How Hawkeye football commit Alex Mota overcame adversity to become one of Iowa's top high school athletes

·11 min read

Quiet.

That’s how most people describe Marion senior and Iowa football commit Alex Mota. From his head coach to his aunts, that’s the first thing that comes to mind when asked about the type of person he is.

“He’s a quiet kid,” said Rita Cabello, Mota’s aunt. “His principal mentioned that, at lunchtime, he would sit at a table with kids that don’t necessarily run with his group of friends.

“He’s just a good kid. He’s very humble, he’s very kind. And most of the time he gets down to business, gets his stuff done.”

Marion's Alex Mota poses for a photo after a high school football practice, Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, at Marion High School in Marion, Iowa.
Marion's Alex Mota poses for a photo after a high school football practice, Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, at Marion High School in Marion, Iowa.

Marion head coach Michael Joyner agreed.

“He’s actually a pretty quiet kid, very reserved,” Joyner said. “You can tell by his physical stature that he has some God-given abilities. But at least personality-wise, you wouldn’t know that he was a Division I athlete.”

Still, that’s exactly what Mota is: a soon-to-be Division I athlete. A standout football, basketball and track and field athlete for the Wolves, he committed in February to play football at Iowa.

But long before he was one of the most exciting fixtures in the Hawkeyes’ 2023 recruiting class, Mota showed eastern Iowa — and the state — that he could overcome any adversity life throws at him.

Especially with a little help from his family.

An all-around athlete from an early age

“I’m fast, you know.”

That’s what Mota said seemingly out of the blue to Cabello one winter day.

It wasn’t a brag, but more a matter-of-fact statement. Cabello did what most adults do when kids say something like that: She responded something like ‘oh, that’s nice’ and moved on.

Then came the grade school track and field day, not a serious competition but a chance for children to get out of school and have some fun.

Mota ran the 50-meter dash and several other events. It was then that Cabello understood that her nephew really was fast.

Marion's Alex Mota makes a catch during a high school football practice on Aug. 8,  at Marion High School in Marion, Iowa.
Marion's Alex Mota makes a catch during a high school football practice on Aug. 8, at Marion High School in Marion, Iowa.

“I swear, that kid was crossing the finish line before some of the kids were getting off the starting line,” Cabello said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, he is fast,’ And so he won every single event he was entered in that day.”

After that day, Cabello knew it was time to get then six-year-old Mota into sports.

Baseball came first.

Cabello put Mota into a summer baseball league, and he ended up in the outfield. That wasn’t the place to be for an active first grader.

“Of course, kids that age can’t really hit in the outfield, and he was out there picking grass and being bored,” Cabello said.

According to Cabello, Mike Diers, Mota’s coach at the time, recognized something in him. Diers moved the six-year-old to catcher, as well as around the infield and onto the mound. It was there that Mota excelled, just like he had in that first track “meet.”

It wasn’t long before Mota was pushing Cabello and her sister, Deana Arebaugh — who share custody of Mota — to let him try football.

“He pressed me,” Cabello said. “I never had to say, ‘Hey, do you want to do this, do you want to do that?’ The kid would be like, ‘I want to play football.’”

Mota was too young for the Metro Youth Football Association in Cedar Rapids when he first brought up his interest in football.

“As soon as he was old enough, he made sure I knew he was old enough to go play,” Cabello said.

That was just the sports-focused kid that Mota was though. His aunts never had to remind him when it was time for practice. He was the one shoveling the driveway in the winter just so he could shoot some hoops. Mota’s dedication to every sport he played paid off, even early on.

“In Metro Youth Football, he’s the only one on any of his teams that he was ever on that scored the touchdowns,” Arebaugh said. “I mean, he was just so damn fast.”

A Marion Wolves hat during an Aug. 8 practice at Marion.
A Marion Wolves hat during an Aug. 8 practice at Marion.

