- One of the NFL’s most physical defensive backs spent most of high school working a concession stand under the Friday night lights—he thought the sport was too physical. How his path changed, transforming him into a football star in a city where he has played the hero on and off the field.
Last week, Kenny Moore went viral. Drew Dickson, CIO of Albert Bridge Capital, shared a story about how Moore, at that time an anonymous young player fighting for a roster spot in the NFL, stopped to lend a helping hand and calming voice on a downtown Indianapolis street. Moore helped save an injured dog and, indirectly, perhaps the life of the dog’s owner, Dickson’s son Max. It was an eye-misting tale about the impact of authentic, unconditional kindness. Having recently spent time with Moore, I found the story not the least bit surprising.
Earlier this month on a Midwest road trip I stopped in Indianapolis to meet the third-year cornerback. On film, Moore was perhaps football’s best slot corner in 2018 but he is still largely unknown. Through the grapevine I’d heard the Colts wanted to sign him to a lucrative long-term contract (indeed, a week later they would, to the richest slot corner deal in history). And so I contacted the team and asked to meet Moore.
The Colts were thrilled. Moore, they explained, was an even better person than player. The type who says hello and addresses you by name, whether you’re part of the front office or the custodial staff. He never seeks publicity, and so the team feels responsible to capture it for him when it falls from the sky.
My drive to Indianapolis was delayed by traffic, but Moore stuck around the facility to wait up. When I finally came through the door, he quickly brushed off my apologies—“no worries, it’s all good”—and we sat down in the empty media room. Moore is soft-spoken but attentive. We broke the ice by watching film. I pulled up some of his best plays and he explained them in significant detail, going beyond the “what” and into the “why.” He is an elite zone defender and blitzer from the slot. He can also play outside. On the first snap of Indy’s wild-card win at Houston, he broke up a deep ball to DeAndre Hopkins. It was good physical coverage, though Hopkins wanted a flag. “Even after the 10th play, [Hopkins] was still talking about that first play,” Moore said with a smile. We watched more plays of Moore near the line of scrimmage. He is one of football’s hardest-hitting corners. And that is how we pivoted from football to the 23-year-old’s life story.
Moore grew up in the football-crazed town of Valdosta, Ga. “It’s called Winnersville, USA,” he says. The area is rich with athletes (Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith was one of Moore’s high school classmates) and high school football games can draw 15,000 fans. Moore was blessedly athletic even by Southern Georgia standards. During his first three years at Lowndes High School, when the Friday night lights came on, Moore would take his position: past the locker room, behind the bleachers, and in the visitor’s side concession stand. There he’d work the counter, able to hear—but not see—the game. He loved the energy of Friday night football, and he could outrun everyone on the field. But he refused to play.
“I didn’t like the physicality of football.”
One of the NFL’s hardest-hitting corners didn’t play football until just seven years ago because he didn’t like the physicality?
“I just didn’t think I was big enough,” Moore explains. He had played middle school football, but “was always the smallest on every team.” He was a pretty good receiver and wanted to play that at Lowndes High, but he encountered a coach whose eye for talent happened to be stronger than Moore’s toughness. “He wanted to make me a corner,” Moore says. “I really didn’t want to play corner because I didn’t like the contact of it. The coach said, ‘Nah, I think you’re better at corner.’ He was scaring me the last few weeks of summer practice. He would send me through drills two or three times to make me more physical. The last practice I was telling my friends I was done because the coach had been scaring me all practice.”
Moore instead became a point guard on the basketball team, which, he says, became his identity. He also played soccer and, as a junior, reached the state finals in track. One of his fellow hurdlers was a key defensive player on the football team. During Moore’s senior year, that player found trouble and was kicked off the team. Worried because there were only freshmen to replace him, the player approached Moore in chemistry class, badgering him to step in. Moore recalls the conversation. “He was like, ‘Nothing can go wrong, it’s just one year of football and then you’re done. Nobody’s asking you to play in college.’ He convinced me to play.”
