WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. — Chris Vaughn kept checking the time. As afternoon inched toward evening on March 7, Vaughn began to worry.
One of the fastest players in the nation was running late. That night, Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore would receive the Paul Hornung Award, given to the most versatile player in college football. The award would be presented at the Galt House Hotel in downtown Louisville, across the Ohio River from Moore’s hometown of New Albany, Indiana.
As the ceremony approached, Moore hadn’t gone missing. The Purdue star was at Aspirations Fitness Institution, the gym where Vaughn trains athletes on Louisville’s south side.
“Grinding, drenched in sweat, lifting, running, getting in and out of cuts, catching tennis balls, like he’s a nobody trying to walk onto the team,” Vaughn recalled. “That’s still the mentality he has. He literally has to be there at 6 o’clock, and he’s in the block at 4 p.m., pouring out sweat.
“I’m telling him, ‘You’ve got to go, you’ve got to get out of here.'”
That’s the first thing to know about Moore, the first true freshman in Big Ten history to earn consensus All-America honors. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound receiver also was Big Ten Freshman of the Year … and the league’s wide receiver of the year … and first-team All-Big Ten as both a wide receiver and returner … and broke Purdue’s record for single-game all-purpose yards (313) in his collegiate debut against Northwestern … and set Purdue’s single-season all-purpose-yards record (2,215) … and became just the third player in Big Ten history to eclipse 100 receptions in a season (114, ranked second in league history behind fellow Boilermaker Chris Daniels’ 121 in 1999) … and …
“I’m not here for awards,” Moore said, a phrase he repeated during an interview with ESPN. “There’s a bigger goal, you know, to all of this.”
The next thing to know about Moore, similar to the first, is that there’s intent and preparation behind everything. This may be hard to square with a player so naturally gifted, whose seemingly unscripted routes around the field draw comparisons to Reggie Bush … from Reggie Bush.
But Moore has mapped out practically every step in his football career, especially the one that few players in his situation are willing to take. He picked Purdue over Texas, where he had originally committed, and other brand-name programs. He picked the school that had less but provided more.
“You’ve got to leave a legacy. You go to those big-time schools and you’re another guy,” Moore said. “You’re a priority here. If they tell you they want you, they want you. This isn’t fake. If they tell you you’re going to play early, they’re not lying to you. I want to play with some guys who have a lot of hunger and are the underdog. I’ve been the underdog my whole life. I’m not the tallest. I’m not your typical receiver at this level.”
JAMARCUS SHEPHARD SAW the number and knew what it meant.
In April 2017, Moore clocked a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash at the Chicago-area regional for The Opening, a top recruiting showcase event. Moore dominated testing and earned an invitation to The Opening Finals.
Before that spring, he had drawn interest from Group of 5 schools and a handful from the Power 5, including Purdue. Moore and his cousin Gino Rowen had barely left the parking lot after The Opening when Oregon and Ohio State called.
“I was upset and I was very angry,” said Shephard, Purdue’s wide receivers coach and Moore’s lead recruiter. “I said, ‘Oh my goodness, here comes everybody else.’ They’re all going to realize now that he’s a big-time player.”
Shephard was right. The offers came, “cascading in, like an avalanche,” said Andrew Coverdale, who coached Moore as offensive coordinator at Trinity High School in Louisville.
In late June, Moore committed to Texas — he had family there and liked the business school and the coaches — but didn’t shut things down.
“Even after that commitment,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said, “he was constantly evaluating the scene and making sure that decision was the right one. You just got a sense that he wasn’t 100 percent for sure, which was good news for us.”
Vaughn, a former Louisville wide receiver who has trained more than 100 FBS players, showed Moore several player profiles: the five-star who picked the five-star program and faded, the can’t-miss who became a missing person on the depth chart, and guys like AJ Dillon. Purdue fans should send thank-you notes to Dillon, a running back who committed to Michigan before flipping to Boston College in December 2016. Dillon earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors in 2017.
“As things got closer, [Moore] said, ‘I want to be that guy. I want to go somewhere where I can really leave a mark, go play for a coach that I trust,'” Vaughn recalled. “In the recruiting game, there’s some bulls— in everything. You’ve got to figure out whose bulls— is the most believable.”
Moore knew about Brohm, a former standout quarterback at Trinity High. Brohm also starred at Louisville and helped coach Vaughn there. Moore also cross-referenced what coaches had told him about his potential role. In Brohm’s case, Moore studied Jackson Anthrop, who led Purdue in receptions (47) in 2017.
“As we were watching film,” Moore said, “I would realize, ‘Purdue is doing everything that they said they were going to do. They’re going to make it work.'”
Added Shephard: “He did an excess amount of research to figure out that this was the spot for him.”
In December 2017, Moore decommitted from Texas. Several weeks later, he stood alongside his family in San Antonio, behind four caps. Three represented teams (Alabama, Ohio State and Florida State) that had combined for 11 national championships since 1992.
“He wasn’t chasing the logos,” Rowen said. “He wanted to play.”
RONDALE DASEAN MOORE arrived June 9, 2000, five weeks premature.
“They say premature babies are the strongest,” Rowen said, “because they come out having to fight.”
Rowen chose Moore’s middle name and has been a major presence from the start. He’s technically Moore’s first cousin, but, at 20 years older, became more of a big brother or uncle. Anyone who knows Moore knows about “Uncle Gino.”
A former football standout at New Albany High, Rowen introduced Moore to sports: flag football, basketball, track. Rowen once proposed gymnastics after seeing Moore effortlessly execute flips.
Basketball initially won out. Moore played AAU ball with Romeo Langford in elementary school. As sophomores at New Albany High, Moore and Langford, a McDonald’s All-American and eventual NBA first-round draft pick, won a state championship. But immediately after, Moore pivoted away from basketball, his first love.
