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Family's loss, father's pain

Sun Staff

They watched the Ravens' football playoffs together, muffling their whoopsin the hush of a hospital. Les Moore lay propped in bed in the critical carewing, more mindful of the TV than the IV in his arm. Beside him sat hisfather, 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'shand. "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 rareautoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself. On his last night, aroomful of relatives gathered around him to watch the game.

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

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

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

The foundation was named for a former Colts' trainer during Moore's yearswith the club. In 12 seasons with Baltimore, the elusive back scored 113touchdowns, gained more than 12,000 yards and led the Colts to NFL titles in1958 and 1959. He was Rookie of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year and ashoo-in for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1975.

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

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

Only days before her death, Frances recalled Les' infancy - and Lenny'sfirst 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 mightbreak him,' " she remembered. "I said, `Lenny, he's not porcelain.'

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

Lenny delighted in showing off Les to friends, said Jim Parker, the Hall ofFame lineman and Moore's roommate on the Colts. "I'd go by his home [in westBaltimore] 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 lookedjust like him."

Come the off-season, Lenny showed his toddler the town. They perused thestores on North Avenue and played in Druid Hill Park. Sometimes, Lenny tookhis 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, wherehe 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 theCivic Center following Baltimore Clippers games.

At Northwestern High, Les played football for the Wildcats, who wereMaryland Scholastic Association champions his junior year. Coach Jim Welschremembered him as "a good, hard-working kid," a special teams player who neversought 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 gonnawear 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 besidea battered cleat worn by former Colts star Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, the hugedefensive lineman who died of a heroin overdose nearly 40 years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

The disease targets women 3-to-1 over men. African-Americans areparticularly susceptible to the rarer, life-threatening form, in which thebody'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 newtreatments is around the corner," said Dr. Fred Wigley, co-director of thejoint-ventured Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland Scleroderma Center. Hesaid those suffering from the most severe form can expect to live an averageof two to five years.

Les Moore lasted nine.

"He was such a strong-willed individual, he never totally let us in on howbad he was feeling," said Dr. Ray Flores, a specialist in rheumatologicdiseases who treated him at the University of Maryland Medical Center. "Wenever spoke of spiritual faith, but Les always believed things would workout."

In 1998, Les was able to accompany his dad to the Super Bowl in Miami for a40th anniversary gala of the 1958 championship game. Les hobnobbed withlegendary members of the Colts and New York Giants.

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

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

"It bothered Lenny big-time," said Edith, his wife of 24 years. "Lennydidn'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 inRandallstown, 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 lostothers, but this I can't describe. This was my bone, my flesh."

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

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

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

At the funeral service, the Ravens sent a huge spray of purple flowers. AndJoe Ehrmann, the Colt-turned-clergyman, touched everyone's hearts with animpromptu 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, andhugged and affirmed. That's the reality of every man in this country."

Today, nearly two months after Les' death, the cards and phone calls keepcoming from Lenny's colleagues. The Moores have heard from nearly every memberof the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On one desk is a note from Frank and KathieGifford; over there, a heartfelt letter from Bart Starr, the former Green Bayquarterback 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-kickerwho helped beat the Colts for the 1964 title. Lenny helped console her; shehad just lost Lou.

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

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

Jermaine Lewis, who had experienced grief over his stillborn son, gave hima 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 hisdad:

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

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