DAD, I think it's gonna be all right," Leslie Moore told his father, as he looked up from his hospital bed that winter evening.
He knew better, but it seemed like the right thing to say at that moment. He felt a little stronger. He thought maybe he could try to drink something. He felt good having his family bundled around him. But, at 43, having spent nine years fighting a hideous disease called progressive systemic sclerosis, or scleroderma, he knew that his life was now running out.
His lungs were shot, and so were his kidneys and his pancreas. The scleroderma, a disease marked by thickened fibrous tissue, had sapped most of his strength, and there were days and nights when he seemed to be suffocating.
But, at that moment, with mere hours left before his life ran out, he wanted to comfort his family one last time, and so he looked up at his father and said, "Dad, I think it's gonna be all right."
The father is Lenny Moore, the Baltimore Colts Hall of Famer, for whom the words carry meaning. His son is gone more than two years now, but Lenny is still trying to make things all right for other people's children.
He does this routinely, and he does it quite remarkably once a year. For the last two decades, Moore, the legendary Sputnik now 69 years old, has worked for the state Department of Juvenile Justice. For the past two years, he's put together a dinner to raise money for two causes: the fight against scleroderma, and college scholarship funds for five disadvantaged local kids.
This year's event is set for May 5 at Martin's West. Several dozen of the old Colts will be on hand, plus a handful of Hall of Fame opponents who live in the area. One of the evening's highlights will be the announcement of the all-time Colts team.
It is now 50 years since the modern Colts first took the field at Memorial Stadium. It was Stan White, the former linebacker who now broadcasts sports on WBAL radio, who mentioned it to Moore. The timing was perfect for the May 5 dinner.
"Let's pick an all-time team," White said. He opened the vote to fans, who called WBAL or sent their votes on the Internet.
"It's beautiful," Moore was saying yesterday, "because it draws on players all across the Colts' history. It shows, after all these years, people still hold onto their memories. The Colts still mean something to this town."
Remarkably, next March will be 20 years since the team left. In the last two decades, each Colts reunion has seemed the gathering of a generation -- of ballplayers, of fans, of people who remember when professional athletes tended to stay in one place.
"All that's gone," Moore said. "In the Colts' time, we were there year after year. You built relationships with each other, and with the whole town. We got to know so many people over the years. We knew them, and they knew us. How do you explain that to kids who grow up in a time when players move from town to town and don't care where it is, so long as the extra bucks are there?"
The May 5 affair will be one of the first gatherings since John Unitas' death Sept. 11. Unitas will be honored as the Colts' all-time quarterback. But, as Moore says, it will seem strange not having him there.
"If you say Baltimore Colts, you're saying John Unitas," Moore said. "It's a big hole. It doesn't seem right. It's a void."
In Baltimore's memory bank, Unitas and Moore are the central figures in some of the most breathtaking moments in Colts' history: Unitas handing off to Moore for that 73-yard run against San Francisco to clinch the ball club's first conference title in 1958; Unitas handing to Alan "The Horse" Ameche, and Moore throwing the key block to lead Ameche into the end zone that December in Yankee Stadium; and Unitas, his face bloodied and the seconds ticking away, against the Chicago Bears in 1960.
"We got into the huddle," Moore remembered, "and Johnny was so beat up you can't believe it. And he looks at me and says, `Sput, give me a sharp angle in at about 12 yards and then give me that head fake and I'll pump. I want you to plant your foot and break back to the outside.' We had never even practiced the play. He called it on the spot and told me what to do. That was John."
With seconds left, Moore beat the Bears' J.C. Caroline in the end zone, and the Colts had one of their most astonishing victories.
Such memories warm the years and become a community's oral history at gatherings such as the May 5 event at Martin's West. Tickets are $125 apiece, or $1,000 for a table for 10. Call 410-560-3200 or Dave Norman at 410-793-3905.
It's a football dinner -- but it's also a remembrance of Leslie Moore.
"I miss him more than you could ever realize," his father says. "I heard that time heals, but I don't know. That's why we're having the dinner. I want him to be a part of it."
With his life running out, Leslie Moore tried to assure his father that things would be all right. This is his father's way of making the words count.