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The remarkable story of TCU's Rhodes scholar, Caylin Moore

As part of a project for Dear World, TCU's Caylin Moore put details of his life on his body, and it shows only some of what he faced on his way to becoming a Rhodes scholar. Courtesy of Dear World

On a Tuesday night in October, TCU safety Caylin Moore stands on the football field at O.D. Wyatt High School in Fort Worth, Texas, talking about the perfect pushup.

Moore asks for a volunteer. A boy wearing a yellow Southside Hornets T-shirt agrees to demonstrate. Moore compliments him on his form, then turns back to the group of kids and their parents.

Growing up in Southern California, Moore's family struggled financially. Dinner often came from the Dollar Menu at McDonald's or Carl's Jr. There were times when Moore's mother didn't have enough money to feed all three of her kids. "She would say, 'Cay, You can only get one item,'" Moore recalled. "So I would just do pushups to take the pain from my stomach to the pain in my arms."

Sometimes, Moore did pushups until he passed out in a pool of sweat. But he also built his upper body, which helped him excel in football, and that helped him reach college. Rather than give in to the many burdens on his shoulders, nudging him closer to the ground, Moore literally pushed back.

He wants kids in Fort Worth to know they can push back, too.

"He tells them, 'The way you do a pushup is the way you function in life,'" said Jacinto Ramos Jr., one of Moore's professors at TCU. "When you do a proper pushup, you're developing your body, and he's telling them they need to develop their mindset the same way.

"The story is about understanding the struggle, understanding what perseverance looks like for these kids in the inner city, and yet pushing through all of that."

Where do you even begin?

You can learn a lot about someone from his/her Instagram profile. Caylin Moore's reads:

112th and South Central Avenue. CA | TCU Football #21 | TCU Spark | It won't make sense on paper | Janitor.

Janitor? We'll get to that later. But another line -- It won't make sense on paper -- jumps out.

"I always come to that quote in my head," Moore said.

Life isn't linear or logical, and Moore's experiences add up only because they all actually happened to him. He's the son of a convicted murderer and a sexual assault survivor. He spent most of his childhood sharing a bed with his mother and two siblings, living in a house without hot water on the crime-ridden border of Compton and Carson, south of Los Angeles. He collected cans and bottles to buy football cleats, blossomed in Snoop Dogg's youth league and went on to play in high school and college. He has been a Fulbright scholar and, yes, a campus custodian. At TCU, he majors in economics, minors in math and sociology, and carries a GPA of 3.934.

He turned 22 in June.

Last month, he was among the 32 men and women awarded the 2017 Rhodes scholarship, and next year, Moore will study at Oxford University in England.

"I look at everything I've been through, everything I'm doing, it's enough to reduce me to tears sometimes," he said. "I've been through amazing, impossible things, to a point where it's like, 'Wow, hard work and opportunity wasn't the only thing that did that.' There was some divine intervention."

Moore's life didn't begin on 112th and South Central Avenue. (It's the location of his high school.) Born in Hollywood, Moore spent his first six years living with his parents and siblings in a house in Moreno Valley, near Riverside.

"We had a five-bath, four-bedroom house; we had seven vehicles," said Moore's mother, Calynn Taylor Moore. "We had what looked like the Cosby life. It was like a Monet: From a distance, it looks beautiful, but up close, it's all messed up."

Inside those walls, Taylor Moore's husband, Louis Moore, was psychologically abusive toward her. She twice saw him physically abuse Caylin, just 2 at the time. In 2000, she left him, taking the children to live with her mother in Compton. Taylor Moore filed for divorce but still feared for her safety.

"In open-court divorce proceedings," Taylor Moore said, "when the judge asked him to identify me, he said, 'I wouldn't identify that b---- until she has a hole in her head.'"

Taylor Moore tried to maintain a normal life for her kids. She initially kept Caylin (pronounced Kai-Linn) and his older sister, Mi-Calynn -- both named after their mother -- in school in Moreno Valley. They rose at 4 a.m. to make the 70-mile drive from Compton. Taylor Moore then drove nearly 50 miles to Santa Ana to attend law school.

The family lacked means, but Taylor Moore, who eventually earned a law degree and a master's in clinical psychology and theology, enriched her children in other ways. They went to museums and plays and learned about art. Taylor Moore introduced her sons to football in the Snoop Youth Football League, and she even became the league's first female head coach.

She always told her kids: It doesn't matter if we live in the hood; the hood doesn't have to live in us.

"She established that even if you don't have a whole lot, you can do a whole lot with the little you do have," said Caylin's younger brother, Chase, who plays football at Holy Cross. "She showed us you don't have to have $1 million to be a good parent."

