As others honor the father, the father honors the son

April 26, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE FATHER'S body seemed blessed by the gods, and the son's cursed. Lenny Moore has spent long dark hours trying to figure out the nature of such things. His son Leslie is gone more than four years now. And next week, for the fourth time, the father will honor his son and offer his small gesture of hope to the unpredictable future.

Lenny Moore is the Baltimore Colts Hall of Famer who electrified a city once upon a time. Leslie Moore was the son stricken by the disease called scleroderma. Lenny was the man so swift that the town dubbed him Sputnik, and so indestructible that he survived more than a decade in the brutal National Football League. Leslie was the studious kid in his father's shadow whose body broke down one organ after another.

"Dad, I think it's gonna be all right," Leslie told his father that winter night just before he died, at 43.

After nine years of fighting the disease, he could not have been talking about himself. The scleroderma, formally known as progressive systemic sclerosis, had ruined his lungs and kidneys and pancreas, thickened his body's fibrous tissue and sapped his strength, and put him through days and nights when he seemed to be suffocating.

But maybe Leslie was thinking beyond his own mortality. His father has chosen to see it that way. Monday, at Martin's West, he will host the fourth annual Leslie Moore fund-raiser, designed to raise public awareness of scleroderma and also offer four-year college scholarships to five local kids.

For those who have attended these banquets, the occasions have become glad civic reunions, as well -- gatherings of former ballplayers, and the faithful who came of age watching them. Gino Marchetti and Artie Donovan will be there, and Bubba Smith and John Mackey, too. The names alone evoke entire eras.

Earl Morrall and Milt Davis and George Taliaferro will arrive from those Colts teams, and from afar the likes of Roger Staubach and Leroy Kelly and Jack Kemp and Chuck Bednarik and many others.

"A reunion of old warriors," Lenny Moore called it yesterday morning, as he prepared to leave his Randallstown home for work with the state Department of Juvenile Services. Lenny's 71 now. He has been working with juvenile offenders for the last two decades.

As he prepares for next week's fund-raising dinner, Lenny understands the intimacy of such affairs. They bring together those at the creation of enduring legends, when the Colts gave birth to a way of life in Baltimore and helped invent a national revolution in professional sports. Lenny was there at the heart of it, a spectacular ball-carrier and astonishing receiver who is still called, by many of his teammates, the finest athlete on those fabled championship teams.

But he has spent much of his retirement from football as an ambassador to troubled kids -- and as a deeply religious man struggling, in the aftermath of his son's long illness and his death, to understand the whims of genetics, and fate, and faith.

"This was a kid," Lenny was saying yesterday of his son, "who was so brilliant. His head was always into books, he was always looking for information, always trying to find the truth of things. But his body -- well, so many times now, I've thought about the frailty of the human species, and how we turn to God when things get rough, because he said he'd never leave us or forsake us. And that's the deal, man, because I've needed God many times.

"So often, it's not how we think things are gonna develop, or how the road's gonna go the way we thought. Just my going to college was almost a miracle. Playing for the Colts, same thing. Because, you know, I was thrown out of college between my last two years. For low grades, yeah. Just not going to class, man.

"And I was too embarrassed to go home. So my coaches sat me down, and convinced me to stay on campus and take these summer sessions and get back into the university. From then on, I buckled down. If it hadn't been for those coaches -- but who put 'em there?

"Even later, a month before the '58 season's summer camp, my mother died. My whole thing was to help Mom and Pop. When Mom died, I almost had a nervous breakdown. That's why I loved [Colts trainer] Eddie Block. He knew how I was grieving and looked after me. And I look back now and say: Who put him there? The grace of God."

In the same spirit, Lenny looks after his son's memory, and hopes that one day it will offer help to others.

"We ask for strength, and we keep our minds on positives," he said. "Leslie was so healthy, and then he was devastated by this disease. How did this come about? We don't know. We cope the best we can."

And bring together, every year at this time, those who remember a football team and a generation. And those who wish to honor a son.

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