Mo Alie-Cox playing basketball at VCU.
Alie-Cox played forward at VCU from 2013-17, amassing 255 career blocks and playing in four NCAA tournaments. (Photo courtesy of VCU Athletics)

Mo Alie-Cox recalls his days at VCU and prepares to motivate graduates at commencement

A former basketball standout and current NFL player, Alie-Cox will share lessons he’s learned on the court, on the field and in life.

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“Mo Says No.”

The first time Mo Alie-Cox heard the crowd at the Stuart C. Siegel Center chant those three words when he blocked an opponent’s shot, he felt joy.

“Man, it felt great. Just knowing you have that fan support, the energy,” said Alie-Cox a former Virginia Commonwealth University basketball standout who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. “You hear the whole arena chanting it then it took on a whole new life of its own. On the news you see them say ‘Mo Says No.’ The fans got creative with it. I loved every moment.”

Alie-Cox, now a tight end for the Indianapolis Colts, will be stepping onto a different stage and sharing his own words of wisdom and encouragement when he delivers the university’s commencement address on May 13.

Robyn Diehl McDougle, Ph.D., associate dean of research and outreach in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, isn’t surprised that Alie-Cox would be singled out for the honor. From day one, he stood out to her and not because of his lofty 6-foot-5-inch frame. It was because she recognized he put the same determination, hard work and dedication into everything he did, she said.

When he made the decision to get his master’s degree, for example, he remained focused on his studies, even though he was playing as a fifth-year senior for the VCU basketball team and traveling to Florida to a training facility that prepares athletes for the NFL Scouting Combine.

“He would come back to make sure he did his classes on campus,” McDougle said. “He showed amazing dedication.”

From football to basketball and back again

Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, Alie-Cox played football from third to ninth grade and then transitioned to basketball at Middleburg Academy where there was no football team. His love of football slightly overshadowed his love of basketball, he said.

“Randy Moss (a wide receiver in the NFL for 14 seasons) was one of my favorite players growing up,” said Alie-Cox who was a Philadelphia Eagles fan back then. “I had no idea what my career would be as a kid. I always wanted to go pro [in football], but I didn’t know it would come true.”

It didn’t matter what sport he was participating in at the time, Alie-Cox always set out to do his best. At Middleburg, he averaged almost 20 points and more than 10 rebounds per game during his senior year. He was named an all-state, first-team selection.

His accomplishments, skills and technique on the court earned him a basketball scholarship to VCU.

“I never wanted to let down the people who believed in me — my family and my coaches,” he said. “That drove me to be successful in school, to try my hardest.

When he came to VCU, he immediately felt at home. “Everyone welcomed me with open arms,” he said.

Like many freshmen starting out, Alie-Cox hadn’t settled on a major until he took an introduction to criminal justice class and it quickly became his favorite.

“I decided that is what I wanted to study,” he said. “That class started it all for me.”

A man wearing a gray suit jacket, white button up shirt, and a yellow tie.
Mo Alie-Cox earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs in 2015 and a master’s degree in criminal justice in 2017. (Contributed photo)

When he introduced himself to his professor, she looked at him and said, “You are destined to do great things.”

“That line has always stayed with me,” he said.

While he’s had numerous moments at VCU that stand out, one of his most special accomplishments was during his first semester when he had a 4.0 GPA.

“You can’t get any better than that,” said Alie-Cox who in 2016 won a Black History in the Making Award, which recognizes the achievements of African American students, and during his time at VCU, earned honor roll seven semesters as a student-athlete.

His leadership, skill and determination on the basketball court helped lead VCU to an Atlantic 10 Conference Championship in 2015.

“We were the first team to do that in VCU history, which was a big deal,” said Alie-Cox, one of 39 VCU players in program history to score 1,000 career points.

He was also a member of four NCAA tournament teams, which was equally gratifying and offered a uniquely intense challenge.

“You know it’s win or go home,” he said of the NCAA games. “You try to be loose, but every moment is so critical. You have to be locked in and ready to go. You have to prove to yourself that you can do this when you are playing on a bigger stage and with the best of the best. You can’t shy away.”

It wasn’t just his talent that took the spotlight. His intelligence, calm presence and caring nature always impressed Sofia Hiort-Wright, Ph.D., senior executive associate athletic director for VCU Athletics.

“As an athlete, he is exceptional, naturally talented. He works extremely hard at whatever he does,” she said. “He will try 100 percent and that is part of the reason he has gotten to where he is today. He was a role model for the younger guys on the team. He did everything right and would make sure everyone followed his lead.”

Quiet and unassuming despite his stature, Alie-Cox grew into his own understated-but-highly effective leadership style.

“People were naturally drawn to him on the team,” Hiort-Wright said. “I can see why people looked up to him because of the way he carries himself.”

She remembers talking with him when he was beginning his transition from basketball back to football. It wasn’t an easy undertaking. He had lost years of playing the sport and the skills, conditioning and training that goes with it.

“He had to work incredibly hard to transition,” Hiort-Wright said. “He’s very persistent. He doesn’t give up easily.”

His decision to go back to football was a move he considered very carefully.

