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At 5-foot-7, Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore is on the small side, but NFL teams would be making a big mistake by selling this freak athlete short

By Chase Goodbread | March 22, 2021

How big is fast?

JaMarcus Shephard's tongue was too tied to answer. The Purdue wide receivers coach had just opened a crucial recruiting relationship with a prime target by asking bluntly about one of his concerns:

"How big are you, really?"

The question had dogged Rondale Moore many times before, but with Shephard, the 5-foot-7 dynamo juked it as easily as so many would-be tacklers. Planting his foot and changing direction with just four words, he retorted: "How big is fast?"

Shephard doesn't recall what he offered for a comeback, but he fumbled for the right one, then smiled before his next words. The confidence Moore exuded with the turnabout left Shephard wanting the four-star recruit even more. And as he would later learn, Moore's brand of fast couldn't be any bigger.

Moore's well-documented 4.33-second 40-yard dash and an array of highly graded skills for receiving, rushing and returning made him one of college football's most exciting players. He combines freakish athleticism with a maniacal work ethic and an intense focus that borders on robotic. He'll tempt NFL general managers looking for all-purpose electricity from the slot position -- think Tyreek Hill -- and a sterling off-field reputation. NFL evaluators most familiar with Purdue's redshirt sophomore are convinced his performance both in physical testing and personal interviews will affirm his reputation as one of the 2021 draft's elite athletes.

And why shouldn't it? He's only been told he's too short; it's never been proven.

"When people ask the (height) question, for me it's like, 'You have the film, you can see what I can do. If it scares you that much, then cool. Pass on me.' " RONDALE MOORE

"It's really not a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I don't think of it that way, because I'm having the time of my life. When people ask the (height) question, for me it's like, 'You have the film, you can see what I can do. If it scares you that much, then cool. Pass on me.' "

Ever since Moore proved to Shephard with his play that speed, indeed, can render size concerns moot, the Boilermakers coach has resolved to take a second look at undersized wide receiver recruits anytime he's tempted to dismiss one for being too short.

How big is fast?

"As big," Shephard said, "as he needs it to be."

Just how much of Moore's athleticism comes naturally and how much of it is self-made by a grueling workout regimen is debatable. Convincing evidence for either argument abounds, but there is little debate on this: Moore's testing in NFL combine events foretold a spectacular pro day.

Conservative estimates by his personal trainer, Chris Vaughn, place his vertical jump at more than 40 inches, his broad jump at 11-plus feet, and reps in the 225-pound bench press test at more than 20. Only one player at the 2020 combine, Southern Illinois safety Jeremy Chinn, crested all three of those benchmarks, and the Carolina Panthers' second-round pick also ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash.

Moore could run well under that.

"He's so fast, if he runs in the 4.3s, I might be semi-disappointed," said Vaughn, a former Louisville wide receiver who spent a brief stint with the New Orleans Saints in 2009. "We're going to shoot for the stars -- the 4.2s."

Vaughn calls Moore the best athlete of the more than 160 he's trained. Moore was such a dominant youth player in his hometown of New Albany, Indiana, officials installed an informal mercy rule just for him. As a running quarterback, he would score so many rushing touchdowns that when games got too far out of hand, the referee would inform Moore's coach that his QB could only throw or hand off for the balance of the game.

In Moore's youth league, mercy rules were installed to control the score of games in which he played quarterback. (Shawnee Jaguars)
In Moore's youth league, mercy rules were installed to control the score of games in which he played quarterback. (Shawnee Jaguars)

By age 10, he was doing backflips a dozen at a time, making the family wonder if gymnastics was his true calling. A few years later, he would be a dominant middle school wrestler, and was dunking basketballs in high school.

The spring before his senior year at Louisville's Trinity High, he clocked a laser-timed 4.33-second 40 at the Nike Opening event in Chicago, which sparked a deluge of scholarship offers from powerhouse programs like Alabama and Ohio State.

Crediting the athlete Moore has become to simple genetics, however, sells his sacrifice short. Genetics don't make middle schoolers rip off 200 pushups a day, as Moore did, or catch 500 balls from a Jugs machine on days when Purdue players were supposed to take off from training. Genetics weren't what allowed a 180-pound Moore to squat 600 pounds just five weeks after his arrival at Purdue as a freshman. No, the makings of that feat were forged with countless hours in the gym. Indeed, just a year earlier and 10 pounds lighter, he was squatting 530 to far less fanfare in the Trinity High weight room.

Moore began occasionally training with Vaughn, at least informally, as far back as middle school. But once he reached high school, determined to earn a college athletic scholarship, he started training with Vaughn on a regular basis. He was aware Vaughn had trained many of the top high school athletes around Louisville, including Cleveland Browns WR Taywan Taylor, and began putting himself through exhaustive, grueling workouts.

"He's an elite athlete who always showed up 20 minutes early, with his shoes tied, ready to work. He could lift with our linemen and outrun all our skill guys." DOMENIC RENO

On the night Moore received the Paul Hornung Award as college football's most versatile player -- he was the first true freshman ever to win the honor -- Vaughn all but had to kick him out of a training session so he wouldn't be late to a banquet for 600 held in his honor. The Hornung Award is presented in Louisville, the late Hall of Famer's hometown, so Moore only needed to hop in his car for a short drive to get there. After winning Hornung's high school award as the top prep player in Kentucky the year before, he at least knew the way.

"He made it," Vaughn said. "But he wasn't going to cut a workout short."

Perhaps no NFL team will have a better insight into Moore's athletic prowess than the Los Angeles Rams, as their new head strength coach, Justin Lovett, held the same role at Purdue during Moore's first two years in the program. Lovett witnessed Moore's 600-pound squat firsthand and has an insider's knowledge of both his physical capabilities and his work ethic. Current Boilermakers strength coach Domenic Reno took over for Lovett earlier this year.

"(Lovett) saw the same things in him that we all saw," Reno said. "He's an elite athlete who always showed up 20 minutes early, with his shoes tied, ready to work. He could lift with our linemen and outrun all our skill guys. Just a special, special player."

Not even Moore himself can pinpoint exactly when he became the face of Purdue football, but whatever the defining moment was, the notoriety came at him fast.

In recruiting circles, it came the day he signed with the Boilermakers as the crown jewel of its 2018 recruiting class, coach Jeff Brohm's first four-star signee and the highest-rated recruit to choose Purdue since 2012.

In social media circles, it came the minute a video of his 600-pound squat -- well over triple his body weight -- hit the internet six weeks before he played his first down in a Purdue uniform.

For the Boilermakers' coaching staff, it might've been after his very first practice, when defensive backs coach Anthony Poindexter told Shephard, "You've got a superstar on your hands."

For anyone else, it came in his freshman debut, albeit a 31-27 loss to Northwestern, when he posted more than 300 all-purpose yards by halftime and a Purdue-record 313 by game's end. For a program that hadn't reached eight wins since 2007, and one starved for a transcendent player, it signaled a level of star power like Purdue fans hadn't seen since quarterback Drew Brees was on campus nearly 20 years earlier. Moore had barely unpacked his bags before his face -- braces still on his teeth -- was the most recognizable one in West Lafayette.

"As a kid you want that kind of notoriety. And when you get it, it can turn into 'Am I ready for this?' But my mindset was always to pay it forward and be the salt of the Earth about it," Moore said. "I was that kid once who came up to players, so I could put myself in those kids' shoes wanting an autograph. I remember being a kid going to Louisville (basketball) games and seeing how Terry Rozier and Edgar Sosa and Montrezl Harrell dealt with it. They were superstars."

By the time Moore finished his freshman year at Purdue with a school-record 2,215 all-purpose yards, so was he.

“From Day 1 in practice, you almost couldn’t believe what you saw. He’s got guys trying to cover him who had played a lot of Big Ten football, and they couldn’t run with him or even get their hands on him.” JAMARCUS SHEPHARD

Brohm's staff sought to give Moore as many touches in space as possible, knowing that defenders can barely get a hand on him, much less make the tackle. That meant a good dose of jet sweeps, screen passes, and other quick, high-percentage throws that set the receiver up in one-on-one situations from his slot position. Beyond just sharp cuts in the open field, he was known to change speeds as well, lulling defenders with a lower gear before bursting past them in a sprint; comically effective and eminently fun to watch.

"From Day 1 in practice, you almost couldn't believe what you saw," Shephard said. "He's got guys trying to cover him who had played a lot of Big Ten football, and they couldn't run with him or even get their hands on him."

