Dante Moore saw the family mantra more than he heard it.
His father heading out the door for long days at the Ford plant where he worked as an engineer. Bartending at Detroit Lions and Detroit Tigers games. Mowing lawns as part of another side job. Somehow still finding time to coach youth teams and make every one of Dante’s games.
On the move from sunrise to nightfall, and often beyond, Otha Moore Sr. didn’t have to say it for his son to feel it.
Hard work is undefeated.
Dante lived that motto himself, the quarterback running extra laps after youth football games while observers laughed. As a high school freshman, he met with a quarterback guru the mornings before games. The next morning, he’d rise early for another workout. His coach told him he had to slow down or he’d wear out his arm.
Doing everything he could to be the best was all the kid knew.
“I told him, ‘If you work just like the next man, you’re going to be the same as the next man,’ ” Otha said. “ ‘If you work harder than the next man, you’re going to be better.’ ”
Two high school state championships later, Dante has brought that same relentlessness to UCLA in his attempt to forge a similar arc. After beating out a veteran counterpart to become the starter, he’s quickly emerged as one of the country’s most electric true freshmen.
Seven touchdown passes in basically 1½ games of playing time have cemented his standing as the guy for the No. 22 Bruins (3-0) heading into a Saturday showdown on the road against No. 11 Utah (3-0).
The savvy of a quarterback who turned 18 in May has awed much older teammates.
“Some of the plays he makes, it’s almost like he’s done it 1,000 times,” said wide receiver Kam Brown, a fifth-year senior. “A lot of us are over there like, wow, you see that? And he’s just like, it’s just backyard football to him.”
Coaches joke that Moore lives in the practice facility, in before sunup and out after sundown. Moore just nods, knowing this is what it’s going to take to spark a new dawn for a team that hasn’t been to a major bowl game in a quarter of a century.
Hard work is undefeated.
His celebrity is on the rise, albeit far below the quarterback across town featured in seemingly every other commercial during college football games.
Twice during a 20-minute interview outside the team’s practice facility this week, Moore was recognized by the trickle of passersby.
“Are you No. 3?” shouted a college-aged woman.
“Something like that,” Moore responded.
Not long after, a male fan hovered awkwardly as Moore spoke to a reporter until the quarterback warmly indulged the fan for a selfie.
The lovefest is growing for a player whose three touchdown passes in his first start, against San Diego State earlier this month, tied the school record for a true freshman in any game held by Cade McNown and Josh Rosen.
After throwing for two more touchdowns last weekend in a 59-7 rout of North Carolina Central, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Moore found himself amid a joyous, leaping mass of teammates in the locker room. His free-sprouting hair glistening with droplets of celebratory water sprayed into the air, Moore also soaked in the fight song. Never mind that he still needed to learn the words.
“I don’t know it yet,” Moore said, “so I’m just in the middle, just vibing off everybody’s energy, just having a great time.”
Not wanting the early season adrenaline rush to end, Moore has researched every nuance of his next opponent in a quest for the slightest edge against the two-time defending Pac-12 champion.
Even down to the capacity of Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“Fifty-four thousand fans — I looked it up, that’s what they have,” Moore said. “I know it’s going to be 54,000 fans in there, so that’s why at practice [Tuesday] it was crazy, shouting noises and stuff like that, but I just like how everything is getting us ready.”
As another family mantra goes, if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.
The words sounded good, so the kid did his best to feign that he understood.
“Thank you, appreciate that,” Moore told Michigan coaches when they extended a scholarship offer a month after he turned 13.
That night, Moore asked his dad what “an offer” meant. Once the meaning sunk in, Moore cried. All the toil had been worthwhile.
“A lot of times, my dad had to sacrifice a lot of things,” Moore said, “so understanding that you get a full, free ride scholarship to a place when you get offered and things like that, you kind of feel like all this work I’ve put in is starting to pay off.”
Doubters persisted. At his eighth-grade graduation, Moore was supposed to say what he wanted to be when he grew up. He told his teacher he wanted to say “football player.” She told him to say something else.
