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Family's loss, father's pain

Lenny Moore: While he gives thanks for a final football moment spent with his son, Les Moore's fatal fight against scleroderma has made this a somber time for the former Colts great.

By Mike Klingaman

Sun Staff

March 6, 2001

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They watched the Ravens' football playoffs together, muffling their whoops in the hush of a hospital. Les Moore lay propped in bed in the critical care wing, more mindful of the TV than the IV in his arm. Beside him sat his father, Lenny, the Colts' Hall of Famer.

Finally, things appeared to be looking up. Baltimore led Oakland by seven ... 10 ... 13 points. As the Ravens neared victory, Les looked more alert. Forgotten, for a moment, was his nine-year struggle with a chronic illness. Les sipped juice, ate mashed potatoes, urged the team on.

Then, the Ravens won.

"Man, we're going to the Super Bowl!" Les exclaimed, grasping his father's hand. "It's Baltimore and New York in the championship again."

That was the last time Lenny Moore would see a football game with his son.

Les died before dawn.

At 43, he had battled for nearly a decade against scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself. On his last night, a roomful of relatives gathered around him to watch the game.

"That Sunday was tonic for us all," Lenny said. "It was a happy, happy moment - one of the main remembrances of Les that we have."

The former Colt replays those last moments, when things looked hopeful, the Ravens were destiny's team and even the nurses wore purple.

These are sobering times for Lenny Moore, 67, who tonight will officiate at the 23rd annual Ed Block Courage Awards banquet at Martin's West. Moore is president of the Block Foundation, whose fete honors one player from each NFL team who epitomizes a commitment to sportsmanship.

The foundation was named for a former Colts' trainer during Moore's years with the club. In 12 seasons with Baltimore, the elusive back scored 113 touchdowns, gained more than 12,000 yards and led the Colts to NFL titles in 1958 and 1959. He was Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year and a shoo-in for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1975.

But nothing that transpired during his playing days prepared Moore for the grief he has endured of late.

Exactly five weeks after his son died, Lenny's ex-wife succumbed to a stroke. Frances Moore was mother to four of Lenny's five children, including Les, their first-born (Lenny has another son by a previous relationship).

Only days before her death, Frances recalled Les' infancy - and Lenny's first glimpse of his son upon returning from a road trip in 1957.

"Lenny was afraid to hold him at the hospital. He kept saying, `I might break him,' " she remembered. "I said, `Lenny, he's not porcelain.'

"Finally, he took this 7-pound bundle, tucked it into the crook of his arm like a football and started down the hall, like he was headed for the end zone. He was just so proud."

Lenny delighted in showing off Les to friends, said Jim Parker, the Hall of Fame lineman and Moore's roommate on the Colts. "I'd go by his home [in west Baltimore] and he'd be playing with Les in his crib, pinching his cheeks," Parker said. "You couldn't leave until you told Lenny that the baby looked just like him."

Come the off-season, Lenny showed his toddler the town. They perused the stores on North Avenue and played in Druid Hill Park. Sometimes, Lenny took his son to the Colts' training camp in Westminster. "Spats" and his shadow, they called them.

When he was old enough, Les entered McDonogh School, in Owings Mills, where he stayed through seventh grade. He liked football, but loved ice hockey, skating for hours on a frozen pond in Dickeyville, near his home, or at the Civic Center following Baltimore Clippers games.

At Northwestern High, Les played football for the Wildcats, who were Maryland Scholastic Association champions his junior year. Coach Jim Welsch remembered him as "a good, hard-working kid," a special teams player who never sought special treatment.

"I never pushed Les to play," said Lenny, who attended many of his games. "Did he feel pressure from his peers? Sure. They'd say, `Hey man, you gonna wear No. 24?' But he didn't.

"Les wanted to be his own man. He wasn't about coattails."

Lenny saved his son's old football shoes, which he keeps in a closet beside a battered cleat worn by former Colts star Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, the huge defensive lineman who died of a heroin overdose nearly 40 years ago.

Les himself used illegal drugs after high school during a difficult stretch. He overcame his addiction with help from his family and went on to use his experience to caution others.

Lenny, now a juvenile justice program specialist with the State Department of Education, takes pride in describing how Les once accompanied him to address troubled teens - and tried to turn young lives around.

