Mo Alie-Cox, former VCU basketball standout, returns to his football roots

Power forward turned tight end aims to stick with the Indianapolis Colts

Ask Mo Alie-Cox for the signature play of his football career and the Indianapolis Colts tight end shuts his eyes and briefly disappears deep in thought.

It’s unlike asking fellow rookie Jourdan Lewis, a third-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys out of Michigan who might recall his incredible one-handed interception against Wisconsin in October 2016. Or DeShaun Watson, the 12th overall pick by the Houston Texans, who might go with his game-winning pass that led Clemson to the 2017 NCAA championship.

As the memory comes to Alie-Cox, he smiles. An opposing player was sprinting down the sideline toward a game-winning score, with Alie-Cox in hot pursuit. That runner, just 5 yards from the end zone, could taste glory before he was T-boned by Alie-Cox, leaving both players sprawled out on the field.

“I was lying down because I was exhausted,” Alie-Cox said, laughing. “The best football play I ever made.”

That play happened during a youth league football game when Alie-Cox was 12, and two years later he put on pads for what he thought was the last time.

What’s happened in the life of Alie-Cox since? How does a guy sign an NFL contract a decade after last putting on a football uniform for his high school freshman team?

Alie-Cox made his name as a basketball player, playing the role of intimidator the past four years at Virginia Commonwealth University. His build — he’s 6-foot-7 and a well-chiseled 260 pounds — allowed him to rule the paint in the Atlantic 10 as the league’s most menacing big man.

You’d think the natural progression for Alie-Cox would be a career in professional basketball. But NBA scouts didn’t flock to the Stuart C. Siegel Center on VCU’s campus in Richmond to see a power forward who wasn’t tall enough, didn’t shoot the ball well enough and lacked the offensive skills to play at that high level.

Virginia Commonwealth Rams forward Mo Alie-Cox (12) dunks the ball against the George Washington Colonials during the first half at Charles E. Smith Center.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL, however, noticed. And a school with no football team became a destination for football talent evaluators the past three years. They were all intrigued by a basketball player with massive hands, a 7-foot-2 wingspan and tremendous work ethic. That tight, toned physique led former VCU coach Will Wade to describe Alie-Cox as “hitting the genetic lottery.”

Alie-Cox, in the minds of those NFL scouts, has the potential to be another Antonio Gates or Jimmy Graham, two guys who successfully transitioned to NFL stardom after mainly playing basketball in college (Graham played one year of college football at Miami after playing four years of basketball).

It’s been said the best NFL tight ends are playing in the NBA, and one NFL general manager once explained that Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James could have been the best tight end of all time.

That’s why Alie-Cox took part in the Colts’ rookie minicamp this past weekend, pursuing a dream that materialized during those days when he dominated opponents as a kid.

“Football is in my heart,” Alie-Cox said. “Football is my first love.”

The only known football image of Alie-Cox at South County High School is a team photo from 2007. While it’s hard to make him out, Alie-Cox is in the upper right corner of the photo, taken in the bleachers at the school’s field in Lorton, Virginia.

Upon first sight of Alie-Cox, 6-foot-2 as a freshman, the coaching staff knew they were blessed with someone special.

South County High School football team in 2007.

Courtesy of Moe Alie-Cox

“First time I saw him, I thought he’d be a great football player,” recalled then-South County football coach Pete Bendorf. “He started at defensive end and tight end, and he had these hands that were so enormous that if he ever grabbed you, you weren’t getting away.”

Alie-Cox played basketball that freshman year as well, and after the season the football and basketball coaches worked with him over the summer to improve his raw talent. Alie-Cox emerged as one of the stars playing with South County teammates on a seven-on-seven summer football program, and the team was ready to bring him up to varsity.

But Alie-Cox failed to show up at school in the fall, and Bendorf soon found out the reason. Alie-Cox decided he wanted to play basketball and would transfer to a school he believed could give him the best opportunity.

He wound up at Middleburg Academy, a private school in Northern Virginia. His basketball talents were beyond raw, but Middleburg coach Gary Hall found a kid eager to learn.

“I wouldn’t even call him a basketball player when he first came to us, [he] was strictly an athlete,” Hall said. “He was 6-5 when he got here. He couldn’t shoot a left-hand layup, and he struggled with the Mikan drills. But he was a willing learner, and if you gave him something to do he would work on it until he got it right.”

