Washington State football star Sammy Moore tells his life story with such ease and grace, he almost succeeds in making his childhood seem one notch above a living hell.
Where do you start? With the 13-year-old girl who gave birth to him? With the teenage father who, like his mother, all but abandoned him for years? With the grandmother who raised him because his parents abused drugs and alcohol when they weren't in jail?
How about the ramshackle home with no indoor plumbing? Or the house with the chickens out back so food would always be available? What about all the times he wore cleats to school because they were the only shoes that fit, that didn't have holes in them, that his grandmother could afford?
Today, Moore is one of the nation's most dangerous kickoff returners and big-play receivers, but his football heroics will never measure up to what he's accomplished off the field simply by surviving.
"I just love the young man," says Roger Suchomel, Moore's football and track coach at Westwood High School in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, Ariz.
"A great young man," WSU coach Bill Doba says.
"A really great kid," WSU offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller adds.
"Great guy and a great team player," WSU center Mike Shelford agrees.
Moore has always been a superb athlete -- he won four events at the state track meet his senior year, and his acrobatic touchdown catch at Notre Dame was ESPN's "Play of the Day" earlier this season. However, those who know him tend to talk more about Moore the person than Moore the athlete.
"It's just incredible that he survived the situation with his mom and dad," Suchomel says.
"It's pretty much a miracle," says Jeff Chudy, an assistant football coach who worked closely with Moore for two years at Bakersfield College, a community college in California. "He basically raised himself from when he was 14."
"He's so upbeat -- most people from that background would not be like that," Shelford says. "I don't think too many people with that background would still be smiling every day."
Indeed, Moore is a walking, breathing, perpetual ray of sunshine. Moore doesn't just look for silver linings; he looks for pure gold. And, no matter what the situation, he usually finds it.
Example: "When you start off at the bottom, there's nowhere to go but the top. If you start at the top, there's nowhere to go but down."
And: "I know everything that's happened to me in life was meant for me, because the Lord would not do anything to me that I can't handle."
And: "Even though my mom and dad have had good times and bad times, they're still wonderful people."
And: "A lot of people back home in Arizona want me to fail, expect me to fail, because of my upbringing. But I'm not going to fail."
Moore, a football and track sensation at Westwood and Bakersfield -- the three-time Arizona state long jump champion soared 25 feet in junior college -- says he recalls his mother watching him play sports just once. His father showed up only on occasion.
"My mother saw me play Little League one time," Moore recalls. "It was so weird. I remember it like yesterday.
"I hit an infield [inside-the-park] home run. That was also the first time I pitched. I was striking everybody out, and I looked up, and my mom was breast-feeding my little sister. I was so embarrassed."
Moore says his father, who never married his mother, straightened his life out years ago ("I'm so proud of him"). Father and son now have a good relationship, but ask Moore about his mother, and this is how he replies: "She's doing well, but she's in jail right now."
"It's better that she's in jail, because when she's in jail, she doesn't have chances to get in trouble.
"Besides, her sisters are in there, too."
Why is his mother in jail?
"I'm not sure. I think she's in for DUI."
Moore spent much of his youth growing up south of Phoenix in Coolidge, Ariz., near the Gila Indian Reservation. (His mother is a member of the Pima tribe; his father is black.) Moore literally tried to count all his brothers, sisters and half-siblings on his fingers before giving up ("It's a lot"), and he's not certain where he was born ("It was either Phoenix or Mesa"). When he arrived at Bakersfield, his birth certificate listed no first name.
"My mom didn't know what she wanted to name me," he explains.
After briefly living with his father in the Phoenix area, Moore bounced from home to home among friends and relatives throughout high school. As a senior, Moore lived in the home of close friend and teammate Aaron Wilkins.
"All through high school, his parents never came to games," recalls Wilkins, who now runs track at Northern Arizona. "On 'Parent Night,' they were never there, so my mom would show up for him."
Moore, a 6-foot, 187-pound speedster, hopes to play in the NFL. ("I've always dreamed of being rich.") The senior wide receiver has caught 18 passes for 428 yards -- a whopping average of nearly 24 yards per reception -- and four touchdowns for the sixth-ranked Cougars (7-1), who take on third-ranked Southern California (also 7-1) on Saturday in Los Angeles in perhaps the biggest Pac-10 game of the season. Moore ranks sixth in the nation with a 29-yard kickoff return average, boosted by his sensational 97-yard TD return at Colorado.
"Everyone's talking about him back here," Suchomel says, "and it's all good things."
Moore, a criminal justice major who plans to become a juvenile probation officer when he's done with football, says he's determined to play a major role in the life of his year-old daughter. Leilah Moore lives with Moore's former girlfriend in Bakersfield, and the parents remain in close contact.
"I want my daughter to look up to me," Moore says.
Moore won't be able to draw on much personal history for parenting tips, but he already has a pretty good idea how to succeed as a father. "You can get by on love," he says. "If there's anything parents can give their children, it's love."
Publication date: 10/30/03