Moore popped into a team film session and asked to speak to head coach Randy McPherson. “I’m here because I want to play football again,” Moore said. McPherson remembered coveting Moore coming out of middle school. “I just want to be bigger, faster, stronger,” Moore told him.
In Moore’s home, everything was tight: money, living quarters, but also family relations. He had six siblings—all sisters. When he was very young, his mother and father separated. His mother moved from Valdosta to her parents’ house in Miami, taking Kenny and, at that point, two sisters with her. The six of them lived in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house. “I want to go back to that house one day,” Moore says introspectively. “It was so small.” In 2003, Moore’s mother returned to Valdosta, bringing her grandparents along. At that point, there were now six sisters; the entire 10-person family lived in a two-story house. Moore’s father was still in the Valdosta area but only came around periodically, which perplexes Moore to this day.
“In middle school, he was coming to my track meets. I guess he just loved to see me play. It was crazy. I didn’t have a relationship with him.” Moore lowers his head as he says this part, speaking slowly, as if examining his words as they come out. “I didn’t have a relationship with him. I was always a little stubborn because he and my mom didn’t work out and I hated that, because I always wanted them to be together. I would see him sometimes when we got out of church or we’d go see him on some random day, but I never enjoyed it. Every time we went to see my dad, it was like, ‘Why? He never came for us.’
“Sometimes my dad would just pop up at my track meet. I remember he was at my eighth-grade track meet. In high school, he’d come to basketball games. He would just disappear after the game. He did the same thing in college. He went to some freshmen games, some sophomore games, he would just pop up out of nowhere and I’d see him, point my finger at him. By the game’s end, he was dashing out. After every game, I would always be like, ‘Did he stay? Did he stay?’ But he’d always have to go.”
A single parent fighting to make ends meet, Moore’s mother worked long hours. And so to help Moore get “bigger, faster, stronger,” Coach McPherson every morning came by and drove Moore to workouts. “Coach McPherson, he just put that dog in you,” Moore says. “I became passionate about everything I did. He knew most of the guys weren’t coming from great backgrounds. He’d always talk about life and putting God and family first. He’d always say that how you live is a representation of your family, the people back home and a representation of our high school. I was playing by that.”
That lightbulb did not come on right away, however. A few weeks into the workout routine McPherson came by Moore’s house, but Kenny never emerged. The coached pulled Moore aside at school later that day, wanting an explanation. As Moore tells it, “A few weeks into playing football, my basketball coach found out. I don’t know why, but he convinced me to quit football. He was telling me they were probably just using me as a practice dummy … and I gave in to him. My mom always taught me not to quit; I didn’t even tell my mom about quitting football.”
McPherson got it straightened out. “I can’t imagine if I didn’t even go back to workouts. I don’t even know what I’d be doing right now,” Moore says. “That would have been the craziest mistake of my life.”
Moore shined on the gridiron as a senior cornerback—naturally overcoming his aversion to contact—and drew attention from Tennessee-Chattanooga, Mercer and nearby Valdosta State, where he would go on to play corner as a freshman, sophomore and junior before moving to safety as a senior.
He was Division II All-America in 2016, his senior season, and started dreaming of an NFL career. But he needed help. After his final game, he “was desperate for an agent. I had no representation.” He had his highlight tapes ready to go and was networking on Twitter. Eventually, through guidance and introductions from teammates, he connected with Indianapolis-based agent Buddy Baker of Exclusive Sports Group.
Moore was not invited to the NFL combine and wound up driving all over the south, partaking in tryouts. On one Friday, he drove to New Orleans for a regional combine, which took place Saturday. On Sunday he drove the six hours back to Valdosta State for the school’s pro day, which was Monday morning. He did well enough that when the Chiefs heard about it, they asked to see him at the Kennesaw State pro day on Tuesday. So, Moore made the four-hour drive north to Kennesaw.
He didn’t expect to get drafted but thought it was possible. He had also communicated with the Jets, 49ers, Giants and Redskins. Defensive backs coaches would call during the last day of the draft and build up his hopes (“I didn’t realize the GM picked the guys,” Moore says, “I thought collectively they’d all be deciding”), only for their team to pick someone else. Immediately after the draft, Moore landed as a free agent with the Patriots, who would try him as an outside and inside corner. He performed well but was part of an uncommonly deep cornerbacking group that included Justin Coleman and Malcolm Butler—two other undrafted corners who later struck rich long-term contracts.