By the end of Alie-Cox’s junior year, VCU was one of the interested schools. Hall took his star player down for a visit, and after the coaches shook his hand they had a request.

“They asked him to pick up a ball with his thumb and index finger,” Hall recalled. “And he did it. Easily.”

Then-VCU coach Shaka Smart and his staff were impressed. Alie-Cox was offered a scholarship.

Still, as Alie-Cox completed his days at a high school with no football team, he dreamed about the sport he grew up playing.

“I would see my friends wearing their football jerseys on Fridays getting ready for games,” Alie-Cox said. “And I would realize just how much I missed it.”

Alie-Cox arrived at VCU in 2012. He was physically gifted but far from a polished gem. During one of Alie-Cox’s first days of conditioning, the VCU basketball team had to run what’s known as the “Parking Deck Mile,” a course that took players through several levels of the athletic department parking deck and multiple laps around the basketball arena before ending in front of the weight room.

His time – 8 minutes, 30 seconds – wasn’t Division I ready.

“He had a bad motor,” Smart, now the head coach at Texas, said rather bluntly about Alie-Cox. “He wasn’t good at multiple efforts. I told him, ‘You can’t play here until you get your time down to about 5 minutes, 30 seconds.’ ”

Message delivered, received and processed. Alie-Cox intensified his workouts, running the Parking Deck Mile weekly with the team’s strength and conditioning coach barking encouragement with every step.

“We kept pushing him, and he began to understand why he was doing it,” said VCU coach Mike Rhoades, an assistant under Smart who was hired last month as head coach. “By the end of the year his time was 5 minutes, 30 seconds. The improvement was impressive.”

Conditioning complete, the VCU staff began to work on his demeanor. Alie-Cox, the American-born son of African immigrants, arrived at VCU a nice, gentle, respectful student. He smiled. A lot.

But Alie-Cox had the look of an enforcer, and Smart demanded a menacing presence to match. Thus, the “Mo Mantra” was born.

There were two versions of the mantra: one R-rated and one PG. Hall, his coach at Middleburg Academy, found himself on the receiving end of the R-rated version while attending a VCU practice.

Writing notes while seated on a courtside chair, Hall was startled by the sudden sound of steps. Looking up, he saw Alie-Cox approaching at full speed. Stopping directly in front of Hall, Alie-Cox began to scream.

“Coach, stand up, stand up, stand up!”

Alarmed, Hall obliged — and found himself face to face with Alie-Cox, who reintroduced himself.

‘I’m Mo Alie-Cox,” he shouted, “and I’m the biggest, baddest m—–f—– in the state of Virginia!’ ”

Hall barely recognized the guy in front of him, who was routinely pleasant and usually smiling.

Later, Hall asked Alie-Cox what the scene was all about. “He told me that it was an order from Coach Smart. That whenever someone came in the building, he was to show them that he was the biggest, baddest guy.”

Asked about the Mo Mantra, Smart laughed.

“We basically wanted him to set a tone of being tough,” Smart said. “So when someone new would walk into the gym, whether it was a coach or the media, Mo had to deliver his mantra.”

After sitting out his first year of college as a partial qualifier, Alie-Cox averaged 3.3 points off the bench during the 2013-14 season as a redshirt freshman. He started as a sophomore and his impact was immediate, improving his stats (7.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks) on a 26-10 team that earned its fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.

“He was a beast in all aspects of his game,” said Brianté Weber, the Charlotte Hornets guard who played with Alie-Cox at VCU for two seasons. “He set the best ball screen of anyone I’ve ever played with, and he was a perfect teammate because he never wanted the ball.”

Forward Mo Alie-Cox #12 of the VCU Rams dunks the ball against the Richmond Spiders in the Quarterfinals of the men’s Atlantic 10 tournament on March 14, 2014 at the Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Teams in the A-10 began to take notice of the dreadlocked enforcer who set bone-crushing picks, feverishly fought for rebounds and blocked shots with such aggression that fans, with each rejection, began to shout, “Mo says no.”

Not only did opponents take notice during his sophomore year, but so did the NFL. A Richmond, Virginia-based NFL scout, at Smart’s urging, showed up to practice to watch Alie-Cox. When practice ended, Smart approached his friend and asked his thoughts.

“Yup,” the scout said. “That’s what they look like.”

When then-VCU assistant coach Mike Morrell invited Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten to a game later that season, the 10-time Pro Bowl pick bonded with Alie-Cox.

