COLUMBIA, Mo. — T.J. Moe stops near an entrance to the cafeteria looking rushed, but then again, the senior leader always has somewhere to be this time of year. Missouri’s season opener against Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 1 is fast approaching, and the spark-plug wide receiver has few minutes to spare.
He’s on his way to lunch on a recent Friday afternoon at the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex. Already, his day has included a two-hour practice and time spent in a training room with more work on the way.
To many outside this building, the 6-foot, 200-pound O’Fallon, Mo., native is a sound bite savant, someone crafty enough to fill the Internet with cracks about pretty girls and thick toilet paper at Southeastern Conference Media Days. But within these walls, the wide receiver is a respected presence and one of four captains, someone who has drawn comparisons to former quarterback Chase Daniel for his strong leadership style.
“Guys don’t pay much attention to what you say to the media,” Moe says, as teammates walk past. “It’s really what we do on the field and how we get along in the locker room. We don’t care too much about that. We just try to have fun.”
That could be one of the most underrated aspects of Missouri’s first SEC season. How will Moe — called “gritty” and “grimy” by junior wide receiver L’Damian Washington — influence the Tigers’ chemistry during a fall of discovery? Can his raw, freestyle approach give Missouri an edge at a time when some doubt the Tigers’ ability to be anything more than a mediocre SEC East contender?
After all the climbing following a slow start to Moe’s career, how will the final act be remembered for one of the program’s most recognized voices?
“If you’re a leader, you lead when you’re young,” Moe says. “You kind of put a label to it once you get to be a senior, whether you’re a captain or not. But I’ve been doing it ever since I was a sophomore.”
The challenge was introduced after a trying year. Coach Gary Pinkel understood Moe’s leadership potential, despite a rough opening season that fell well short of expectations.
The former Fort Zumwalt West High quarterback had earned 2,557 yards passing and 2,029 yards rushing in his final campaign as a prep star and was considered versatile enough to line up on either side of the ball. Moe chose to play wide receiver at Missouri, despite being recruited as a possible safety.
But the decision led to a number of issues during Moe’s freshman year. He caught only two passes for 8 yards, in part because of a steep learning curve with his transition. That year, the team’s medical staff also discovered he had performed with the lingering effects of a broken right foot sustained in his final high school season.
Yes, there was struggle. But Pinkel and wide receivers coach Andy Hill knew the focused talent, rated as a three-star prospect by Scout.com, was capable of more. They remained patient during a process that involved healing Moe’s body and mind.
“He was a leader when he came in,” Pinkel says now. “He’s like Chase Daniel. When they walked in the door, they had great leadership skills. We asked him to show up more with that when he was a sophomore and when he was a junior. It was so easy for him to jump in as a captain. He is a very mature guy who does the right things.”
That maturity led to Moe’s rise after the early fall. He caught 92 passes for 1,045 yards with six touchdowns as a sophomore, a year in which he was a second-team All-Big 12 selection. Last season, he gained 649 yards on 54 catches with four touchdowns and earned honorable mention All-Big 12 status.
As Moe’s profile grew, so did his reputation as one of Missouri’s most dynamic voices. In November 2010, the lifelong Tigers fan said he hated Kansas and was tempted to burn a Jayhawks shirt each time he saw one. And before the final Border Showdown at Arrowhead Stadium last November, he purchased a black flag with a white “Q” in a corner to hang in the Tigers locker room and called it “the flag of Quantrill” — referencing William Quantrill, a former Confederate guerrilla leader who organized a raid on Lawrence, Kan., in 1863.
“Some people sense the sarcasm. Sometimes he’s dead serious,” says Washington, a fellow receiver. “I love it. He’s got one of those personalities that we’re not going to take anything from anybody. I like the way the T.J. demeanor is. That’s the way he plays on the field.”
That’s the reputation Moe has developed among some SEC followers. He was a showstopper at the Wynfrey Hotel during the conference’s media days in July. He filled recorders with lines such as, “Things are just different here. I wouldn’t be surprised if everybody here is strapped with a gun,” and he referenced Missouri as the league’s redheaded stepchild until it proved it belonged.
Sure, the quips are a product of Moe’s ocean-deep wit. (“Sometimes, he says too many funny things,” Pinkel said recently.) But they also reveal a confidence that will benefit the Tigers as they begin a season of unknowns. With Georgia and Alabama rolling into Memorial Stadium this fall, and with trips scheduled against Florida and Tennessee, Missouri will certainly need a leader who doesn’t blink through adversity.
Moe’s approach is no act. Perhaps that’s his most valuable leadership trait: Everything involved — even the banter that gives color to column inches — is genuine.
“He’s the kind of guy you want as a leader,” Pinkel says.
Moe stands in the hallway, about ready to enter the cafeteria to continue his routine. Preparation leads to structure. For him and others at Missouri, this month has been about working toward a new beginning while keeping proven habits.
“It’s just like any other year,” Moe says. “I don’t treat it any differently. We still say the same things to all the guys. We still (want to) play our best come Saturday. It doesn’t really matter who we’re playing against.”
That sounds fine. But of course, this isn’t like any other year. And, of course, Missouri will play as part of the country’s elite conference for the first time, and the program will be judged by the transition’s results.
That’s why Moe’s leadership will be valued this season. A comparison to Daniel is high praise. If Pinkel is correct, and Moe was ready to lead right away, then this fall will be the wide receiver’s time to show why.
Yes, if Pinkel is correct, then the Tigers are in careful hands. Still, Moe and other upperclassmen will be tested — starting with Georgia’s trip to Memorial Stadium on Sept. 8. They will be asked to keep morale strong in an unprecedented year.
“Being in the leadership role, there’s so much stuff you’ve got to do, because you can’t just lead yourself anymore,” says senior left tackle Elvis Fisher, who’s also a captain. “You’ve got to try to lead by example and do everything for the team. It’s a great honor. We’ve got a good group of captains, but all our seniors this year are a good group of guys.”
So this is it for Moe. There’s more to his persona than the quick wit and savvy sound bites. That’s how many outside Missouri know him, but he offers much more.
He’s confident, which is a plus. And he has shown an ability to produce, which is better.
Still, he must deliver on and off the field in this historic season for his program. If he does, the impact beyond his words will be remembered for years to come.
“Best years of my life, for sure,” Moe says, before he enters the cafeteria. “I’m just enjoying it as it comes. I’ll kind of look back on it later. But I’m not done yet.”