Elijah Moore made a mistake. We all make mistakes. But he made the mistake. On Thanksgiving Day 2019 in Starkville, Mississippi, Moore became Bill Buckner, Jackie Smith and Chris Webber. Eternally tied to the images of their nightmare scenarios. Since that moment, everywhere the 20-year-old goes, every conversation he has, every time he posts a photo or a hype video to Instagram, his mistake is the elephant -- no, check that, the urinating dog -- in the room.
The one-year anniversary of Moore's mistake will be Saturday, the very day the next Egg Bowl will be played, and his mistake will no doubt be replayed. And replayed. And replayed. So how will the Ole Miss wide receiver deal with that? The same way he has dealt with it since the morning after he did it, and every single day since.
Moore intends to never make another mistake again. Impossible? Yes. But it is still his goal, and that's not just about when he plays against Mississippi State. It's about every game he plays, every practice he participates in, every workout session and every route he runs.
"Just working hard and changing people's perspective on me because they don't really know the real me," Moore said on Monday afternoon from Oxford, having shown up a few minutes late for his interview because, when he looked at his schedule, he had spotted a window where he thought he could squeeze in an extra weight-room session. "Not even to prove to everyone else, but just to prove to myself that an action like that wasn't myself. Just to learn from it. That's been the best part. Having a lesson like that to be learned and to grow from it and for people to see the growth."
In case you have forgotten -- though, judging from his social media mentions, you have not -- let's revisit. On third-and-goal with 4 seconds remaining and Ole Miss down a touchdown, Moore scored on an exquisitely executed goal-line route that confounded two Mississippi State defenders. As the scoreboard clicked to 21-20 and those defenders looked at each other in disbelief, Moore proceeded to crawl like a dog -- Mississippi State Bulldogs, get it? -- and lift his leg like said canine to mime urinating in the end zone, and damn near on the leg of the field judge, who immediately tossed his penalty flag into the air.
A 15-yard personal foul was assessed on the would-be game-tying extra-point attempt. That lengthened-to-35-yards attempt failed. The game was not tied ... leading to Ole Miss coach Matt Luke losing his job ... which led to Ole Miss hiring Lane Kiffin ... which removed him from the running for the Arkansas job ... so Arkansas could hire Georgia assistant coach Sam Pittman ... and Luke could go to Georgia ... and then Willie Taggart was hired at Florida Atlantic to replace Kiffin ... and Mississippi State's win earned a bowl berth ... and that additional SEC bowl team completely shuffled the entire bowl team lineup ... and bolstered LSU's College Football Playoff résumé to earn the top spot in the postseason ... and ...
Well, you see butterfly effect here. It rippled from coast to coast and even to Hawai'i. It moved millions of dollars. It changed the mood of the Magnolia State for an entire year.
All because Elijah Moore fake peed in the end zone.
In the Ole Miss coaches' booth that night in Davis Wade Stadium, they had almost instantaneously foreseen it all. Then-outside linebackers coach Tyrone Nix can't remember who said it first, but in March he recalled to ESPN.com that someone said over the team's radio headsets, "That right there freaking probably cost us our jobs."
As for Luke and the coaches down on the field, they had no idea. They knew something had happened because of the penalty. They knew it had to have been bad because of the reaction from Mississippi State fans. But not until the game was over and they were running off the field did Luke turn to a team staffer and ask, "What exactly did Elijah do?" When he was told, his face dropped. He carried that same look of disbelief all the way through the postgame news conference and his goodbye to the Rebels three days later.
The same look was on the faces of everyone in the Ole Miss football program. It is still there when anyone is asked about it. And that expression can be found wherever Elijah Moore has lived or played; from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to the campuses where he was so heavily recruited, from Ann Arbor to Knoxville, and even those who run the summer camps and prep all-star games where he became a must-have four-star top-25-ranked receiver.
"You hear people say, 'Well, that's not who he is,' or, 'Man, that was so out of character for him,' and maybe you think they're just making excuses for a guy, trying to have his back," said Kiffin, who took over for Luke on Dec. 7, 2019, only a week and a half after the Egg Bowl. "But the moment I met him, I knew that was for real. Anyone who knows Elijah knows that's not who he is."
Moore was one of the first players Kiffin sought out to talk with one-on-one. It was likely done out of some goodness in his coaching heart, but it was also a crucial football move. When Kiffin had watched Ole Miss film to assess the talent he would inherit, it was Moore who had jumped out to him most. He had to make sure the kid wasn't run out of the state.
The previous time the public had seen Moore, he was being walked off the field to the locker room in the arms of Luke's wife, Ashley. He had tears in his eyes and, just before disappearing into the tunnel, the last thing he saw on the video board above the end zone was the replay of what he had done. He addressed his teammates, weeping as he apologized. As soon as he returned to Oxford, he disappeared into his apartment and, as any 19-year-old would do, disappeared into his phone.
"I just wanted to be alone and take in what happened," he explained recently, saying he flicked through his social media timelines as long as he could before finally forcing himself to look away. His family was back in Florida. He says he has only recently become closer with his father, Sean. But his mother, Elisa, has always been his best friend. He waited until Black Friday to finally call her back. When they talked, Elisa was brutally honest. That's how she rolls.
"She told me everything's going to be OK ... but my mom always comes with the truth, and she definitely told me I was wrong, and I've got to handle situations better," Moore said. "Just to learn from it because everything's a lesson.