Dying to live instead of living to die

Caylin Moore was too young to understand what happened to his mother. All he remembers is that in 2004 she went to the hospital for heart surgery and came home in even worse shape.

The surgery had been a success, but two nights later, a male nurse sexually assaulted Calynn, using her morphine drip to sedate her. She was too afraid to say something right away, knowing she had about a week left in her stay. She recounted what had happened in a survey the hospital sent later.

Back home, she slipped into a deep depression.

"I laid on the couch for probably a month," said Taylor Moore, who received a settlement from the incident, although the nurse never faced criminal prosecution. "I don't know how I got up to go to the bathroom, I don't know how I ate other than my daughter was helping to feed me. I don't know how I existed."

One day, her middle child approached the couch: Get up. You've got to live. You've got three kids. We need you!

Caylin walked his mother to the bathroom. He brought a chair from the dining room and put it in the tub, covering it with plastic. He then undressed Taylor Moore and began bathing her.

"At some point," she recalled, "when he was washing my hair, something inside of me clicked and said, 'You know what? This pity party is over. Your baby is bathing you because he wants to bring you back to life. Live!' And that's what I did."

Five years later, Moore encountered another family crisis, this time involving his father, who hadn't been involved in Moore's life since the divorce. In August 2009, after a drunken argument with his girlfriend, Jillian White, in the apartment they shared, Louis Moore grabbed his rifle and fired three shots, killing her.

Upon learning of the incident, Caylin Moore stopped talking. He remembers a friend telling him that he went a week without laughing. Only in recent years has Moore contacted his father, who in 2012 was convicted of first-degree murder. They occasionally exchange letters through the prison system. "It was a very tough thing for me to get over," he said.

Despite the traumas, his strongest childhood memories are positive ones: playing basketball with the Brooks brothers next door; rounding up the neighborhood kids to race bikes or throw water balloons or build forts and Lego castles. He remembers waking up early and making the rounds, knocking on each door where other kids lived, asking whether Nelson or Josh or Isaiah could come outside.

"We had so much problems going on at the home all the time, stuff with my dad or other things," Moore said. "I would take my anger and frustration and just go outside and play, and just forget about everything. We would play all day long."

Finding a Rolle model

In 2008, Moore placed a photo atop a bookcase at his house. It showed Myron Rolle, a Florida State safety, in his practice uniform. That year, Rolle became the first major college football player in nearly a quarter century to earn a Rhodes Scholarship.

"His inspiration," Taylor Moore said of Caylin.

From an early age, Moore understood the link between football and education. When he posted straight A's in seventh grade, he won an award from the Snoop League and received a laptop computer from Snoop Dogg, which Moore keeps to this day. At Verbum Dei High School, an all-male Catholic school just west of the L.A. neighborhood of Watts, Moore became an all-conference quarterback and made the honor roll every semester.

Moore applied to 25 colleges and was accepted by 19. (The six nos all came from Ivy League schools, Taylor Moore says.) He picked Marist College, along the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, New York, which provided a strong financial aid package and a chance to play in the FCS. Moore didn't hesitate to move across the country. He loved seeing snow and bonded with his teammates.

While at Marist, an email arrived. Moore had qualified to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship. He called his mother.

"She said, 'Coming where we come from, that's not something you dare dream for your kids, to even apply for that,'" Moore said. "You don't have any of those conversations. She cried from the mere fact that I was applying."

He was accepted to the program and flew to England to study the trans-Atlantic slave trade at the University of Bristol. He took part in an archaeological dig and met members of the British Parliament. Moore returned to Marist feeling like a changed man.

A new challenge would test his resolve. He had expected big things on the field in 2014 but sustained a back injury while throwing before the first game. He appeared in only two contests, and a doctor thought he needed surgery. Moore decided to transfer but wanted to finish the year at Marist. He also needed money, so he began doing custodial work. His year began in football pads with a realistic goal to start at quarterback. It ended in a hoodie, mopping floors and cleaning up vomit from partiers. "A really humbling experience," he said.

Yet again Moore pushed back, this time even harder. He had always made lists of goals and motivations. At Marist, he wrote two lofty goals on the ceiling of his dorm room: Harvard PhD and D-1 athlete.

He put together a workout tape and sent it around. TCU showed interest, and Moore decided to become a Horned Frog. Harvard would have to wait, although he did spend most of the summer at Princeton, participating in a public policy/international affairs institute that included classes with titles such as advanced microeconomics infused with Calculus 3.

"He was a big fish in a small pond," Chase Moore said of his brother. "He needed to expand the pond."

A story that resonates with kids and parents

Jacinto Ramos' class on juvenile delinquency urges TCU students to understand and assess youths who live in challenging environments and ultimately become mentors to them. When Moore turned in his first paper, Ramos knew he had a student who had a unique understanding of the subject matter.

Moore kept to himself for most of the semester, but a classmate Googled him and learned about his background. Asked to share his story, Moore "blew everybody away," Ramos said. "It was a very, very powerful evening."

At the end of the semester, Moore told Ramos about a student group he had started called TCU SPARK -- Strong Players Are Reaching Kids. Moore wanted to use his platform to help children and elicited help from teammates Aaron Curry and Michael Carroll. They spent several long nights picking a name and writing the constitution and requirements to become an official campus organization. Their membership has grown to about 20 TCU athletes, both male and female, including football players such as starting quarterback Kenny Hill.

"You don't get very many Caylin Moores come across your vision, so when you have one, you need to appreciate him and help him," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "If I could get all of my group to be half of what he tries to be on a day-to-day basis -- and we've got good kids -- we would all be a lot better off."

Ramos helped set up events for the athletes to meet with youth groups around Fort Worth. They started with a Pee Wee football league, the North Side Horned Frogs, in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood where Ramos grew up. Several TCU athletes shared their stories before Moore addressed the group of kids and their parents.

"All the kids light up hearing his story," Curry said. "Even the parents come up to him afterwards and say, 'Your story's amazing. I can't believe you made it out.'"

At the first event, Isabel Ibarra was Moore's pushup volunteer. Afterward, Moore met Isabel's father, Chucky, an ex-member of the notorious 15th Street gang.

"[Moore] represents so much to the parents as well," Ramos said. "He represents what they want their children to be, in spite of all the struggles that they've had to deal with themselves. He's the 'what can be' to them."

Two weeks later, TCU SPARK visited the South Side Hornets on the field at O.D. Wyatt High, on Fort Worth's southeast side. For Moore, the setting resonated as much as the stories being shared.

O.D. Wyatt is among the city's lowest-performing high schools. Its football field sits between FCI Fort Worth, a federal prison, and the Ladera Palms Apartment Homes, a massive complex populated mostly by resettled refugees from southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

"It's so important that we were right there in the middle, telling them that they could do it and that they could make it," Moore said. "Kids are seeing that they can achieve and rise above their circumstances."

'Mom, I'm a Rhodes scholar'

On Nov. 19, Taylor Moore waited for the call. Caylin had interviewed for the Rhodes scholarship earlier that day in Los Angeles. The decision was supposed to come at 3:30 p.m., then 5. The minutes ticked away ... 6 o'clock ... 6:15 ...

At 6:35, the phone rang.

Mom, I'm a Rhodes scholar.

"There's not a word in English to describe how I feel," Taylor Moore said several days later. "I'd have to learn a new language. For me, it's a validation from the time he was in the seventh grade, I told him he could be anything he desired to be. He was only limited by his own dreams. Everything that we've gone through, whatever ups and downs, whatever testimonials we have, it feels it was worth it.

"And he's only 22."

Curry wasn't surprised when he heard the news.

"I knew he was going to win it," Curry said. "Caylin, he's a once-in-a-lifetime type of dude. Now it's like, what's next?"

What is next for Caylin Louis Moore?

This spring, he will complete his degree at TCU, where he's one of the school's most popular students despite playing just one game against Kansas State on kickoff returns. He'll then go to Oxford and study public policy and business administration.

He plans to continue his speaking engagements and publish several books, and he ultimately wants to shape education policy in cities such as Los Angeles. He hopes to make SPARK a national organization. He still wants to earn that doctorate from Harvard. Ramos thinks Moore could someday run for political office.

There are other goals, which Moore keeps private. Chase Moore thinks his big brother will "shock the world."

"He's a great role model. If anybody would have as much right to feel sorry for himself and everything that's happened to him, it's been Caylin Moore," Patterson said. "What he's done is said, 'No matter what I'm going to do, if I'm a sweeper, I'm going to be the best sweeper I can be.' Off the field, he's really taught our kids how to study. He attacks studies like it's the game plan in football.

"He's just inspirational, the things he gives back off the field and what he does for kids here in the Fort Worth area -- it shows you when you have the right attitude and you want to do things in life, what you can become, no matter what your circumstances. He truly meets the fact that it's not about where you started but where you ended."

When the obstacles come, as they always do, and Moore begins feeling that familiar burden on his shoulders, he will respond like he did as a hungry teenager. It's just like he tells the kids in Fort Worth.

Keep pushing.

"One of my motivations was to never give up," Moore said. "Another one of my motivations is to show kids what it looks like to never give in. When I die and I'm standing in front of God, I want to be able to say, 'God, I don't have any talents left. I used everything you gave me.'"