“[Witten] told me that I had a build for football,” Alie-Cox said. “He asked me to raise my hands to compare to his, and his hands were thicker than mine. My hands were a little bigger.”

Those hands captivated NFL scouts who imagined Alie-Cox fending off defenders and corralling passes.

Despite the interest from football scouts, Alie-Cox said, he didn’t consider the sport as a career until January. After VCU was eliminated by St. Mary’s in the first round of this year’s NCAA tournament, Alie-Cox took a week off to contemplate his future.

The options: Play basketball even though he was not likely to be drafted and his best opportunity might be to play overseas, or choose football as an unrestricted free agent. Alie-Cox graduated last year and was considered a free agent after the 2016 NFL draft.

“I never thought about the pros and cons. I just sat down and thought about what sport I wanted to play more,” Alie-Cox said. “I’ve always loved football. It’s the sport I played growing up as a kid and something I never really got a chance to finish. So I went with football.”

Once he made up his mind, Alie-Cox traveled to Pensacola, Florida, and trained for a week leading up to his NFL pro day on April 11 just north of Richmond in Mechanicsville, Virginia.

Twenty teams were expected to watch Alie-Cox. All but two, the Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals, showed up.

Mo Alie-Cox sets up in a three-point stance during training camp.

Courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts

“That caught me a little off guard,” Alie-Cox said. “But at the end of the day, it’s just being an athlete. I put my athletic abilities on display.”

What did the scouts see from a guy who had just seven days of football training?

A big man who had a 35.5-inch vertical jump, which would have placed him sixth among tight ends at this year’s NFL combine, and ran the 40-yard dash in a respectable 4.75 seconds. (“That was just the third time in my life I ran a 40,” Alie-Cox said.)

When it was time to take the field during the closed workouts, Alie-Cox caught all but two balls thrown his way.

“I was pleased by how it all turned out,” Alie-Cox said.

The pro day yielded multiple offers. Several teams wanted Alie-Cox to play linebacker, others defensive end.

Alie-Cox, who describes himself as a pretty good receiver as a kid, wanted to play offense. “I wanted to be a tight end, and when I visited the Colts they discussed developing me as a receiving tight end.”

In Indianapolis, Alie-Cox will get to develop under Rob Chudzinski, the offensive coordinator who coached in San Diego and helped Antonio Gates make his successful transition from college basketball star at Kent State to All-Pro NFL tight end. The Colts in 2015 signed tight end Erik Swoope after he played four years of college basketball at Miami. Last year Swoope played in all 16 games, making four starts.

“Coach Chud has a great track record with tight ends, especially tight ends who come from basketball backgrounds,” Alie-Cox said. “I felt really comfortable with the organization.”

The best-case scenario for Alie-Cox this season? “That I make the 53-man roster, have an impact on special teams and hopefully catch some touchdowns. They use a lot of multiple tight end sets, and if I make the roster I can probably see some time.”

A more possible scenario: Alie-Cox is on the Colts practice squad and gets to adapt to playing a sport that he hasn’t participated in for nearly a decade.

“They’re going to show him some things foreign to him during practice, and Mo’s going to work hard until he gets it,” said Rhoades, the VCU head coach. “Mo could be a good lacrosse player if he picked up the sport, and he would hit a ball a mile if he played baseball.

“He can do anything he sets his mind to. That’s why I give him a chance.”

Everything has moved rather quickly for Alie-Cox since the end of the basketball season. Just six weeks after removing his VCU jersey for the last time, Alie-Cox was wearing Colts gear. He earned his master’s degree in criminal justice last weekend from VCU but missed the ceremony because he was at rookie minicamp.

“I’m really happy for him,” Smart said. “If I had one hand to count my favorite guys of all the players I coached, he’s on there.”

Does Smart, who recruited Alie-Cox for basketball but immediately recognized his potential as a possible football player, believe Alie-Cox can make the transition?

“I know next to nothing about football,” Smart said. “What I do know from watching it, you’d better be nasty to be able to survive at that level. Mo’s ability to be successful in the NFL depends on whether he can be, in his mind, the toughest, meanest and baddest guy in the state of Indiana while he’s on the field playing for the Colts.”

Alie-Cox, as he reunites with his first love, says he can.

“I’m confident I can get it done, and I want to play this year,” Alie-Cox said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to be successful in the NFL.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.