Reluctantly, he said “engineer” as a tribute to his father.
Soon enough, the kid would show he could be whatever he wanted. Entering his freshman year at King High in Detroit, Moore battled an older backup to replace a dual-threat quarterback who had been there seemingly forever. (Sound familiar?)
“We really were trying not to give him the position,” King coach Tyrone Spencer recalled with a laugh, referring to Moore. “We were hoping the other guy didn’t transfer.”
Those fears were realized. Moore’s competitor departed, leaving him as the only viable quarterback on the roster. He would start in his first varsity game, only a few months after having turned 14.
It was a lot of pressure. King was coming off a state title and had produced such football luminaries as Sauce Gardner and Avonte Maddox, who would go on to play in the NFL. But the freshman found that all his training had prepared him for the moment.
In his debut against a cross-town power, Moore got mashed into the turf. As everyone in the stadium craned their necks to see how the freshman would respond, he rose for the next play.
“I blacked out and I was like, ‘There’s no way this is football,’ for real,” he remembered, “and then I had to get back up and I was like, ‘OK, I’m good.’ ”
Failing to spot a safety while trying to rally his team in the final minutes, Moore threw a pass that was intercepted. The game lost, he nevertheless had won a legion of admirers for his grit.
“You never really know what you have with a quarterback until they take a shot,” Spencer said, “and when he took the shot and all the rubber was in his face from the turf, it was like, ‘OK, this kid is for real.’”
By season’s end, Moore would lead his team to the state championship game. He didn’t view it as a pinnacle, just a beginning. Over the next three seasons, he would strengthen his arm, improve his footwork, quicken his release.
By high school’s end, he would have two championship rings.
Chip Kelly must remember to thank Kenny Dillingham.
The highest-rated quarterback prospect UCLA has landed since the onset of online recruiting services around the turn of the century, Moore would be playing for Oregon had Dillingham not left his post as the Ducks’ offensive coordinator to become the head coach at Arizona State.
One move prompted another. Moore picked up his phone to call Kelly and see if the Bruins, who had been among his initial suitors, were still interested. Of course they were. Kelly hopped on a flight to Detroit to visit the family, but no hard sell was necessary.
“We just wanted to meet him and feel the energy,” Otha Moore said. “Dante dissected his energy level and felt comfortable … and I knew once he saw L.A. it was going to be over with the palm trees, the beaches. Year-round training outside, I mean, you can’t beat it.”
Well, most of the time. Rain soured the first two days of class after Moore arrived in January so that he could participate in spring practice. But soon he was gleefully scootering around campus, no longer worried about a Midwestern wind chill.
After a spirited battle extended into fall camp, Kelly awarded redshirt junior Ethan Garbers the start for the season opener against Coastal Carolina while saying Moore would play off the bench. The platoon essentially ended with Moore throwing touchdown passes on back-to-back plays, including a 67-yard strike to a streaking J.Michael Sturdivant in the fourth quarter.
As lights flickered inside the Rose Bowl, Moore celebrated by repeatedly pointing his right index finger. It was like he had done nothing more than make a nice throw in a game with neighborhood kids.
“Inside I was happy, fireworks,” Moore said when asked about his muted reaction.
Some things he hasn’t kept to himself. Moore gave a young boy dressed in school colors his glove after the San Diego State game. A week later, before reporters left the interview room, he launched into an unprompted monologue about how impressed he was with running back Anthony Adkins’ weight loss.
Coaches continue to be won over by his dedication, Kelly saying he often finds Moore in the practice facility watching game footage well into the evening.
“He’s not just out there winging it,” Kelly said. “I mean, it’s a position of preparation and the more prepared you are, the more confidence you have. But I think he’s got a lot of those intangible qualities that you look for in that position.”
Having seen his son pass so many markers on the career growth chart, Otha is eager to find out what’s next. Hard work being undefeated, there’s no reason a season can’t end in a national championship and the Heisman Trophy.
“It’s like that sports car where you keep mashing the pedal and wanting more and it keeps giving you more and more and more,” Otha said. “That’s what happening, man. We’re watching something very special here.”