Tragedies unite a special village behind him

Alex Mota’s aunts — as they are better known around Marion now — have been his biggest supporters, long before he was a Division I football recruit.

Part of that is because he comes from a tight-knit family.

But it’s also because his aunts have shared custody of him since he was about six years old.

Mota lost both his parents before his seventh birthday. Lynn Mota, his mother, died in February 2010, when the mini-van she was driving hit the back of a school bus on the highway. Mota’s brother, Andrew, was 11, and Alex was five.

About a year and a half later, Alfonso Mota, his father, died by accidental carbon-monoxide poisoning on Thanksgiving Day.

“Both the boys came home with me that night,” Arebaugh said. “Alex was pretty young, but I told Andrew, ‘You’ve got a home here forever. No matter what happens, you’ve always got a home here.’”

And it was never a question of if Cabello and Arebaugh would care for their youngest sister’s sons. Alfonso Mota was a native of the Dominican Republic and had settled in Iowa after playing professional baseball for the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Iowa was all Alex and Andrew had ever known.

“We had three choices,” Cabello said. “One, they stay with us. Two, they go to dad’s family in the Dominican Republic where they never lived before. I don’t think so. And number three, foster care. I don’t think so.”

Mota still has a relationship with his family in the Dominican Republic; he recently visited there for two weeks before Marion’s first summer practice. But Cabello and Arebaugh wanted to make sure as little as possible changed for two brothers who lost their parents at such a young age.

Rita and her husband, Carlos — both of whom had lived in Texas and Mexico — moved back to Iowa. They moved into Lynn and Alfonso’s house with the boys, so that they could be in the home they’d grown up in.

Rita and Deana, along with her husband, Scott, would coordinate schedules so that there was always someone there for the boys — be it homeschooling them, taking them to extracurricular activities or cooking them dinner.

Mota’s grandparents, Dean and Terri Culberson, would help as much as they could when they came to visit from Texas. Dean Culberson passed away in March. Terri Culberson died this past weekend. Both were able to see him commit to the Hawkeyes before their deaths.

“Rita and I work together,” Arebaugh said. “So, we’re kind of like two divorced parents only we get along. Rita has more of the mom role and I have more of the dad role.”

Cabello tagged on, joking, “I always say, ‘Wait until your aunt gets home.’”

It truly was — and is — a family effort. Everyone banded together for one reason: To make sure that Alex and Andrew had the opportunity to just be kids.

“We basically encircled the wagons around those two boys and took them in and figured out how we were going to raise these guys together, because we were trying to make sure they had a childhood,” Arebaugh said.

Even with a small village taking care of him, Mota still takes the time to remember his parents. Cabello and Arebaugh try to share as many stories about his parents as possible with him.

While putting away a pair of Mota’s basketball shoes away, Cabello noticed that he had written his own small tribute to his parents on his sneakers.

Mota dedicated his commitment in memory of his parents.

It’s always about family first, which might have something to do with his decision to play college football less than an hour away from home.

It was always Iowa … or was it?

“It was like eight o’clock at night,” Mota said. “I went downstairs and was like, ‘I think I’m ready to make a decision.’ You know, everyone was thinking Iowa State.”

And his family did have reason to believe that.

Iowa State was the first program to reach out with interest in Mota. The Cyclones were also the first team to offer the Marion athlete. Andrew Mota went to Iowa State, although that didn’t really impact Alex’s decision.

But then other schools — including Iowa — entered the conversation.

Marion's Alex Mota runs for extra yards after a catch during a high school football practice, Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, at Marion High School in Marion, Iowa.
Marion's Alex Mota runs for extra yards after a catch during a high school football practice, Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, at Marion High School in Marion, Iowa.

Mota admits he always liked Iowa State, and most schools looked at him as a defensive player. That’s one area where Iowa had the upper hand.

“(Iowa) did recruit me on the defensive side, but I told them I wanted to play offense,” Mota said. “When Iowa said I could play receiver there, I knew I was gonna go to Iowa.”

