It is June in Detroit, and 23-year-old Wide Receiver Herman Moore is strutting his balletic stuff on the Detroit Lions' practice field. Detroit quarterback Andre Ware, Moore's workout partner for 25 days during this off-season, is lofting spirals at Moore. On the first one Moore runs a 20-yard out pattern. Ware throws a pea high and outside. Moore stretches his 6'3", 210-pound frame, leaps two feet off the ground, pirouettes and...thank! The ball connects with his gloved hands. Moore lands, tucks the pass in and sprints a few steps upfield. Ware shakes his head. He undoubtedly is wondering the same thing you are about Moore: How can any cornerback in the NFL stop this guy?
"You see him make plays like that," Ware says, "and you just know you're seeing the early stages of a phenomenal career. I know I haven't been in the game long enough to make a judgment like this, but I really think we're looking at one of the great ones waiting to explode."
This will be Moore's third season in the league, and it should be his breakthrough year. As a rookie out of Virginia in '91, Moore had difficulty adjusting to contact lenses and the glare of the indoor lights at the Pontiac Silverdome. He dropped four balls in preseason games and then had his position switched three times during the Lions' bizarre, if short-lived, Silver Stretch offensive scheme. He felt thoroughly confused and caught all of 11 passes in '91.
Last year a torn quadriceps muscle kept Moore on the disabled list for four weeks early in the season, yet in 12 games as a slot, or inside, receiver, Moore hauled in 51 passes for 966 yards—even as Detroit relied more and more on running back Barry Sanders. "My two regrets are losing my rookie year because I dropped four passes and missing those four games last year," says Moore. "I think that cost me the Pro Bowl."
Last season 42 players caught 50 or more passes. However, only one—Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys, who averaged 17.9 yards per reception—was within two yards of Moore's 18.9 yards per catch. "When you throw to the smaller receivers," Ware says, "you have to throw it perfectly, right to a spot. With Herman, I can throw around him. I just have to hit the area. If he's one-on-one with somebody, it's all over. They don't have his size, and they can't jump with him."
Moore high-jumped 7'2¾" at a track meet in 1991, and he can leap 43 inches off the floor from a standing start. During games his long arms reach for any ball thrown into his neighborhood. That is why, near the end of last year, he started to get his first taste of double coverage.
Moore covers a lot of ground off the field as well. At lunch one day he demonstrated his affection for the work of Edgar Allan Poe with a rousing recitation of The Raven, the same way he did it in front of a public-speaking class at Virginia three years ago. He talked about his love of film, about how he would like to get into the movie business someday, and why he watched Cape Fear 20 times this summer. He can't get enough of Robert De Niro's malevolent performance. He talked about missing his school days. He talked about competing, about slam-dunking a basketball and hanging on the rim long enough to trash-talk the guys below him, about how much he wanted to be a top-notch football player.
He talked about triumphing over the rural poverty of his youth through sports and education. Moore grew up in Danville, Va., where he and his younger sister were raised by their mother. "My role models were the street-corner guys, drinking beer and smoking pot," he says. "That's what I might have become."
Until, to his surprise, Virginia offered him a football scholarship after a lukewarm high school career. As a redshirt freshman he won a starting job in the seventh game of the season and never relinquished it. In his junior year Moore caught 54 passes for 1,190 yards—including a nine-catch, 234-yard game against Georgia Tech—was named to every All-America team and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. The Lions made him the 10th pick of the '91 draft.
At first Moore's football success in Charlottesville far surpassed his performance in the classroom. He always knew he was a good athlete, but his confidence in his ability as a student was woeful. That is, until he met Angela Taylor, who ran the 400 and 800 meters, the mile and the two-mile relay for the Cavalier track team. She was also a line student. Moore and Taylor began competing in classes. They pushed each other. She usually won, but he was grateful for the push. He graduated in four years, majoring in rhetoric and communication, and loving school as much as he loved football.
"We'd take a test, and she'd rush back to her room and look up everything to see how she did," he says. "I'd get a B on a test and she'd get an A, and I'd go on a rampage because she'd beaten me. But it was so much fun competing and learning." Taylor is now Mrs. Herman Moore, and the couple have an 11-month-old son, Aaron.
Moore's growth as a student was in some ways more fulfilling to him than his athletic achievements. It showed him that he could overcome most obstacles with hard work. "I'm in control of what happens to me in my life, and I'll never blame anyone for what happens to me," he says. "I've become a big believer in the fact that your destiny is up to you."
That may be. But while Moore bulked up and worked out at the Silverdome during the winter and spring, the quarterback job was up for grabs. One of the candidates, Rodney Peete, spent the entire off-season in Los Angeles, and Ware spent half of it in Houston. That can't bode well for a consistent passing game in Detroit; young aerialists need to develop timing and chemistry.
Peete was awarded the job in training camp, and now Moore hopes that Peete keeps it for a while. If Moore's destiny is indeed up to him, Sanders won't be the only Lion with an annual season-ending trip to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl.