CHARLOTTE, N.C. — T.J. Moore didn’t know yet how the recruiting process would play out or where he’d launch his college football career, but he was pretty sure it wouldn’t be at Florida.
Moore was on his way back from a camp in Gainesville, Fla., before his senior year of high school and Gators coaches had not extended him a scholarship offer before he left. He had been collecting offers from other schools and was expecting the same outcome on this trip.
Instead, the flight home with his father was a quiet one. And after returning to Charlotte, as he rode in a car with his trainer Byron Ruff, Moore cast aside the lanyard he received from the Florida camp while indicating he’d have no use for it.
“He was like, ‘Man, forgot them. We ain’t thinking about Florida no more.’ It just didn’t go as planned,” Ruff says. “You expect to make that trip down there, you think you’re going to leave with an offer. But there were still some things T.J. had to do on the back end that they wanted to see. That actually, to me, was a blessing in disguise because it put more fuel in his tank.”
Flash forward and Moore indeed looks back on that moment as a motivator. He’s spending his first week as a Florida student now, one of two Gators’ February signees who arrived early to enroll in the Summer A semester.
Listen to Gators coach Jim McElwain talk about Moore and it’s easy to envision the 6-foot-6, 290-pound offensive lineman from Mallard Creek High School making an early impact on the field as well.
“He’s a guy that when we got on him, we were really excited about this guy,” McElwain said this week. “I think the versatility, No. 1, to play both inside and outside is really (an asset). … His feet, the way he moves, really more than that the way he finishes, it’s one of those things where he definitely plays through the whistle. I am excited about that.”
Moore was a 4-star recruit in the 247Sports composite rankings who was once committed to South Carolina. He had no shortage of suitors during the recruiting process, but not initially getting a scholarship offer from Florida after that camp stuck with him. Drove him. Focused him.
He knew it was his grades that had given the Gators pause, and he was determined for that not to be an issue.
For that matter, he was determined to prove himself to the coaches in Gainesville — whether he knew it in that moment or not.
“Seeing how hard I had to work to get the offer, that’s another reason why I chose Florida,” Moore says now, looking back.
That was one driving force for him, but not necessarily the biggest one.
A bond never broken
Moore and his family are sitting around the table for dinner at a Wild Wing Cafe in Charlotte back in late March, reflecting on his path to this point.
His mother and father are there along with other family members and Ruff, his trainer. There’s a key figure in his life missing from the picture, but as Moore views it, she’s always with him.
His grandmother Marguerite Adams, or “Gege” as he called her, died two summers ago. She was his confidant, the one he would talk to about anything — even the stuff he didn’t share with his parents.
When asked what drives him now in his football career, he starts there.
“Everybody knows I’m going to say my grandma,” he says. “She passed away in August, 2015, and when she died I didn’t really know how I was going to react. But I took it and I put it into football and that’s what just drives me every day. Every time I’m on the field, lifting weights.”
Adams lived with Moore and his mother Tonya Duncan for much of his life. He was born a couple months after his grandfather passed away and was Adams’ only grandchild for eight years so their bond was instant and inseparable.
“My mom loved football. She was like a football fanatic. They shared that bond,” Duncan says. “My mom used to always want him to be successful in whatever he chose to do, and then when football took off, she used to tell everybody, ‘My [grandson] is going to be a big star. He’s going to be a big star.’ And I guess, to me, now after she passed, it seems like T.J. is more motivated, like 100 percent.”
“That was like his best friend,” adds Travaris Moore, T.J.’s father.
His common interests with his grandmother often formed T.J.’s motivations.
“We used to watch NASCAR together. Remember, I used to want to be a NASCAR driver?” he says to this parents. “But I was too big to fit in the car, so we had to take that out.”
At another point it was basketball and hoping to play in the NBA. Ultimately, with an offensive lineman’s frame, he settled on football.
His grandmother died the first Friday night of his junior football season, though his parents waited until the next morning to tell him, knowing how hard the news would hit.
Moore has that date, Adams’ name and a tribute to her tattooed on his left arm as an ever-present reminder and motivator to pursue his goals to the fullest.
Ultimately, he says, he knew she just wanted him to get his high school diploma and go to college. He’s the first in his mother’s immediate family to do so.
And while his grandmother is not physically here anymore, he believes wholeheartedly that she is still with him and will be along for this next chapter of his journey.
“I still talk to her. I still talk to her before I go to sleep and stuff. … (Like) if she was still here, the same stuff,” he says.
WATCH: We’re in Charlotte, N.C., visiting with Gators OL signee T.J. Moore. Send in questions.
Posted by Florida Gators Insiders on Friday, March 31, 2017
Following in the footsteps
While proving his worth to the Florida coaches and pledging to make his grandmother proud fueled his focus and commitment the past couple years, there’s another source of motivation Moore can draw upon now while looking ahead to his future.