There was also the family side of things. Arebaugh thinks that Mota’s connection to his grandfather, who was a big Hawkeyes fan, had something to do with it, too.

Remember that family effort? It extended to Mota’s recruitment.

Arebaugh took him on an unofficial visit to Notre Dame. Cabello took him to Wisconsin. His grandparents took him to Missouri. Family was alongside Mota every step of the way.

And Mota admits he did want to be close to home, but not exactly to see his aunts.

“I have pets at home I like, so I want to come home,” Mota said. “My cat, Suki, and I have a turtle, Clutch.”

When he made his decision — and told Cabello — the next move was calling Arebaugh, who is a huge Iowa fan.

“She was 100% convinced I was gonna be an Iowa State player,” Mota said. “I called her, and she was quiet for a minute trying to comprehend what happened.”

Arebuagh remembers that moment well.

“I was like, ‘Excuse me, what did you say to me?’” Arebuagh said. “We honestly thought the Cyclones or even Wisconsin was higher on the list. I would have been very happy for him to go to Iowa State. It would have hurt my heart a little bit, but I would have fully supported him.

“But I think he just always felt at home at Iowa. He grew up going to a lot of Hawkeyes games, and I think he just felt comfortable with the staff. I really think the number one decision was, ‘Hey, would you like to be a wide receiver?’”

Mota was the fifth player to commit to Kirk Ferentz’s 2023 class when he announced his decision in February.

Since that moment, he’s acted as a recruiter for the Hawkeyes, trying to convince as many other players to join him in Iowa’s 2023 recruiting class.

“Our class is pretty good,” Mota said. “It says a lot about Iowa, what they do with the in-state players. They always produce a lot of good players. “

Mota and the other Iowa commits have a Snapchat group. According to him, everyone’s always talking to each other. He says the class is pretty connected, even before the Hawkeyes’ big official weekend in late June — for which, Mota was present.

And while he’s excited about this incoming class as a whole, he wants Iowa fans to know what they’re getting in him.

“Definitely a fast, shifty player,” Mota said. “I can go past defenses, make them miss and score some touchdowns.”

Marion football’s Swiss Army player

Mota isn’t wrong in the way he describes his play.

In the past four seasons at Marion, Mota has become a solid all-around athlete for the Wolves. He’s grown every step of the way, at least according to Joyner.

“As a freshman, we all knew he had talent and it was raw,” Joyner said. “His maturity has come with his ability to actually understand different parts of the game of football. He understands some of those nuances.”

Mota took over as Marion’s starting quarterback in the 2020 season. He was also the team’s second-leading rusher and caught one touchdown pass, in addition to recording 12 solo touchdowns.

That season even included a stint as Marion’s punter.

He continued in those roles — minus kicking duties — during his junior season while stepping up his defensive game.

Marion's Alex Mota, second from right, huddles up with teammates after a drill during a high school football practice, Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, at Marion High School in Marion, Iowa.
Marion's Alex Mota, second from right, huddles up with teammates after a drill during a high school football practice, Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, at Marion High School in Marion, Iowa.

What is he most excited for this season?

Mota won’t openly admit it, but it’s probably not playing quarterback anymore.

“Quarterback isn’t really his natural position,” Joyner said. “He doesn’t necessarily enjoy it, but he was willing to learn. Now, he’s really excited about not being a quarterback. He just wants to go out and play football.”

Heading into his final season of high school football, no longer lining up behind center should benefit Mota. He’ll get to work on his receiver game, while also picking up some more skills as a defensive back or linebacker for Marion.

With a recruitment that he described as stressful now over, Mota can focus more on enjoying the game — the one he was destined to play since he pestered his aunt in first grade.

Alyssa Hertel is the college sports recruiting reporter for the Des Moines Register. Contact Alyssa at ahertel@dmreg.com or on Twitter @AlyssaHertel.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa football commit Alex Mota's journey to Division I