“I knew the odds weren’t in my favor, as far as height goes,” Moore said.
He dove into football training with Vaughn, who saw ingredients in Moore, just raw ingredients.
“Back then, he didn’t even know what a hitch route was or what a slant route was,” Vaughn said. “It was, ‘Get out the way and give Rondale the ball’ on jet sweeps or something like that. He didn’t understand route concepts, how to run routes, obviously anything as far as coverages or reading defense.”
They worked on technique and toughness. Moore would carry tires with bloodied hands. Vaughn kept ripped shirts around the gym, and had Moore wear them.
“He literally would grab me, and I’m just hand-fighting, trying to get his hands off,” Moore said. “He was like, ‘You don’t like when people have their hands on you,’ and I said, ‘No,’ and he’s like, ‘Well, don’t let ’em touch you.'”
The second part of Moore’s football education took place at Trinity, the 25-time state champion, where he transferred before his junior year. Ruled eligible for the regular season after the transfer, Moore spent most of the fall attached to Coverdale.
Before the season, Moore attended early morning quarterback meetings. He watched practices from the press box and then reviewed them in Coverdale’s office.
“We do things really conceptually, so it was like an English-speaker learning Cyrillic,” Coverdale said. “He had to know a whole new alphabet, a whole new sentence structure, a whole new way of seeing the field. He never backed down from the workload. He never wanted you to give him the answer if he could figure it out himself.
“He was a quick study. Having knowledge of the game was very, very important to him.”
“Every day, he makes a cut and you’re just thinking, ‘How do you do that?’ It’s unreal. If I tried to do that, I’d break my leg.”
Purdue QB Elijah Sindelar
Moore played in only four games in 2016, but averaged 23.2 yards per reception with nine touchdowns. But the big schools stayed away. Coverdale called and left messages: I’ve got a kid, you don’t know about him yet, but when the lights go on, he’s going to blow up. The calls went unreturned.
Moore attended two camps at Louisville — his then-dream school — but didn’t get an offer.
“A slap in the face,” he said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do. I’ve shown you my worth. You’re offering the same guys at different places, and we’re the same stature. I’m a little lost.’
“To this day, it will always be a chip on my shoulder, you gotta feel me.”
TO BE FAIR, college coaches weren’t the only ones initially unimpressed by Moore.
“This kid looks like a child,'” Purdue quarterback Elijah Sindelar recalled of his first meeting with Moore. “He has braces, a baby face and he was shy. My first impression is … he’s short. How in the world are we going to throw to this man?”
After a few practices last summer, Sindelar had his answer. Moore sent defenders the wrong way with cuts and jukes, and would be 4 or 5 yards clear by the time the ball arrived.
“Every day, he makes a cut and you’re just thinking, ‘How do you do that?'” Sindelar said. “It’s unreal. If I tried to do that, I’d break my leg.”
Brohm was impressed, too, but wanted to see if Moore’s exploits translated on game day. The coach also received a quick answer. Moore dropped his first pass against Northwestern, and then amassed 302 all-purpose yards in the first half, including a 76-yard touchdown run and a 32-yard touchdown reception.
Despite a quiet second half, Moore still broke Otis Armstrong’s single-game record by a yard.
“I mismanaged our preparation for him,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I pulled up his high school video and showed it to our defense, and it was like watching Tecmo Bowl. Nobody could touch his flag. He can run it, he can catch it, he’s great in the kick game, he’s the full package. I obviously watched and followed him after.”
So did others around the league. As Wisconsin players traveled to Chicago for Big Ten media days last month, star running back Jonathan Taylor couldn’t stop talking about Moore. “He’s truly a fan,” Badgers linebacker Chris Orr said.
Moore tied Purdue’s record with seven 100-yard receiving performances and had 11 or more receptions six times. On Oct. 20, he caught 12 passes for 170 yards and 2 touchdowns in Purdue’s 49-20 thrashing of No. 2 Ohio State at Ross-Ade Stadium. Purdue’s biggest night of the season meant many things to many people, including one of few players who could have been on the visitors’ sideline. When Ohio State finally showed interest, Moore and his team studied the depth chart, saw a backlog of future NFL talents at receiver and decided no.
When announcing his college decision, Moore, always one for a fake, grabbed the Ohio State cap before tossing it aside and donning the Purdue lid.
“It means that much more to him, doing it here,” Brohm said. “Just like for me as a coach, it means that much more to say, ‘No, we’re going to get this done here and figure it out and put in the time when others maybe think that it couldn’t happen.'”
Brohm is usually the last to leave Purdue’s football building after home games. Last fall, he would always find Moore’s family hanging out with Rondale. After Ohio State, they celebrated into the night. “We were up till 4 in the morning, watching SportsCenter, just freaking out, man,” Rowen said.
Moore picked Purdue partly because his family, especially his mother, Quincy Ricketts, can come to games. Money is tight, and the “bigger goal” Moore references is providing for his family and Ricketts, ideally with an NFL contract.
“He wants to be the guy in his family that makes it,” Brohm said. “Because of that, he’s very driven. He’s not your typical youngster who just entered college.”
It’s why Moore tracks his drops more than his touchdowns, remembering the details: a post on his first target against Northwestern, a slant and a screen against Ohio State. Everything he does has a purpose, from offseason training with Vaughn — during a recent break, they worked daily — to academics (3.71 GPA as a freshman, third highest on the team) to his bone-crushing handshake.
Records and awards are likely to continue, but they aren’t fueling Moore, who has “a way bigger vision.”
“He talks about all the hard times he had throughout this process,” Shephard said. “So I don’t think he’ll ever lose his way. This is who he is.”