"A lot of people thought it was planned. It wasn't planned. A lot of people say Odell, DK, but that wasn't the case. They're going to come up with something anyway ... so they can do that." Ole Miss wide receiver Elijah Moore on his celebration mistake during last season's Egg Bowl
"My mom's a nurse. I've seen my mom work so hard, go through a lot. She's my world, so she's just like me. She's a grinder."
When Kiffin found the grinder, he was already hard at work, having emerged from his self-imposed lockdown to face his teammates again and take out his frustration on some free weights. He had already talked to athletic director Keith Carter, apologizing in person for what had happened and explaining he wanted to stay and make things right.
Kiffin explained to Moore that during his time coaching from USC and Tennessee, to Alabama and the Oakland Raiders, he had worked with receiving legends ranging from Mike Williams to Amari Cooper, but they were prototypical long, rangy pass-catchers. He loved the potential for Moore as a classic slot man, someone who would turn the little plays on the marker board into the very large plays on the field, yards after catch and the like. He said the player he saw most in Moore was Steve Smith. Like Moore, the former Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens All-Pro is short (Moore laughs when asked about being listed at 5-foot-9, saying, "I'm going with 5-10 and a half"), but he made up for lack of height with speed, super-glue hands and personal pride in IndyCar-sharp route running. After their first chat, Kiffin also found another big similarity between Smith and Moore.
"Some guys need to be motivated. Guys like Steve Smith and Elijah find something to be motivated by all the time," the coach explained earlier this season. "When I talk to him about what he wants to accomplish, it isn't about being the next great Ole Miss receiver. It's about being the greatest Ole Miss receiver ever."
But while no one would have been surprised to see Steve Smith celebrate a touchdown with a leg raised, they were when Moore did it. As easy as it is to roll one's eyes at "That's not who he is," it is even easier to dismiss the cliched excuse of "He just got caught up in the moment." But if enough people say it ...
Quarterback Matt Corral: "That game is so intense, he just got caught up in the moment."
Running back Jerrion Ealy: "That moment was so big, he just got caught up in it."
Linebacker MoMo Sanogo: "He got caught up in the moment and took a false step. That's all."
Luke (in a quote from 2019; as an assistant at Georgia now, he doesn't talk to the media): "That's not who he is. Elijah is a good kid and he got caught up in the moment."
They keep repeating that because they believe it. But they also hope to drown out the "Ole Piss" echoes that still follow Moore wherever he goes or whenever he posts, especially in these days leading up to the Egg Bowl. The keyboard warriors claim Moore is selfish, and his drive to join the list of all-time SEC receiving greats is why he mimicked the leg-lift move of LSU alum Odell Beckham Jr., the then-New York Giant who first did it against the Eagles in 2017, or then-Ole Miss wideout DK Metcalf, who did the same move in the Egg Bowl a few weeks later that same year.
"It just happened spur of the moment," Moore says now. "It wasn't planned. A lot of people thought it was planned. It wasn't planned. A lot of people say Odell, DK, but that wasn't the case. They're going to come up with something anyway, even if I stay quiet or not, so they can do that."
They do and they will. But as his teammates and friends try to bury that chatter under their Moore character testimonials, Moore himself is trying to quiet them via an avalanche of statistics and SportsCenter top-10 highlights. He leads the nation in catches (74) and yards (1,054), and the most recent time most of us saw him on the field was when he was streaking toward the end zone for a 91-yard TD against South Carolina, the fourth-longest touchdown catch in the nation this fall. On Halloween, he broke the Ole Miss single-game receiving record with 238 yards against Vanderbilt, immediately drawing Twitter praise from the man whose record he broke, Titans receiver A.J. Brown. Now, Moore has his eyes set on Brown's single-season record of 1,320 yards and will likely get there even in a COVID-19-shortened season.
"He asked me at the start of the third quarter, 'What's the most you've ever had from a wide receiver?'" Kiffin said of the Vandy game. "I think he wanted to break the record I'd been around."
When the 2020 season started, Moore was on every NFL "if he's available late that would be a great steal" list. Now, as he moves up through the record books, he has moved onto lists of draft second-rounders, and is rising.
"My motivation, it's really just the unknown," he says of that rise in profile, this time for all the right reasons. "The fact that people [question] my size, or just anything, I'm just always looking for something else that hasn't been done to be done. A lot of people weren't expecting it to happen, and I just want to be that person that can show everyone that it can happen.
"Just being a leader in general is something a lot of people, well, it doesn't really fit in with their character. So, just being that leader and learning how to be more vocal ... I feel like I'm more of a lead-by-example dude. That's really important because everyone's always watching."
"He's never taken a false step since that happened," Sanago said of the days since the TD celebration. "A team needs leaders, and now he's a leader."
"He's taught me to just be strong," Ealy added. "Take what could have broken you and use it as what you need to become better. And use it to show others, if you make a mistake, don't let it define you. Let it define who you are going to be for the next challenge up."
The next challenge up is the Egg Bowl.
"It's a really big deal. Rivalry games like Ole Miss and Mississippi State, that's the biggest of the big," Moore said. "It doesn't get any bigger than that. If anybody wants you to win any game, it's this one, so we're all going to step up. Not just me. But if I have the kind of game that I know I can, like I've had a lot this year, well ..."
It wouldn't be merely a win. It would be redemption.