It takes a special skillset like Moore's to get an NFL opportunity at his height. Last fall, there were only 17 wide receivers 5-9 or shorter on the NFL's 32 team rosters. Among the best are Jamison Crowder (5-9) of the New York Jets, who caught 78 passes last season, and Baltimore's Marquise Brown (5-9), a first-round pick of the Ravens in 2019. But the list is mainly comprised of reserves, including the Miami Dolphins' dangerous return specialist, Jakeem Grant, who at 5-7 is the second-shortest receiver in the league (New Orleans' Deonte Harris is 5-6). None of them have a 1,000-yard receiving season on their resume.

Moore is more than fast enough to beat defenders on deep routes, but eluding defenders with the ball in his hand for big plays comes so effortlessly that throwing lower-percentage passes to him downfield doesn't make as much sense. According to Shephard, when Moore is called on to run lengthier routes, the same quickness and speed buys him more than enough separation from defenders to render his diminutive size moot.

His production as a return specialist has been relatively modest -- a 19.4-yard career average on kickoff returns, 6.9 for punt returns -- but his skill set is precisely what NFL clubs look for in that role. He played just three games in 2020 due to a lower-body injury, but didn't return a kick. The year before as a sophomore, thanks to a hamstring injury, he played in just four contests. But for NFL scouts, his mark was made as a freshman in 2018.

Moore might have been able to do just that last year as a sophomore, were it not for a hamstring injury against Minnesota in just his fourth game. It was slow to heal and ended his season, but for NFL scouts, his mark had been made.

Shephard's phone rang at 3 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 21, 2018, and for a moment, he felt a knot in his stomach. The caller ID: Rondale Moore.

"Oh, no," the Purdue receivers coach thought. "Something's happened."

Purdue had stunned No. 2-ranked Ohio State, 49-20, just hours earlier in what some Boilermakers fans consider the biggest win in the history of Ross-Ade Stadium. Moore had been the star -- 12 catches, 170 yards, two touchdowns -- against a Buckeyes secondary that featured three eventual draft picks and a fourth player, Shaun Wade, who should get a draft-day call next month along with Moore. Moore punctuated the upset with a 43-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter in which he ran through Buckeyes DB Isaiah Pryor, then beat one of the fastest players in college football, Kendall Sheffield, to the end zone.

The win sparked a campus-wide celebration that had no bedtime. Heck, Shephard himself was still awake, celebrating into the wee hours with a large group of extended family at his home. Coaches often preach to their players that nothing good ever happens after midnight, and although he knew Moore to be mature beyond his years, he couldn't help but think Purdue's best player had a serious problem to be calling at 3 a.m.

"Where are you?" Shephard asked with trepidation.

"I'm in bed," Moore said. "I want you to look at this play where I missed a block and tell me what I could've done. My blocking was (poor) tonight."

Moore doesn't forget a missed block, and he certainly doesn't forget a dropped pass. He had 12 of them in his first 17 college games, but that's by his personal count, not Purdue's. His definition of a drop is intentionally harsh: Any wayward pass he can so much as graze with a fingertip qualifies. He remembers each with more clarity than his 143 catches. One, on a slant route that would have resulted in an easy touchdown against Ohio State had he made the catch, grates on him most -- even though he scored two plays later.

"I think his perfectionist nature is his biggest ally," said Andrew Coverdale, Moore's offensive coordinator at Trinity. "But you also have to learn to manage a mentality like that or it can eat you up."

"He didn't care if it was a beach, a desert or an Orwellian wasteland. ... It never mattered to him that West Lafayette wasn't Shangri-La." ANDREW COVERDALE

Moore's daily routine at Purdue was a clockwork circuit between classes, football practice, team meetings and workouts, an unwavering pursuit of two commitments -- to graduate and be the best football player on the field every time he played. Last fall, amid daily athletic training, he took on a course load of 27 credit hours -- essentially two semesters in one -- to graduate from Purdue in December in just two and a half years with honors.

He didn't leave room for parties.

"I don't partake in anything I have no business in, or that I reap no benefits from. That's how I approached college -- it's been all business," Moore said. "I set a clear path of what I wanted to do and surrounded myself with people who could help me obtain those goals. I just don't have time to be in the mix with those (other) sorts of activities."

Almost exactly a year before his phone call to Shephard, Moore placed a call to Gino Rowen that drove home the same point. Moore refers to Rowen, a close confidant and mentor, as his Uncle Gino even though Rowen is an older cousin. Rowen had taken Moore to the University of Texas for his official recruiting visit -- Moore was committed to playing for the UT at the time -- and a few Longhorns had taken recruits to a night club.

Moore drank water.

"He calls me and says, 'Can you come and get me? I just want to get out of here,' " Rowen said. "It's an official visit so they're just trying to introduce him to people and show him a good time, but that wasn't him. I called him an Uber, and he was out of there."

It was just another in a long series of mature choices that Moore considers to be business decisions.

He made one at 16 when he took an honest look at the slim scholarship odds for short basketball players and gave up the sport as one of the top high school point guards in Indiana. In doing so, he left New Albany High's state championship team and his best friend, future Boston Celtics first-round pick Romeo Langford, to transfer to Trinity, a football powerhouse across the Ohio River.

He made another in choosing Purdue over Ohio State, Alabama and other top programs, scrutinizing them all in search of a coach who could offer the right combination of early playing time and a willingness to use his talent in every way possible.

"When recruiters said, 'Do you really want to spend four years in West Lafayette?' they really missed the point with the kid," Coverdale said. "He didn't care if it was a beach, a desert or an Orwellian wasteland. He was going to go where a position coach understood him, and where there was an early opportunity. It never mattered to him that West Lafayette wasn't Shangri-La."

Last fall, he made his biggest business decision yet when he opted back into the 2020 college football season after opting out a few weeks earlier. Even before the Big Ten's decision to postpone its fall schedule, Moore announced he would begin draft preparation instead of playing this season, citing COVID-19 concerns. Part of his consideration: a mother who faced the pandemic with underlying health problems. But after learning more about the virus and his mother's safety, he reversed field after the conference announced it would squeeze in an eight-game season.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Moore opted out and began training on his own. He opted back in after educating himself more on the virus. (Alton Strupp/Courier Journal)
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Moore opted out and began training on his own. He opted back in after educating himself more on the virus. (Alton Strupp/Courier Journal)

After transferring from New Albany to Louisville Trinity for his junior year, Moore was ruled ineligible by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. He sat the entire regular season plus one playoff game before his eligibility appeal succeeded, then scored 10 touchdowns in four subsequent playoff games to help the tradition-rich Shamrocks to their 24th state title.

But it was sitting out for three months, not playing, that impacted him most.

"It was the best-slash-worst thing that ever happened to me," he said.

A high school recruit's most critical season is his junior year, as signing classes are all but full by the time late-blooming seniors can get on the college recruiting radar. Moore hadn't drawn any real attention as a football prospect at New Albany, and now he'd be sitting out the year colleges wanted to see most.

The only release for his frustration was preparing to play without knowing he'd play.

Early in the morning, before school, he'd meet Vaughn in a local park and work on running routes. After school, he'd sit in the press box and take notes on practice, absorbing as much understanding of Trinity's offense as possible. He befriended the backup quarterback, Nick Bohn, and bugged him for every scrap of intel he could gather about the playbook. After practice, he'd lift weights for an hour and a half, then grind through speed and agility drills until 9 p.m.

"I don't know of too many kids who would have the discipline to stay with that, sit all year and still prepare when you might not even get to play," said Trinity coach Bob Beatty.

Vaughn believes Moore's dedication during that period had much to do with the 4.33 40-yard dash he clocked at the Nike Opening camp the following spring, which generated all the scholarship offers he'd hoped for.

Even from birth, Moore was always surrounded by a doubter or two. His mother, Quincy Ricketts, was prescribed a regimen of pre-natal steroids after doctors determined that Rondale would be born premature and with underdeveloped lungs. Born five weeks too soon on June 9, 2000, his first struggle was one of survival. Fed nasally in intensive care, Ricketts had cause for concern.

"They couldn't say for sure if he would live. They couldn't tell me what I wanted to hear," Ricketts said. "But he was a fighter."

After five weeks, he was cleared to go home, tiny and fragile; the youngest of four, born to a mother who was the youngest of 12.

"He was the baby of the baby," Ricketts said.

Now, Moore's mission is to take care of Ricketts, a single mother who struggled to provide for four children, the way she had always done for him.

Ricketts always emphasized school over sports with her kids, threatening to pull Rondale off his youth teams if his grades were anything short of excellent. It's why Moore took on those 27 credit hours last fall, determined to earn his Purdue degree before potentially entering the NFL. It's why he sought, and landed, an internship this summer with The Morales Group, a staffing company in Indianapolis. When it ended, Moore was asked to provide five recommendations for the company to improve, and his 45-minute presentation impressed enough that he was told the company would be thrilled to hire him after his football career ends.

"Whether helping her out meant getting a good job or doing it through football, it didn't matter," Moore said. "And now I'm in a position to do both."

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