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April 22, 2009
Willy Mo's long road to the NFL
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Hayti, Missouri is hardly a hotbed for NFL football players. Honestly, Hayti, Missouri is hardly a hotbed for much of anything. Between 2000 and 2007, the town's population dropped by 6.9%. Located as far south and east as you can go in Missouri's bootheel, Hayti is one town not feeling much effect of the national recession. Tough to lose what you never had.
The median household income is a little less than $18,000. Nearly 40% of the town's population lives below the poverty line. But on Saturday or Sunday, Hayti is going to celebrate. None of that will matter. This weekend, one of Hayti's own will make good.
William Moore graduated from Hayti High School in May of 2004. He is the second member of his family ever to earn a high school diploma, and the first to go on to add a college degree to it. Moore was an all-American safety at Missouri in 2007. He finished up in 2008 as a member of the winningest senior class in Mizzou history. At some point Saturday or Sunday, his name will flash across the screen as an NFL draft pick.
"I know I'm going to be very emotional, man," Moore said in an interview from Hayti. "I'm emotional now, two weeks away, just because I'm in this position. There's going to be tears of joy, I know that."
It would seem unlikely that Moore would be here. But then, those who think that probably don't know Willy Mo.
"This is not surprising to me," Moore said. "I know how hard I worked. This is my ultimate goal, to graduate from college and play in the NFL."
"I'm so proud of him. A guy that ends up being all Big 12, going to be drafted in the NFL, he's got his degree, he's voted captain, one of the great honors," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "To think that this guy that came in here and started where he started, and where he ended up. That's why you coach football."
Simply to get to college, Moore had to overcome all that is Hayti, a town in which 48% of the people (according to city-data.com) did not finish high school. He knows he would not have done it without football.
"As hard as it is to say, probably not," he said. "It's hard to look at what I would have done if I didn't get that scholarship. My whole community, the guys I graduated with, is back here. It's hard to say what I would have done, but I couldn't afford school. That was out of the picture. Academics wouldn't have gotten me in. I don't know.
"If it wasn't for football, there was nothing else I could do here."
And nothing is exactly what many of his friends are doing now. The vast majority are still among the some three thousand people that live in the small bootheel town. Asked if his friends are mostly back working jobs in his home town, Moore laughs.
"Most of them are here. I don't know about working jobs."
To get out of Hayti, Moore needed football, and he needed a chance. Pinkel gave him that chance, offering the two-time all-state wide receiver a scholarship in his junior year of high school. Moore committed to Missouri in February of that junior year, nearly a full calendar year before he would sign a National Letter of Intent with the Tigers.
But still, Moore making it to Mizzou was no slam dunk. His father was out of the picture. His mother was addicted to drugs. Moore lived part-time with his grandmother, Hattie Moore. He lived the rest of the time with the family of Lindsey and Valerie White, whom he calls his emotionally adoptive parents.
"I don't know what the heck that means," Lindsey White says. "But we tend to call him our middle child."
White had coached Moore on a tee-ball all-star team. Moore was a few months older than White's younger son, Josh, who will graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy next month. Over the next several years, White would draft Moore to play on his little league team. After all, every coach wants the best players, and William Moore was the best player at just about every game he tried.
"William lived with his grandmother and he had no other way to get to and from the games so we picked him up and took him home. I had no problem doing that. We started growing a friendship with him and his willingness to please us, he wanted to do what was right with us," White said. "William needed our help and when we saw that he was appreciative of the help it just made it that much easier for us to show him the way."
"When I wanted to give up, they were always at high school to make sure I had my academics right to get through the clearinghouse and everything," Moore said. "Me and J-Mac (Missouri teammate Jeremy Maclin grew up with a similar family situation) often talked about that, how we dealt with it and the negatives and positives to the whole situation."
Moore's second family had just one goal.
"My wife and I, our goal with William was to get him a college education," White said. "We knew he was talented physically, but we didn't have a clue he would apply himself and work as hard as he did. He and the coaches really developed him into the outstanding athlete that he is. He put a lot of hard work in, but so did coach Pinkel's staff.
