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The UDFA, Part 1: The Climb

C.J. Moore’s journey to the NFL

South Alabama v Mississippi Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

When Pride Of Detroit became a credentialed member of the media, I wanted to do all the things that any football fan would want to do. Go to games and meet players. All the cool stuff. Once you’ve done that you find yourself wanting to know more and more about the players under the helmets. Suddenly for me, the only thing I wanted to know is what it’s like to be a human being that also happens to be a multi-million dollar athlete and on the cover of video games and magazines.

There’s that side of the NFL that features those players. Their lives can be hectic and exciting at the same time. There’s a ton of glamour and there’s a ton of scrutiny. It often starts when a player is drafted. Heck, it even happens when that player is in college and everyone knows they’re about to be a stud in the NFL. But there’s a type of player whose road is quite different and doesn’t come with all the baggage.

I’m talking about the Undrafted Free Agent (UDFA). These are the guys that come from all walks of life. Whether they’re a player who got injured before declaring for the draft or they declared too early or even just didn’t make the cut when it came to Draft Night. These are the guys that are unheralded, but still have a story to tell.

That’s my project for this season. I want to tell that story. I want to talk about what it’s like for a guy to fight against the odds to make his dream come true. That’s the exact story we’re going to tell this season with Detroit Lions undrafted safety C.J. Moore.

But to really understand this story, you have to start at the beginning. Way back in Bassfield, Mississippi, C.J. was born Calvin J. Moore to Alvin and Monica Moore. C.J.’s love for football began when his father bought him and his twin brother A.J. a Southern Miss and an Ole Miss helmet and matching shoulder pads when they were seven years old.

From there, football became a big part of Moore and his twin brother’s lives. A part that spawned a competitive nature and a strong bond that lasts to this day. In seventh grade, Moore learned realized that football was what he wanted to do when he and his brother helped lead their team to its first pee wee championship.

“It was my last year in pee wee football,” Moore told me this summer. “We’re in the championship. We’re down. My town has never won a pee wee championship. But me, my twin brother and a lot of other guys on that team, we came together and won that championship. We were down and came back and fought. At that moment I knew we were a special group and that I could be a pretty good player if I worked hard.”

Moore attended Bassfield High School, and, playing next to his brother, the safety shined for the Yellow Jackets and helped lead the team to multiple state championships. Moore was part of a football program that was sending an influx of players to division one schools. Along with his brother A.J., former teammates Cornell Armstrong and Curtis Mikell also made their way to the NFL.

As a three-star recruit, Moore received offers from Southern Miss and Mississippi State. But it was Ole Miss that Moore and his brother ultimately chose after falling in love with their coaching staff. That staff included current Auburn defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff, who had nothing but the best to say about Moore.

“That’s a great person,” McGriff told me over the phone. “He’s the same person every single day. High-character kid. He’s one of the smartest kids we had on the team. He has a strong football IQ and does a good job of digesting information from the meeting room and taking it to the field. Just good all around reliable person.”

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately Moore suffered a setback early on when he tore his right pectoral muscle during fall camp before the 2016 season. However, he found motivation watching his brother.

“It kinda hurt me,” Moore said. “I know I kinda fell off and I was having no idea what I wanted to do. But I saw my brother on the field and he was still playing. So I knew I had to push him and push my other teammates. I knew I wanted to get back out there. So I started working and became a starter going into the 2017 season.”

C.J.’s and his brother turned out a pretty good 2017 season. To the brothers it was dream to start next to each other at Ole Miss, and they helped each other continue to get better. After the season, A.J. declared for the NFL Draft. He’s living his dream in his second season with the Houston Texans. At the time, though, Coach McGriff wondered if the change would affect Moore going into his first season of being without his brother.

“We was really concerned about him after his brother left and went to the league,” McGriff said. “We was like man, you gonna be able to survive without him? Because where you saw one, you saw the other.”

After a standout junior year and his brothers jump to the NFL, Moore looked to have a big senior year and up his draft stock. After four games, he was lighting up the box score. He had 17 tackles, two fumble recoveries, four pass deflections and an interception. Unfortunately, injuries would again derail his season. He tore his left pectoral muscle again in a game against Louisiana State, ending his season and his college career.

Despite the injury, the NFL was still on Moore’s mind. Prior to his 2017 breakout season, Moore had no intention or realistic thoughts of moving onto the NFL, but because he had played so well that year, he started getting encouragement from others.

“I feel like it started happening after the 2017 season when I became a starter,” Moore said. “I had a pretty good season. I had like three interceptions. I led the defense in production. It was just a good season for me. That’s when the coach was telling me scouts were coming to ask about me and I was pretty shocked. That’s when I started realizing it was possible.”

Moore declared for the 2019 NFL Draft knowing that his chances of being drafted were slim after missing seven games his senior year. But that didn’t get Moore down. He worked out for several teams during his pro day and drew the eye of not just the Detroit Lions, but the Denver Broncos, the Baltimore Ravens and the Seattle Seahawks. In all, 19 teams talked with Moore. So he felt like an invitation to camp could happen.

That invitation came. The Lions signed Moore immediately following the seventh round of the NFL draft. Moore’s mission immediately became to show the Lions coaching staff that he can be help on the special teams unit—per his brother’s advice.

“Being the type of players that we are—speed and pretty good size—he said work to be a core special teams guy, because that’s the key” Moore said. “If you play special teams, you can play anywhere. That’s what he’s been telling me. Just work hard and take notes on special teams and give it all you got.”

One hardship for not just UDFA but any rookie coming into the league is that their lives are suddenly uprooted and moved to a new city in a new state. While Moore has been to Michigan before and has aunt that lives in Ypsilanti, life is still different for someone who has spent his entire life somewhere completely different.

“It is pretty tough because I’m a country boy,” Moore said. “I miss all the dirt roads and mud ridin’ and stuff like that. With me being here alone—I mean, I still have brothers to lean on like the other rookies I came in with. I bond with those guys. I guess you could say I’m not alone, because I have these guys here that I get closer with everyday. So it hasn’t been that hard.”

Aside from the other rookies that are going through this big change in life, Moore says he leans on Jarrad Davis a lot. He says Davis is really the leader of this defense. As far as his position, Moore says veteran safety Tavon Wilson has been a good source of information during in his time in Detroit.

There’s a lot of hard work between rookie minicamp, OTAs and training camp. When you’re out on the field, you’re working hard trying to show what you can do. When you’re not out there, you’re in the film room or the weight room. This can be physically and mentally draining, but it can be all worth it when you have that special moment on your first game day. The one you think about when you’re a kid.

“I walk in the locker room and I see my jersey. You know, the Lions jersey with my last name Moore on the back,” Moore said of the preseason opener against the Patriots. “I was kinda in wow there for a second. Like, ‘Wow I’m really here. I really made it. I couldn’t have made it without god.’ I was just so thankful in that moment to see my name on the back of that jersey. Then to run out. The fire coming out, you know when you enter the stadium. You step on the field and the fans are cheering. I got my family in the bleachers. It was a great moment.”

We’ll be following Moore’s journey throughout his first NFL season. Next month, we’ll catch up with Moore about the rest of his preseason experience and the stresses of cut day.

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