TAMPA — Justin Motlow didn’t begin to understand the history of his Seminole ancestors until he was 12 or 13, when he’d watch the elders sewing patchwork and shooting arrows like they used to on the reservations.
In the past few weeks, the Tampa Catholic senior has started to comprehend the history he’s about to make himself.
Motlow has accepted a preferred walk-on spot at Florida State. It is believed that when he joins the team this fall, he’ll become the first member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida to play football for the Seminoles of FSU.
“I would have for sure thought somebody would have been before me…” Motlow said. “It’s really crazy.”
Motlow’s American Indian ancestors were nearly wiped out in the Seminole Wars of the 19th century. His grandmother speaks mostly Miccosukee, a Seminole dialect. She used to stay up all night sewing patchwork in the reds and yellows of the sunset.
His dad, Clarence, is half-Seminole and grew up living in thatched huts called chickees, without electricity or plumbing. His family would move from one reservation to the next, from Immokalee to Big Cypress to Hollywood, when the groves or fields or ranches needed workers.
“When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you have no money,” his dad said. “You just have a blast because you get to play in the woods and run around with your grandfather hunting and selling alligator hides.”
By the time Justin was born, things were different. The Motlows had moved off the reservation. Full-blooded Seminoles and outsiders mingled more. No one cared that Justin was only one-fourth American Indian, or that his mother, Lisa, wasn’t Seminole at all.
The Motlows tried to keep Justin and his older sister, Jessica, educated about their heritage. They went to powwows across the country. Motlow won gold medals in the 200 and 400 meters at the Indigenous Games.
He saw the reservations at Indian Day events. Even then, when the elders played stickball or carved wood, Motlow was usually playing football with his friends.
Whether it was the Seminole name or Chief Osceola or something else entirely, Motlow always rooted for FSU football. He bought Seminole hats and T-shirts, and he has a football signed by Bobby Bowden.
But Motlow doubted he’d ever be able to play there, even after FSU was among the 20-plus colleges recruiting him after he caught seven touchdowns and amassed 679 yards as a junior.
The recruiting interest dwindled after he separated his shoulder on the second day of spring practice and missed two crucial months of evaluations. The reality began to sink in on the way home from summer visits to Princeton and Harvard, where he could tour campus but not compete in camps.
“Mom, you know I’m not playing for Florida State, right?” he said.
Motlow thought a strong senior season might get the coaches calling again. He put up even better numbers than the year before, leading the Class 3A state semifinalists with 1,151 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 40 yards per punt.
But whether it was the injury or maybe his 5-foot-11, 180-pound frame, his phone stayed quiet. On national signing day, Motlow had no scholarship offers and two options: take a preferred walk-on spot at FSU, or one at Wake Forest. The choice was easy.
“I think things happen for a reason,” his mom said.
Motlow won’t be on scholarship, but the Seminole Tribe will pay his tuition as long as he keeps his grades up. His preferred walk-on spot all but guarantees Motlow one of the 105 spots on the defending national champions’ roster.
The Seminole Tribe is connected to FSU — Chief Osceola wears a tribe-approved uniform, and the tribal council formally supported FSU’s use of the Seminole name in 2005. And though at least one other tribal member has tried out for the team, it’s believed that no Seminole member has made the squad.
“He’d definitely be the first one,” said Moses Jumper Jr., the tribe’s retired recreation director.
Motlow’s family has his own ties there, too. His sister is a sophomore communications major at FSU, and his family has gone to a handful of games.
As Motlow spoke at his home last week, at the dining room table in front of a photo of him in Seminole patchwork in garnet and gold, he still seemed awed by the opportunity. It’s not just the chance to make history for his ancestors and family. It’s the shot at realizing a lifelong dream for himself.
“Growing up as a kid, I had confidence in myself, of course, but I never, ever would have thought that I’m going to suit up for Florida State,” Motlow said. “When I get the chance to, that’s going to be something else.”
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.