"At that time, we didn't have a clue that the college degree might end up being a secondary part of his life."
But even once he arrived at Mizzou, the ride was not without its bumps. For three years, Pinkel referred to Moore as one of the best athletes on the team. But that athleticism never translated to the field during his first three seasons as a Tiger.
"He went through a lot of stages, a lot of trust stages, trust in us. We had to earn that and he had to earn trust back," Pinkel said. "If you're going to go to Missouri, you're going to go to school and you're going to graduate. That's what we do here. I always tell my players in recruiting, we don't use guys here to play football. We don't do that."
Moore eventually earned that trust from his coaches and his teammates. He became an all-American and earned his degree. To Pinkel, that is the true happy ending to Moore's story.
"You talk about making a significant change in somebody's life," said the Missouri coach. "I tell players this: Some of you, you might be the first to graduate from college. And you know what? You marry a gal with a college degree, chances are your kids will go to college. You can change a generation from an education standpoint. How significant is that? That's a lot more fun than winning football games."
For the fact Moore has gotten this far, the Whites deserve credit. So do Pinkel and so does Moore himself. But he is quick to give his blood relatives their due as well.
"My family, they couldn't support me financially, but they were always there to push me."
It is that support system that got Moore out of Hayti. Hayti, of course, will never be out of Moore. It's like that with small towns. Hayti isn't part of William Moore. Hayti is Willy Mo. Next weekend, he will be huddled around a television set somewhere in his home town. (He may be alone, though he is invited to the Whites' house. "That's the one thing, he's never kept a very good schedule," Lindsey White says. "We told him we'll be here, we'll have some food, we'll have the television on.") At some point, his name will flash across the screen on ESPN, anointing him the next great hope for the fan base of some NFL team. But serving as a motivation is nothing new to Moore.
"I'm motivation to a lot of people," he said. "That's the positive to come out of this whole situation. I kept working and didn't give up. A lot of guys, they often come up to me and tell me stuff they've done because of me."
"I'll always remember his story and I use his story. I used it two times last month with players that had some troubles," Pinkel said. "You're not the only guy that's ever struggled here. It's your attitude and what you choose to make of it. It's a very positive story."
Moore is already one of three "people from Hayti," listed on the Wikipedia page for the town. It is likely more people in the town take pride in Moore than in Wendell Mayes, who was born in Hayti in July of 1919 and went on to receive an Oscar nomination for best screenplay for his work on "Anatomy of a Murder." It is certain his popularity and name recognition will exceed Mayes' when he is drafted.
"Pemiscot County is one of the poorest counties in the state. Hayti has problems that would go along with that. Not many two parent homes, which is a major problem that I see all the time," Lindsey White said. "I guess I'm still surprised that a kid from our area can be as dominating of an athlete as he is and be a top prospect in the NFL. To me that's very impressive."
White says when Moore's name is called, he will consider his job mostly complete. Apparently, he and his wife have done their part well because the former Tiger insists there will be no difference between William Moore, Hayti native and William Moore, NFL player.
"Not at all," he said. "I think I've been doing a good job as far as being humble and keeping football away from real life...Nothing will change about me."
He will sign a contract in the days or weeks after the draft-he has an agent, and the Whites are in the process of interviewing financial advisors--likely assuring himself the kind of economic security few from Hayti have ever had. Moore already has a black and yellow car with a Mizzou logo on the door and "Willy Mo" on the license plates. He says he doesn't really need anything else. Still, that first paycheck is going to get the kid from Hayti something nice.
"I'm not a selfish person," Moore said. "But at the same time, I've got to reward myself for the hard work. My grandmother has Alzheimer's. There's nothing I can get her now."
Moore is not likely to be a first-round pick, not likely to have a roster spot completely guaranteed. But ask him where he'll be in five years and Hayti's favorite son does not hesitate.
"Still playing," he says. "Best safety in the NFL."
After what he's already done, who's going to doubt him now?
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