MY VERO: Zeke Motta wants to resume NFL career after injury. But should he?

St. Edward's head football coach Bill Motta holds a photo of son Zeke.

The world-class specialists who performed a second surgery to repair a fractured C1 vertebra in Zeke Motta’s neck earlier this month say they’re hopeful the former Vero Beach High School football star will be able to resume his NFL career in 2015.

But should he?

Even if the surgery was successful? Even if he is medically cleared to play? Even if doctors believe he’s at no greater peril of catastrophic injury than he was before the damage was done?

That was the most pressing of the questions I carried with me last week to the St. Edward’s School weight room, where Bill Motta – Zeke’s dad and the Pirates’ football coach – spent more than an hour talking about his son’s path to the NFL.

Given the severity of Zeke’s injury, which occurred in December and could’ve been fatal, I wanted to know if Bill had any reservations about his son risking a return to football, risking his future, maybe risking his life.

So I asked.

“People who know me as a parent would probably say I’m a little over-protective, and Zeke and I have a close relationship,” said Bill, who coached his son as the defensive coordinator at Vero Beach before taking the St. Edward’s job in 2010. “So when the time comes, I’m sure he’ll come to me for guidance and we’ll discuss it.

“Ultimately, though, this is his journey, his life, and it would be his decision. It’s not my call. He’s a grown man and he makes his own decisions. As a father, I’ll support whatever decision he arrives at.

“I never pushed him into football,” he added. “I never told him he had to play when he was growing up. I’d never tell him not to play now.”

He might not need to.

A fracture of the C1 vertebra, located at the top of the spine, is a serious injury that can impair the ability to breathe and even result in death. In Zeke’s case, the fracture left an 11-millimeter separation in the vertebra – damage that caused him pain but hadn’t yet affected his respiratory system.

“From what we’ve been told,” Bill said, “he was lucky.”

The Mottas can’t say exactly when the fracture occurred, but they believe the initial injury was sustained during a Dec. 8 game at Green Bay, where Zeke, an Atlanta Falcons safety who played mostly on special teams, was left dazed after a jarring hit while covering a second-quarter kickoff.

A week later, however, Zeke made his first NFL start and recorded five tackles in the Falcons’ one-point victory against Washington. He was expected to start again in the Dec. 23 game at San Francisco, but the pain in his neck worsened during practice and the team doctor sent him for a CAT scan.

“I remember the call,” Bill said. “It was a Thursday night, and he said his neck hurt so bad that he could barely climb the stairs to his apartment.”

The scan revealed the fracture and, three days before Christmas at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, a team of specialists led by Dr. Gerald Rodts performed surgery to repair the damage, installing a plate at the front of the vertebrae.

“They told us a second surgery might be necessary if it didn’t heal properly, but Zeke had a great attitude about it and had been doing all the rehab, getting himself back in shape,” Bill said. “When they told him he’d need to have another surgery if he wanted to play football again, he got a little discouraged, which is understandable.”

Rodts delivered the bad news after a follow-up CAT scan taken June 18 showed the fracture hadn’t healed as doctors had hoped. During the second surgery, performed July 7 at the same hospital, doctors inserted another plate at the back of the vertebra and used a bone graft from Zeke’s pelvis to fill the gap.

Zeke is scheduled to undergo another CAT scan in about three months, but he already has returned to his rehab regimen.

“He was down at first, but not for long,” Bill said. “He’s managed to stay pretty positive throughout this thing.”

Zeke earned All-America honors at Notre Dame. He was selected by the Falcons in the seventh round of the 2013 NFL Draft. As a rookie, he played his way from special teams to the starting lineup.

And, at age 24, he’s fiercely determined to play again.

“Right now, there’s absolutely no doubt in his mind that he’ll be back,” Bill said. “That’s why he had the second surgery. Without it, he wouldn’t have any chance to play.”

But should he?

As a longtime sports writer who has covered football at all levels – who has seen the devastating, life-altering impact of severe spinal injuries – I kept coming back to that question.

Remember: Zeke is a safety, which means his job is to hit people – hard – often while running at full speed.

“He’s a hitter; he loves to hit,” Bill said. “It’s a brutal game, especially at that level.”

It’s a brutal game that Zeke, as much as he wants to, doesn’t need to play. Not only does he possess a degree in industrial design from one of America’s finest universities, but he was also a Notre Dame football star. That combination opens a lot of doors.

“If it turns out that he can’t play again, he’ll certainly have options,” Bill said. “He doesn’t need to play football. And if he can’t play anymore, it’s not going to make him a lesser man or diminish his life.

“Football has never been his identity,” he added. “He loves the game and it’s been a big part of his life, particularly the last few years, but it’s not what he’s about. He has his football friends, but when he comes back here, the guys he hangs out with aren’t football players. They’re surfers, wake boarders, regular guys.

“Zeke has always been more of an abstract guy. He’s going to be successful no matter what he does. This is just part of his journey.”

Bill, a devout Christian, has put his faith in God. He wants his son to do the same. When the time comes to make a decision about whether to risk playing football again, he will ask Zeke to pray about it.

“We’ll see where God leads us,” Bill said.

To that point, Bill recalled a discussion he had with Zeke while they were driving home from the first surgery – a conversation in which his son questioned stories in The Bible and expressed doubt about the veracity of the miracles.

Bill’s response?

“Six of the world’s top cervical surgeons told me they had no medical explanation as to why you’re alive,” Bill said. “You should be dead. You played an NFL game (with a fractured C1 vertebra). … God has something bigger in mind for you.”

And maybe He does.

Maybe it’s on the football field. Maybe it’s in some other field. The Mottas should know in a few months.

Until then, however, Bill will continue to coach, Zeke will continue his rehab and they’ll both wait to see how the neck heals, whether the surgery was a success and what decisions then need to be made.

“We haven’t gone down that road yet,” Bill said. “We don’t talk about it. We’re just taking it one day and one step at a time.”

He paused for a moment, then added, “There’s a saying: It’s better to live one day as a lion than 1,000 years as a lamb.”

It’s understandable that a young man would rather take a chance – even one with such risk – than live with regret. It’s also understandable that the young man’s father would want to support his son’s decision.

But should he?

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