BOISE, Idaho -- It was a birthday celebration of sorts, but mostly just an excuse to get out and have a good time on a beautiful day last summer. Two rafts, filled with happy teammates on the Payette River. Until testosterone took over. The prescribed route through the rapid was to the left -- hence its informal name: "Go Left."
So they went right.
"Just for fun," Boise State defensive end Ryan Winterswyk said.
You know what happened next. The raft hit the big rock and flipped, spilling everyone and everything into the churning river. One Bronco was momentarily pinned beneath the capsized raft. Some clung to it; others thrashed about wildly, desperate to find calmer waters.
"It almost was bad for us, you know?" said defensive back Jeron Johnson. "I was just trying to remember everything people told me. ... Slipping around, swallowing water. It got scary.
"I'll never do it again."
But through it all, there was Kellen Moore, floating on his back. Feet up, eyes focused straight ahead, headed calmly downstream. As his teammates panicked, he could have been bobbing lazily in a backyard pool.
"He was just cruising down the river," Winterswyk said.
Next time you see Boise State's junior quarterback sit in the pocket, dissect the defense and deliver the strike, understand it's his nature. When pandemonium breaks loose around him, he just remembers the instructions and executes.
"He's pretty calm while chaos is going on," Winterswyk said.
It might be the biggest hidden talent for a guy whose abilities aren't immediately obvious. At 6-foot, 189 pounds, Moore doesn't have a big arm, and he doesn't run particularly well, either. Yet he finished seventh in the Heisman voting last December, and as unprecedented attention swirls around college football's best up-by-the-bootstraps program, much of it is focused, correctly, on the third-year starting quarterback.
Boise State returns 22 of 24 starters, and begins the season ranked No. 2 by SI.com (and No. 3 by the AP and No. 5 by the coaches). But there's no question Moore is the most important cog. His reaction, essentially, is a shrug.
Heisman talk? "Kind of goofy."
A shot at the national championship? Too distant to contemplate; the Broncos are focusing on the opener against Virginia Tech.
And that crazy sequence on the Payette, back in the summer of 2009? Here was Moore's thought process:
"It's all chaotic," Moore remembered. "There's no sense in trying to figure yourself out right now."
But if the Broncos achieve this season what many suspect they might, we could spend a lot of time trying to figure out Moore. He's not complicated.
"There's nothing extraordinary in anything he does," said Kirby Moore, Kellen's younger brother, who's a sophomore receiver for the Broncos. "No hidden talents or anything like that."
Unless you count what Kellen does on the field.
A coach's son, he's been a student of football since he was in grammar school. He started three years at Prosser (Wash.) High School, running an offense similar to Boise State's. And since he won the starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2008, he's taken the Broncos' attack to a different level of efficiency.
A year ago, he completed 64.3 percent of his passes, with 39 touchdowns and three interceptions. But the most important statistic, stretching two years, is 1 -- as in one loss, to TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl after the 2008 season. Moore is 27-1 as a starter, and with two years remaining, he could overtake Texas' Colt McCoy as college football's winningest quarterback.
He shrugs, of course, at the thought. What else would he do? It all seems, well, "goofy," for a guy who's the quintessential Boise State player. Moore was lightly recruited -- his other scholarship offers were to Idaho and Eastern Washington -- and he understood the reasons.
And here's the thing: If other schools weren't sure Moore could play, he wasn't, either. He had committed to Boise State, but in several phone conversations with Broncos offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, he questioned whether he was good enough.
"I was thinking, 'I'm probably not gonna be able to play here,'" Moore said. "'I don't know if I'll ever get on the field.'"
Harsin doesn't remember it quite that way. And coaches didn't see Moore's head spinning when, as a redshirting freshman, he ran the scout team and tried to devour the offensive playbook, and everything seemed to be moving too fast ("Worried and panicked," he described the experience).
Instead, Harsin and Boise State coach Chris Petersen recall how Moore kept tearing apart the first-team defense, week after week in practices. And Petersen saw a quarterback like no one he'd ever been around. He dropped in on a meeting during Moore's redshirt season, before the Broncos played in the Hawaii Bowl, and "was blown away."
"He was not gonna play," Petersen said. "He had no chance of playing. But it was how he was studying, the notes that were being taken. It was just different than anything I'd been around.
"That's how he gets things done."
If there was lingering doubt -- at least on Moore's part -- it should have been erased in September 2008. That's when the redshirt freshman made his first road start in a very difficult place. Oregon's Autzen Stadium is a snake pit for opponents, a swirling cauldron of hostile noise. Moore had attended a game there while he was in high school, watching the Ducks dismantle Michigan (he wore a Wolverines jersey, which meant he got to know how the fans treat visitors).
"Maybe that helped me," he said.
His parents drove down from Prosser not sure what to expect, just hoping their son could emerge relatively unscathed. Instead, Moore delivered a clinic, dissecting the Ducks. It was Boise State's first road victory against a BCS league opponent, another milestone on the program's upward path. And it confirmed what the coaches suspected they had in Moore.
"We felt like he was already a good enough quarterback," Harsin said. "Now, we felt a whole lot better."
From there, Moore morphed into an extension of Petersen and Harsin on the field. He's amazingly accurate and efficient. When things break down, he's cool, calm and collected. And he has emerged as a star. Again, the Broncos have lost just once in the last two years -- and they avenged the loss by beating TCU in the Fiesta Bowl last season -- and Moore is the biggest reason for the run.
Considering everything, he makes a pretty good poster boy for the program. Only, we're not going to see many posters of Moore. Or at least, no postcards.
Although Moore finished seventh in the Heisman voting a year ago, Boise State doesn't plan a campaign. There are whispers that the last time around, when Ian Johnson knitted beanies and proposed to (and married) the cheerleader, the running back's production might have suffered from all the attention. Knowing Moore's temperament, it wouldn't seem to be an issue -- but it won't be.
"There's no way all this attention and distraction cannot have an effect on somebody," Petersen said. "That's where I see the coaches coming in, protecting him, not letting all the outside noise take his game down a notch."
Which is fine with Moore. In a few days, he will trot onto the field against Virginia Tech, into the spotlight. If things go well, he might just find himself in New York -- a place he's never been -- for the Heisman ceremony. And perhaps in Glendale, Ariz., a place dear to the Broncos and their fan base, for a shot at the unthinkable: a national championship. Here's guessing Moore will be unfazed.
The alternate version of the rafting story -- the one they tell when Moore is around, trying to get a rise out of him -- has his teammates fighting to escape the rapids, while Moore acquiesces to the inevitable, final outcome.
"Apparently, I was just giving up and just accepting death," Moore said, rolling his eyes. "But really, I was just letting the rapids take me out. Once you get to calm water, figure it out."
Sounds like he's already got things figured out.