clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Former Falcons S Zeke Motta and former team physician head to trial over career-ending injury

Motta worked his way into a starting role in his rookie year but never resurfaced after a neck injury.

Atlanta Falcons v Buffalo Bills Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

After a deep playoff run in 2012 that left the team one missed passing interference play away from a Super Bowl berth, the team turned their eyes to the draft. The Falcons were unusually flush with late-round compensatory picks, most notably drafting safeties Kemal Ishmael and Zeke Motta back-to-back.

Last week we passed along reports that Ishmael would not return to the Falcons after seven seasons at safety, linebacker, and special teams. Motta, taken in the very next draft slot, unfortunately never made it out of his rookie season.

Thanks to a concussion suffered by Thomas DeCoud, Motta slipped into the starting lineup in Week 14 against the Green Bay Packers. He played 75 percent of the defensive snaps and 60 percent of the special teams snaps that game. He started next week and played every single defensive snap against Washington.

After the game, Motta placed on injured reserve with what was expected to be a 4 to 6 week injury. The Falcoholic’s James Rael had this to say when the news was announced.

Motta has impressed in his rookie campaign. He’s struggled in coverage a bit, looking more like a strong safety than a free safety. Even so, he’s clearly the better of the two safeties the Falcons drafted this year. His future is bright, and with the surgery to treat his cervical fracture already behind him, he should be an active participant in the Falcons’ off-season regimen.

The announcement was surprising. Players rarely finish out games only to end up on injured reserve. Five months later ESPN’s Vaughn McClure passed along that Motta might miss all of 2014. Vaughn included the quote from then head coach Mike Smith.

“I know that he hasn’t been cleared at this point in time,” Smith said Friday. “I know that he has a scan. And right now, we’re projecting that he’s not going to participate in any of the offseason program. We’re targeting, like a couple of our players, training camp.”

McClure applauded Motta’s toughness for playing through a cervical fracture before eventually undergoing surgery on December 22. Motta was placed on the physically unable to perform list on August 20, 2014 and was waived after a failed physical on April 2, 2015.

What happened? Injuries are occasionally worse than expected but rarely does a player not miss a snap only to be forced into retirement. Thanks to Vaughn McClure’s update about a lawsuit, we found more info on what lead to the end of Motta’s career.

Motta quietly filed suit against multiple parties on November 9, 2015 about seven months after he was waived by the team. Court documents reviewed by The Falcoholic allege team doctors missed the injury despite Motta’s multiple visits regarding his spine.

By the time the fracture was finally diagnosed, immobilized and treated some twelve days later, Zeke had engaged in numerous practices, started and played a full game at the safety position against [] Washington [], and underwent a chiropractic spine adjustment. Consequently, a nondisplaced spine fracture that would have fully healed with conservative treatment because a displaced fracture with permanent, career-ending, ligamentous injury.

Per the allegations, Motta took a serious blow to the back of his head on a kickoff that resulted in a cracked helmet and a cut to his head but returned to the game after he was cleared by the Falcons Head Team Physician. The suit alleges Motta returned to the same physician on the next day with neck pain and stiffness. After an X-ray, the physician allegedly cleared him any fractures, diagnosed him with a cervical strain, and provided Motta with opiates, muscle relaxers, and anti-inflammatories.

The suit claims Motta returned to the physician three days later with the same complaints and was again given a slew of pharmaceuticals and cleared for his final game in the NFL. After taking a number of additional hits against Washington, Motta had a spinal adjustment from the team chiropractor. Days later, Motta claims he stopped taking pain killers and reported again to team doctors with severe spinal pain. He was then given an MRI and CT scan which confirmed he had a cervical C1 fracture which then caused career-ending ligament injuries.

The allegations claim the initial X-ray showed problems that should have resulted in an immediate immobilization, MRI, and CT scan, and later hits to his damaged vertebrae resulted in the ligament damage that ended his career at age 23.

The defendants do not include the National Football League or the Atlanta Falcons because the medical staff are independent contractors and not team or league employees. The defendants are the team’s head physician, the team’s chiropractor, and both of their respective private offices.

The defendants allege, among other things, that Motta never indicated he was injured during the Packers game, his symptoms the following day were typical of a “neck strain,” and his condition improved through the week as he both practiced and played in full. After hearing about increased neck pain, the team physician found a 10 to 11 millimeter vertebrae fracture. Per the defendants, Motta voluntarily retired after the “vertebrae did not heal.” They further claim the original injury was so “large and significant” that his career was over, meaning the missed diagnosis had no impact on Motta’s future earnings. In a final argument that could only be crafted by an attorney, the defendants claim Motta’s career would be limited due to the original injury and his skill set.

As noted by McClure, the case is set for trial this upcoming Monday, March 9th.

The documents we reviewed were a blast from the past. Former first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon and former interception machine Asante Samuel were deposed. Potential witnesses also include former players like wide receiver Roddy White, safety William Moore, corner Robert McClain, safety/linebacker Kemal Ishmael, and safety Sean Baker.

The Falcons, who again were never a party of the litigation, were a part of the litigation. The team made strong efforts to stifle the public release of documents about Motta. The team appeared to ignore a court-ordered request for documents, forcing Motta to go to court for the information they requested. The Falcons then tried to seal all of their documents to prevent them from being publicly released.

That sounded damaging with no context.

However, the Falcons had a very narrow and specific reason for sealing up the documents: They do not want to give up the secret sauce behind Thomas Dimitroff’s scouting. Obviously, the judge had never seen the 2012 draft or he would have dismissed the request as frivolous. Motta asked for Dimitroff’s scouting reports in an attempt to determine damages for his loss of career earnings. From what we saw, the team was strictly worried about their draft evaluation process and specifics being leaked.

The evaluations are considered in the legal community to be a trade secret, but based on the team’s draft history, you may suggest those evaluations have no value and should not be protected.

Motta, for his part, appears to be doing well in Florida based on his Instagram page, though it’s always hard to tell from just social media. He seemed to take the Joe Hawley route post-football and does a mix of yoga, paddling, and surfing. He will certainly head to Atlanta to finally wrap up this court case after over four years of waiting. Documents suggest the odds of the case settling before Monday’s trial are “poor.”

We may find out soon, legally at least, if the team doctor ended Motta’s promising career years too soon.