“A lot of strategy went into that process,” McDougle said. “That was extremely smart on his part.”

Rumors about a likely move to football started when NFL scouts came to his VCU basketball games during his senior season. It was during that year he made the decision to play football. Thinking strategically, he realized the odds of going professional with the NBA were slim because he felt he was severely undersized.

“Players at my position in basketball are 6 feet 10 inches to 7 feet,” he said. “So I thought, let me try and play football.”

Indianapolis Colts tight end Mo Alie-Cox leaps to catch a football
Mo Alie-Cox makes a one-handed catch in the end zone Sunday for his first NFL touchdown. (Photo courtesy Indianapolis Colts)

He talked with and visited 10 NFL teams, all interested in signing him as an undrafted free agent, before he settled on the Colts.

“I knew going to Indianapolis that they had a player on the roster that was a former basketball player, tight end Erik Swoope, who played for the University of Miami. So I knew they had a precedent of developing former basketball players, and I knew I had a chance to play there early so it came to that decision,” said Alie-Cox who originally started with the Colts in 2017 on the practice squad and in 2022 signed a three-year deal with the team.

Even though he played the game in high school, it took him about two-and-a-half years to play NFL football at an advanced level.

“Now, going on seven years with the team is kind of a big deal,” he said. “I’m proud of that. They developed me, taught me everything I know about football.”

“Everybody's faster, stronger,” he said. “Football is so much driven by technique. Your footwork has to be right. In my rookie year I used to mess up so much because the playbook is like a foreign language. I tell people all the time, I studied more in the NFL than I did when I was in college because everything was just so new to me and so different.”

Now, he’s got the game down because when you get thrown into the fire, you just have to do it, he said.

“That's where you really get better and get your experience and because you'll feel more natural when you're actually doing it,” he said.

He admits he was more nervous for his first NFL football game in 2018 against the Houston Texans than he was on the basketball court during the NCAA tournament, particularly because his assignments included blocking two of the best edge rushers in the sport – J.J. Watt and Jadaveon Clowney.

“It was a great learning experience, but my heart was definitely beating super-fast the majority of that game,” Alie-Cox said.

Later in the season, Alie-Cox would score his first touchdown in spectacular fashion, reeling in a one-handed catch against the Oakland Raiders. He didn’t even realize he was in the end zone when he came down with the ball.

“I just threw my hands up like, ‘Whoa,’” he said. “It was unreal. I didn’t even know how to celebrate because I was just so shocked.”

Going above and beyond

Being a star basketball player on campus was not enough for Alie-Cox. He was the first in McDougle’s class to volunteer for service. In 2016, he interned at the Virginia General Assembly along with teammate Melvin Johnson.

“He always goes above and beyond,” McDougle said. “He would go to the General Assembly in the morning, and he would come back and hop on the bus to go to a game.”

Alie-Cox also went with McDougle after school to the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center, which is now closed, where he led a basketball camp with other VCU basketball players. He and his teammates talked to those in the facility about the importance of going to school and engaging in their schoolwork.

“The young men were excited about the opportunity. They listened to and understood these basketball players,” McDougle said. “That example is Mo in a nutshell, touching the lives of individuals in the criminal justice system. Letting them know they are important in our community, that they are valuable members.”

His presence in any room always comes with an engaging smile, making him approachable to everyone.

“It lights up the room,” McDougle said, adding that VCU basketball players, including Alie-Cox, additionally participated in a basketball program associated with former Virginia first lady Dorothy McAuliffe and Richmond Public Schools to reduce childhood hunger. “When he engaged with the elementary school kids, he was gentle, kind and approachable.”

Alie-Cox laughs when asked how he would describe himself.

“I’m a chill, laid-back guy,” he said. “I’m respectful and enjoyable for sure.”

He admits he’s not extremely talkative around people until he gets to know them.

“When I first got to VCU, the coaches always said they couldn’t read me because I never spoke,” he said. “Once I get comfortable around them, I started talking more and more.”

Torey Burston and Mo Alie-Cox greet fathers and sons during a break on the basketball court.

A piece of advice that Coach Shaka Smart gave Alie-Cox and his teammates has stuck with him: You control what you can do. Don’t let others dictate what you do.

“It’s one of the biggest things I have applied to my life. I tell that to guys I mentor,” he said. “Control what you can control in life and everything else will fall into place. I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve taken and applied to my life since VCU.”

In thinking about his graduation speech, Alie-Cox intends to tell his story of how he made it into the NFL without playing football in college and hopes to motivate graduates. He’ll talk about the little things in life that have helped him.

“I’ll talk about how they can apply things like the things I’ve learned in sports to overall life,” he said. “You can apply those things to your everyday work ethic, how you go about your day and how you carry yourself.”

He also wants graduates to know that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it and not try to carry the burden that’s on your shoulders all by yourself, he said.

“You don’t know what you don’t know. It’s something I had to learn. It’s about being able to reach out to different people and get different resources and help whenever you need it,” he said.As far as the rest of his speech, he’s still putting that puzzle together, he said, but like his days on the court at the Siegel Center, it’s sure to get a response from the crowd.