MOORE CATCHES ON — BY LETTING GO

It was another lousy Sunday night after another lousy Lions loss, and Herman Moore was driving home with his wife, his mother and his father. They pulled up to the house. Friends and family were waiting inside.

Herman was quiet.

“Are you OK?” his mother asked.

“Yeah, I’m OK,” he said.

The others got out of the car. But his mother reached over, touched her son’s shoulder and said — the way mothers do — “Don’t worry, next week will be better.”

He looked at her, and burst into tears.

You don’t cry over losing a game in the NFL. You cry over losing hope. That night, all the frustration over being a Detroit Lion under Wayne Fontes came to a head for Moore. He had been in this city six seasons, his entire career. He knew how good he was. He knew how good he could be. But a part inside of that gifted, 6-foot-4 frame — the part that was born to shine — now felt permanently clouded over. This was his fate. This was his station in the league. Sunday night loser. Flying under the hype machine’s radar. It was always going to be Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin and who’s-that-guy-in-Detroit?

It’s all different now. You could see that Thursday at the Silverdome, as Moore sat by his locker and clowned with his fellow receivers, doing poses, making jokes that left them doubled over laughing. Moore made a vow after those tears in his driveway to change his attitude, to pull away, to cease examining himself after every week. He was just going to enjoy the game, the way he had when he was younger. No more worrying about his station. No more stopping by the Silverdome every Tuesday to check the statistics from around the league.

“That night in the car,” he says, “was the turning point of my whole attitude.”

Which is ironic, when you think about it. Because this year there is no Jerry Rice. This year, Michael Irvin is way down the list.

This year belongs to Herman Moore — the stats, the Pro Bowl — it’s all there for the taking.

Yet, he says, he cares less than ever.

Less is Moore.

A tryout on defense

Did you know Herman started his college football career as a safety and a placekicker? It’s true. He was your classic late bloomer. One game in high school, playing safety, he made a spectacular interception, jumping over two receivers and another defender to pull in the ball.

In the stands, the father of the quarterback who threw that interception clenched his fists in anger. But he remembered Moore’s incredible leaping ability.

It turns out that father was a recruiter for Virginia. By the next fall, Herman was on the Virginia team. As a defensive back.

“I didn’t last real long,” he admits. “The first week of practice, our fullback burst through the line into the secondary and it was just him and me. He was about 250 pounds….”

Moore laughs. “He went right through me. The next thing I know I’m on the ground and he has one cleat on my head and one cleat on my chest.

“That was the last time I played defense.”

As for his kicking? Moore booted a 48-yard field goal once. And he regularly sent kickoffs “out of the end zone” — if you believe his memory.

All of which means that his pass-catching talent must have been considerable, if the coaches were finally willing to move him to receiver. And it was. And they did. And Moore now stands tall as the best in the NFL.

That’s right. The best in the NFL. I don’t mean the singular best. I agree with Moore that “you can’t pick one guy at this position. There are too many different ways to go.”

But if the best means the group comprising Rice, who is injured, and Irvin, who is lagging under the Cowboys’ offensive woes, well, then Moore is the top. He leads the league in receptions and yardage.

Moore is more.

A list of NFL stars

So when does the recognition come? When does he get mentioned in the same breath as those guys? Well, for one thing, when the Lions win a championship.

“A certain amount of hype just comes with the team,” he says. “The Lions aren’t associated with going to a Super Bowl every year. That’s just how it is. To be honest, I think most of what I’ve gotten up to now has been because of Barry (Sanders).”

Well. Maybe in the past. But Moore is getting first looks all the time now. His long reception through three Tampa Bay defenders last Sunday went straight to the highlights video. And he has even grown confident enough to compare himself with the game’s biggest names.

“I think I do some things better than all of them,” he says of Rice, Irvin, Tim Brown and Cris Carter. “And I think they’ll say they do some things better than me.

“But the main thing is I’ve reached the point where I know I’m going to be counted on every week. Last year there was a lot of bickering and stats-checking.” (He admits this had something to do with former teammate Brett Perriman.)

“This year, we’re all on the same page.

“And,” he adds, leaning back, “I’m much more at peace with myself.”

A teammate comes by and strikes a joke pose. Moore laughs easily.

“I’ve been resurrected,” he says, grinning. And there was nothing but dry eyes in the house.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of “Tuesdays With Morrie” 7-8 tonight at Webster’s in Ann Arbor and 2-3 p.m. Saturday at Schuler’s Books and Music in Grand Rapids. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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