Five years before he arrived on campus at Florida, another Mallard Creek offensive lineman named D.J. Humphries took the same path, ultimately turning himself into a first-round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2015.
Moore and Humphries developed a relationship over the years.
It started when Humphries returned to visit his high school and Mallard Creek coach Mike Palmieri called Moore to his office to come and meet him.
The former and future Gators offensive linemen stayed in contact since.
“We just started talking and made a bond right there. He was like an older version of me. I was looking at video of him the other day, and I just like see me in the future. Like same size. I look a little better, though,” Moore says, drawing laughs from the table. “We talk about anything — about football and life.”
Humphries didn’t pressure Moore on his college choice, though he spoke highly of his experience at Florida.
At the same time, Moore couldn’t help but see what Humphries did in his own jump from Mallard Creek to The Swamp.
“I wanted to follow D.J. He went to Mallard Creek, played for Florida and I wanted to follow his footsteps,” Moore says. “I just wanted to be this person and go to college and hopefully make it to the NFL …
“It’s showing me that I can do it. He came from the same place I came from, same high school, same coaches basically, and at Florida he just did his thing.”
The Gators signed just two offensive linemen in the 2017 class. Kadeem Telfort, a 6-foot-6, 318-pound tackle from Miramar, Fla., arrived in January as an early enrollee, making a strong impression in spring practice.
Moore will aim to do the same as the Gators move through the final phase of offseason workouts and on into fall camp.
McElwain said Moore has the versatility to play tackle or guard and where he ends up will depend in part on where he’s most needed.
“I really see him being able to fit wherever the line is the shortest. He has that ability to do both,” McElwain says.
Moore likes the sound of that. He has to admit, though, that he is more than somewhat surprised how the whole recruiting process turned out and how he ended up at Florida in the end.
“I was really surprised actually,” he says.
Earning his way
Moore’s first offers had come from South Carolina, North Carolina State and North Carolina in the summer leading into his junior season, his trainer says.
He committed to the Gamecocks last August and had a close bond with former interim head coach Shawn Elliott, who remained on staff after Will Muschamp took over. But Moore’s connection with the new coaching staff was not as strong, he decommitted in October and Elliott would eventually become the head coach at Georgia State.
In the meanwhile, Moore had left that Florida visit frustrated from the outcome but also determined.
“You’re playing on a team at Mallard Creek where other guys are getting offers, he’s like, ‘Man, I’m ready for the big-time offer.’ After going to some schools and getting an offer and then you’re like, ‘OK, I’m going to go to this school and the same thing will happen’ and it [doesn’t] happen, it’s like, ‘Man, they don’t think I’m good enough?’ ” Ruff, his trainer, says of that pivotal moment.
Travaris Moore adds: “We flew back, he was quiet, he was real quiet. I knew he was upset, but like I said, it fueled his tank, made him hungrier and like you said, it was a blessing in disguise.”
Looking back now, Moore laments not having a better academic approach as a freshman. He’s confident he would have ended up with “at least 50 offers instead of like 23” if he had been more focused on his grades earlier.
But in the end he got the one he wanted.
Florida offered him in late November and Moore committed on Christmas day.
“He knew how good he was, everybody around him was getting offers, and then it just clicked,” Duncan says of her son’s academic approach these past couple years.
Again, Ruff points back to that visit to Florida last summer and the fuse it lit inside Moore.
“From that point on, you saw something different,” Ruff says.
The final hurdle for Moore was hitting the SAT score he needed. When it came in, he called his trainer and told him he had come up short. Ruff couldn’t believe it, with all the energy and effort and focus he had seen Moore put in to make this work.
He immediately got in the car and drove an hour from where he was at the time to see Moore in person.
“He should have got an Oscar for that. He sounded so devastated on the phone,” Ruff says, joking.
When he got there, they showed him the actual test score, which eclipsed what Moore needed to seal the deal with Florida. After everything, he was going to be a Gator.
“Lo and behold it’s the school [where] he’s going to spend the next three or four years,” Ruff says.
Lo and behold, Moore is right on track with the path his friend and mentor D.J. Humphries established five years ago.
He’s right on track with the goals his grandmother had for him, to pursue a college degree and whatever else he wants to accomplish in life.
Moore had plenty of motivating forces pushing him on his way to this point, but that doesn’t change now.
He says he wants to compete to start as a true freshman. He wants to make an immediate impact, be part of the solution for the Gators’ work-in-progress offensive line and show Florida he was worth that scholarship all along.
He’s confident in his abilities, but as much as anything he’s learned how much he wants it — and he thinks that drive and determination will continue to make the difference for him.
“There’s some players that definitely have the same attitude as me, but when I watch people play and how they act, I just don’t feel like it’s in them like it’s in me,” he says.
Florida beat writer Ryan Young is traveling around the country visiting the Gators’ 2017 signees for SEC Country’s “NextGen” series. Read his past 2017 NextGen stories at this link.