against Florida State.
"The experience of being out there and getting used to the game from a freshman until now really helps my confidence, helps me play faster, and recognize smaller details," Motta continues. "There is still a lot of growing that I need to do and I can become a lot better, but I think that game (Florida State) signified my focus and approach to the game and my patience really taking all the coaching that I have received over the last couple years and putting it all together."
With experience and confidence from a strong individual finish to last season, Motta is prepared for a big finale in an Irish uniform, not only for himself, but also for the team. Despite having some milestone individual moments on the field late in 2011, very few things stung him worse than the back-to-back losses the Irish suffered to end the year.
"We hate to lose so anytime we lose it is not a good feeling for me even if I did have a good game," he explains. "I still always look to improve and there were definitely some plays that I could have done better. I am here to compete and I want to be the best. Despite how selfish that may seem, I think we all want to achieve that level of competition and greatness and I think that applies to the entire defense and team as well."
In fact, Motta is making sure that level of competitiveness and pursuit of greatness is intrinsic in the entire team by taking on an increased leadership role. Fitting with his personality, Motta does not typically lead via the large group motivational speech. Instead, he quietly recognizes opportunities to pull teammates aside, critiquing, encouraging, and increasing their level of knowledge of the game while drawing on his vast experience in their shoes.
"I think it helps to have a teammate approach instead of just a coach telling you what to do all the time," he explains. "I've got a lot of support from my teammates and I support all my teammates so it's kind of a family of brotherly love."
Motta is hopeful that a standout senior season will propel him to his dreams of playing in the NFL, but it is far from his focus. The most pressing concern is taking advantage of every opportunity to become the best football player and the best man he can be: a beast on the field and a gentleman off it.