On September 3, Moore was called to the Patriots’ main office. He saw a bunch of players sitting around in the waiting room, which confirmed his suspicion that he was about to get cut. “My heart almost stopped,” he says. Bill Belichick thanked Moore, chalking up his release to a “numbers game,” and said they hoped to sign him to the practice squad.
“I was grieving, man,” Moore recalls. “The toughest thing I had ever done in my life to that point was trying to make their roster. I remember like it was yesterday. I was on the phone with my mom right afterwards like, ‘I didn’t get it done.’ I felt like I had just failed my family.”
Though Moore’s mom offered soothing words, and he quickly landed with the Colts, he hardly touches on this part of the story. Getting cut by New England “was the toughest time in my life,” he continues. “Actually, probably the second toughest.”
What was the toughest?
“My dad passed away going into spring football my senior year,” he says. Kenneth Dale Moore, 56, died of liver and kidney failure.
“It touched me a lot. I didn’t really have a good relationship with my father growing up. I don’t know why that suddenly changed, but I think it was God. I woke up one morning, it was November of ’15, and I woke up and was like, ‘I want a relationship with my dad.’ I had had a dream of me and him just hanging out. I was like, ‘Why did I just dream that? We never hung out.’ He lived on the other side of town. So I talked to my family on my dad’s side and they thought it was a good idea. So we started hanging out, multiple times, getting to know each other.
“I didn’t get as deep as I wanted to with him, but I found out more about him and his life growing up. We were just trying to enjoy the moment. And then out of the blue, he just got sick, and he was in the hospital before I knew it. I was going to see him literally every day. My mom would sometimes be there, his sister would sometimes be there. And then he passed before I even knew it.
“He passed away February 7, 2016. It took me until like April to go back to school, maybe late March. Felt like I had a ghost. I was grieving so much.
“I took my dad’s passing the hardest because I’m the only boy. I’m a reflection of him. I don’t want say it’s a regret, but the thing I don’t like about how we did (our hangouts) was I didn’t ask many questions. I just loved him because I loved his presence. That father-son time, that was something that I liked, that I enjoyed. I didn’t ask questions, I’m not sure why. I was stuck in the moment. Talking, laughing. He loved to laugh.”
Moore still doesn’t understand why his father chose to be in his life so peripherally and fleetingly during those teenage years. And with his father now gone, the question seems to have taken on a whole new complexity. “I was grieving him before I started grieving him, that’s the irony of it,” Moore says.
After a heavy pause, I ask Moore if there’s anything else to his story he’d like to add. This question seems to almost jolt him out of a trance.
“I don’t really talk about my life like this,” he says, shaking his head. “I don’t talk about myself like that.”
Sure, of course there is more to share, he explains. Get a man examining his full life and there’s always more to share. But right now, he’s spent. We glance at a still shot of Colts film on my iPad, our initial conversation about fire zone coverages now feeling absurdly superficial.
Then I think of one last thing to ask: Do you ever think about getting your second contract?
“I pray for it, man,” Moore says. (I do not know if he is aware at this time or not that this prayer will be answered in a matter of days.) “My family wants the best for me. They don’t want anything that I have. They’ll support me with or without it. But I would love to have a big contract to ease the pain a bit. I know they’re going through a lot. All of us siblings would like to see my mom stop working. She’s been working her whole life. She works at Wal-Mart. She’s worked at a place like that our whole life. Literally since I was born, I’ve see my mom work just about every single day. It’s been unbelievable and, I don’t want to say depressing, but we just want her to enjoy her life.
“Her first time flying was when I flew her up here to Indy my rookie year. That’s just crazy to me. I’d do anything just to see my mom happy. Even if she just goes down to a part-time job, that’d be a remarkable milestone in my life because when I was younger I always told her, there’d be better days.”
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