EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. _ The phone call floored Bill Motta and warmed his heart all at the same time.
The former cop, longtime single parent, present-day high school football sage had stopped brushing the dust off the book “A Season of Life” he had given his son, Zeke, years earlier - a gift that had never so much had received a glance at the table of contents.
“I've coached for 25-plus years,” the elder Motta said, “and I've had several parents come up to me and say, ‘My son doesn't listen to me like he listens to you.' And I never really had firsthand knowledge of how that feels from the other side until last summer.”
That's when the painstaking process of Ezekiel Edward Motta's mental evolution as a college football player hit an accelerator - not that the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Notre Dame sophomore safety is anywhere close to a finished product. But that's when the Vero Beach, Fla., product could at least start to see the outline of the big picture.
That's when ND head coach Brian Kelly asked Motta and the other members of the Irish football team to read “A Season of Life.” And Motta devoured it without the least bit of arm-twisting.
“Zeke called me to talk about what a great book it was,” Bill said. “He started to embrace the life lessons beyond football as well as the lessons within football. He said, ‘Dad, I watched a little film today, where I came up a little too fast here.' He was learning. He was taking it all in.
“At the high school level, when you get a young man like Zeke, they can get by a lot on athleticism. At the Notre Dame level, you realize the mental aspect of the game is as important, if not more. Obviously, the guys who are coaching him now know a whole lot more than I do. It's my pleasure just to watch him and listen to his understanding of the game evolve.”
That evolution must continue Saturday at New Meadowlands Stadium if Notre Dame (4-3) is going to avoid the scoreboard shock Navy (4-2) has dished out to the Irish two of the past three years. The ND safeties, in particular, have no margin for error against Navy's triple-option offense.
“It's hard,” Zeke admitted after practice earlier this week. “You've got to be mentally tough, keep your eyes on your keys and the whole time not get bored with it. As long as we don't let any deep balls sail over our heads, I think we'll be all right.”
Navy quarterback Rick Dobbs did zing a 52-yard scoring pass over the Irish safeties' heads last year. It was just one of three passes Dobbs' attempted all day, yet proved to be as toxic as any other play for the Irish in their eventual 23-21 loss.
Motta, who bounced between linebacker and safety as a freshman under former Irish head coach Charlie Weis, played only special teams against the Mids last year and never really got a taste of the option.
He did experience it in high school, though, and Zeke and his father actually talked about defending the option at length over lunch and dinner last Sunday in South Bend. Bill's undefeated St. Edward's team had just subdued a veer option team the Friday before.
“It was neat to hear how they were going to go about defending it,” Bill said of the Irish. “Of course, the biggest difficulty in preparing for it is getting a true look in practice. If you don't, it seems very easy to defend. Then you get somebody as proficient at it as Navy, and then you're in trouble.”
It's not unusual anymore for the Mottas to have face-to-face football conversations on Sundays. Bill hasn't missed a Notre Dame game this season - home or away - despite having to coach on Friday nights himself.
Bill, a former walk-on linebacker at Auburn who once tackled Herschel Walker and counted Bo Jackson as a teammate, typically finds himself at the airport sometime after 5 a.m. and has the previous night's film graded before 6:30. He has almost miraculously avoided flight delays and has even coaxed rental car companies to pick him up at the gate.
“God has been on my side in this,” he said. “And so have a lot of other wonderful people who know how much in a hurry I am. I've got an assistant coach back home who takes care of things on Saturday mornings. You can't be a success in life without a lot of people around you who are helping you make that happen.”
Bill had that too when he was raising Zeke as a single father from the time the younger Motta was 2 months old. Still, sometimes it felt like just the two of them against the world.
The saving grace was Zeke's penchant for sleeping through the night, starting at the age of 3 months. That saved some wear and tear on Bill until Zeke learned to walk at 9 months. Then he seemed to move so quickly into fast-forward mode, he was constantly at the doctor's office getting stitched up for one reason or another.
By 6 he was surfing. By 10 he was scuba diving. By his junior year in high school, his skateboarding, wakeboarding, soccer, basketball and track gave way to his love for the game of football. Bill, in fact, was Zeke's defensive coordinator at Vero Beach High before moving on to St. Edward's.
All along the way, Zeke was a typical teenager off the field, sometimes snarling, often rebellious, at times too self-centered.
“I'll be honest, I was a kid and I didn't appreciate what my dad was going through and what he was doing for me,” Zeke said. “I can kind of see it now. And I can also see he's the kind of man I want to be. I think I'm a carbon copy of him.”
It's in those words that Bill sees that the learning curve will flatten out. Not if anymore, but when.
A Season of Life?
“I try to tell the parents that there's a lot more going on in a football game than the two hours we play Friday night,” Bill said. “So if you're not buying into that, you're certainly playing the wrong sport, because it's the life lessons you learn from football. I think they are greater than any sport.
“They certainly were with me when I was raising Zeke and at times really didn't know what to do. But I hung in there. I really embraced that responsibility, not that I'm any kind of good guy, 'cause I'm not, It was my pleasure. I didn't know what love was until he came along.”
Staff writer Eric Hansen: email@example.com 574-235-6470