"He spoke freely about what drugs he'd taken, what they tasted like and their chemical breakdowns," Lenny recounted. "He told them what it felt like to get high, using street vernacular, and how `you'll never quite get to that little light at the end of the tunnel - or back to where you were when you started [using].'

"He planted the seed, left nothing out. I was amazed at the depth of his knowledge."

Les was working as a lathe operator in 1992 when he was diagnosed with scleroderma, a non-contagious disease that afflicts more than 300,000 Americans. In its milder forms, the illness may cause a thickening of the skin, gnarled hands and rheumatic-like pain in joints and bones.

The disease targets women 3-to-1 over men. African-Americans are particularly susceptible to the rarer, life-threatening form, in which the body's defense system declares war on its vital organs, eroding the kidney, lungs and heart.

While there is no known cure, "the technology for substantial new treatments is around the corner," said Dr. Fred Wigley, co-director of the joint-ventured Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland Scleroderma Center. He said those suffering from the most severe form can expect to live an average of two to five years.

Les Moore lasted nine.

"He was such a strong-willed individual, he never totally let us in on how bad he was feeling," said Dr. Ray Flores, a specialist in rheumatologic diseases who treated him at the University of Maryland Medical Center. "We never spoke of spiritual faith, but Les always believed things would work out."

In 1998, Les was able to accompany his dad to the Super Bowl in Miami for a 40th anniversary gala of the 1958 championship game. Les hobnobbed with legendary members of the Colts and New York Giants.

He soaked up stories, had a blast. "He was cool on the outside, but a kid on the inside," Lenny said.

But the disease progressed steadily until, last fall, Les needed an oxygen backpack to attend the Ravens' home games. That hit Lenny hard. It was difficult for him to accept that his son was weaker than he.

"It bothered Lenny big-time," said Edith, his wife of 24 years. "Lenny didn't say so, but Les knew that it worried him, too."

To spare his dad, Les used oxygen discreetly.

The two spent countless hours in the club basement of Lenny's home in Randallstown, watching football and hockey games on TV, or listening to jazz.

That room seems terribly empty now, with Les gone.

"Have I cried? More than I care to tell you," Lenny said. "I've lost others, but this I can't describe. This was my bone, my flesh."

Said his daughter, Carol Herron: "It's like someone reached in, yanked out half of Dad's heart and closed him back up again."

Besides relatives, in his time of grief, Lenny has been buoyed by support from his football family - old and new, near and far.

When the Moores arrived for the viewing, they found John Unitas waiting to pay his respects. For hours, the old Colts streamed into the mortuary on Edmondson Avenue: Jim Parker, Jim Mutscheller, Art Donovan ... Rick Volk, Roy Hilton, Roy Jefferson ... Lydell Mitchell, Tom Matte, Stan White.

At the funeral service, the Ravens sent a huge spray of purple flowers. And Joe Ehrmann, the Colt-turned-clergyman, touched everyone's hearts with an impromptu sermon.

"As Lenny's teammates, we went to honor the life of his son," Ehrmann said. "We all have these little broken boys inside of us that need be held, and hugged and affirmed. That's the reality of every man in this country."

Today, nearly two months after Les' death, the cards and phone calls keep coming from Lenny's colleagues. The Moores have heard from nearly every member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On one desk is a note from Frank and Kathie Gifford; over there, a heartfelt letter from Bart Starr, the former Green Bay quarterback who himself lost a son 10 years ago.

There are cards from ex-players such as Howie Long and Joe Perry and Ollie Matson.

One call was from the wife of Lou "The Toe" Groza, Cleveland's place-kicker who helped beat the Colts for the 1964 title. Lenny helped console her; she had just lost Lou.

"I spoke at length with Raymond Berry [in Colorado]. He's a gem," Moore said. "And Gino [Marchetti] sent a beautiful verse and prayer."

The day after his son was buried, Lenny went to the Ravens' practice to share thoughts with the players, as he had on past occasions. In a cold drizzle, the Ravens gathered around. Instead of talking football, Moore spoke of his son.

Jermaine Lewis, who had experienced grief over his stillborn son, gave him a hug. Others consoled him as best they could.

In turn, he thanked them for the reprieve the team had given Les, and him, that last night in the hospital. Les had seemed on the mend watching the game, and jubilant the Ravens were on their way to the Super Bowl. He had told his dad:

"It doesn't get any better than this!"