Lions’ C.J. Moore, twin A.J. have plenty to be thankful for as Thanksgiving showdown looms

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

If you’re struggling to find anything to be thankful for in 2020, who could blame you? But counting blessings couldn’t be easier for Detroit Lions safety C.J. Moore. 

In his second season with the franchise after signing as an undrafted free agent a year ago, Moore is on the cusp of realizing a dream that supersedes the odds he’s already overcome to make it to this point. 

Regardless of who wins the coin toss ahead of Thursday’s Thanksgiving game between the Lions and Houston Texans at Ford Field, odds are good Moore will be staring across the field from his twin brother A.J. when the teams line up for the opening kickoff. 

“Man, it means so much to us, and not just us, it means so much to our town,” C.J. Moore said. “People are already texting and brewing up some competition. We’re looking forward to it, man. We’ve been dreaming about this literally all our lives, from as far back as I can remember. For it to be coming into play, we’re just thankful and super blessed. We’re just ready to get after it on Thursday.”

Not bad for a couple of country boys from Bassfield, Mississippi. 

What, you’ve never heard of Bassfield? Again, who could blame you? Located in the southern part of the state, it’s a square mile in size and home to fewer than 300 people. 

But for Moore, it’s a slice of heaven. 

“I love the community,” he said. “Everybody is so close, like family. You can really count on everybody in the community to help out to do something. The country part of it, it’s a lot of privacy. You can pretty much do whatever you want. A lot of kids aren’t able to shoot fireworks in the city, but we did all that, talkin’ firecracker wars. We’d hunt, you could shoot guns, ride four-wheelers all day. It’s just dirt roads, it’s great, man.”

Almost sounds like bullet points for a chart-topping country song, doesn’t it? And he didn’t even mention one of the local culinary delicacies, grilled raccoon, which was an entirely different conversation that ate up a good portion of an open locker room last season. 

Blossoming in Bassfield

The Moore brothers were born approximately a minute apart in 1995. A.J. was born first and is named after his father, Alvin. C.J., or Calvin Jamal, arrived second. As it turns out, the race to escape the womb was just the beginning of a lifetime of competition between the two. 

As A.J. told Houston reporters this week, the two always were trying to get the best of each other, including the first time they put on football pads, around the age of 5. 

Also around that time, Jeff Posey, another Bassfield native, was entering his third season of an NFL career that would stretch from 1998-2006. And before Posey, Wilbur Myers was the first local to make it to the league, playing one season with the Denver Broncos in 1983. 

But the small town long has had a knack for producing football talent at a level that defies the community’s size. The Moore brothers are among a number of players who went on to play collegiality in recent years, including five who landed at Southern Miss, 35 miles southeast in Hattiesburg. 

Remarkably, one of those five, Cornell Armstrong, also made it to the NFL, also with the Texans. And he happens to be related to the Moores, too, a cousin on their mother’s side. 

“Man, it’s the in water, man,” C.J. said. “Everybody in the community pushes us and everybody wants to see us be great. We just all work hard and try to not let the city down and we try to represent as best we can. We put that chip on our shoulder and take off with it.”

One of the people pushing hardest was Myers, who returned to Bassfield after his brief NFL career and was a regular around the high school, frequently attending practices and running the football team’s booster club. 

“His presence was always just there and he was always pushing us to reach that next level and be those next guys to make it to the league,” C.J. said. 

At Bassfield, each Moore played on both sides of the ball. A.J. was a running back and all-state safety, while C.J. played linebacker and quarterback. They even won a state championship in 2012, before committing to play at Ole Miss. 

There, C.J. suffered a pectoral injury prior before his junior year, earning him a redshirt season. So when it came time to try their hand at the NFL, once again, A.J. arrived first.

Following his footsteps

Initially signing with the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent in 2018, A.J. didn’t survive the team’s final cuts after the preseason. Still, he made a strong enough impression to get scooped off waivers by the Texans, where he’s been ever since. 

Taking advantage of his extra year of eligibility, C.J. stayed back at Ole Miss another season. The injury proved to be a silver lining, providing him an opportunity to learn from his brother’s experiences until it was his turn to try to crack an NFL roster. 

“Going undrafted is a different animal,” C.J. said. “You’ve got to really get after it and that’s how we’ve been doing it, getting it out the mud, as we would say. Watching him definitely helped. Then what he did his rookie year in Houston, being one of the top tacklers on special teams and really dominating, I feel like that really helped me.

“When it was my turn to come out, I felt he gave me so much knowledge and I was able to learn so much from him that it was easy, but it was easier than I’m sure what he had because he gave me the knowledge to go in and attack things a certain way,” C.J. continued. “I had a step ahead, I wasn’t a normal rookie coming in because of what I had learned from him.”

Following the path his brother blazed, C.J. made a strong impression during his first offseason, particularly on special teams, earning a roster spot out of training camp with the Lions. He’d go on to appear in all 16 games as a rookie, playing 322 snaps on the units. 

This year, he had to prove himself all over again after the Lions made a change at special teams coordinator, hiring Brayden Coombs from Cincinnati. It also didn’t help that the team brought in two veteran safeties in during the offseason, narrowing Moore’s path to keeping a job. 

But even though Coombs doubted him, Moore quickly won his new coach over. 

“When you talk about a guy that does everything exactly the way we’ve asked and to be perfectly frank, is a guy I probably underestimated coming in as a new coach,” Coombs said back in August. “Probably, I was just wrong on, just going off of the tape and my perception of him coming in. Has really kind of took the bull by the horns.”

Even though the two brothers had the opportunity to share the field last season, during joint training camp practices and a preseason game, Thursday is an entirely different animal. Short of a Super Bowl, there’s almost nothing better than being able to play on the holiday, on national television, where everyone back home can tune in and enjoy the moment. 

Yet it will also be bittersweet because Mom and Dad can’t be there to watch it live. The hope was they’d be in the stands, part of the 500 family members the team had been allowing in Ford Field in recent weeks, but an updated executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer eliminated the possibility. 

“We had it all set up and ready for them to come then the state got shut down again,” C.J. Moore said. “We just felt like it would be best if they didn’t. It sucks, but we know they’ll be here in spirit, so we’re still going to go out there and put on a show for them so they can watch it from home.”

Coming together in catastrophe

But here’s the thing: The fact Mom is around to watch the game at all is the biggest blessing the Moore brothers have experienced this year. 

On Easter Sunday, an EF4 tornado ripped through Bassfield. Monica Moore was at an evening celebration, at a local establishment known as Mama D’s, when the storm hit suddenly. 

The destruction was unimaginable. She had just enough time to get down and grab hold of a table as the building’s roof was coming undone. 

“She said she could see the top of the building being ripped off and people actually being pulled out of the building,” C.J. explained. “At the end of it, she ended up outside the building. When we made it to the location where she was at, the building wasn’t even there anymore. There was no siding, nothing. We have videos, there was nothing left of the building. It was terrible.”

Monica suffered lacerations on her legs and a multiple breaks in her foot. Amstrong’s father also was there and had to be hospitalized with a broken ankle, fractured ribs and internal bleeding. 

Tragically, three people at the gathering died, including two of Moore family relatives. 

Beyond the heartbreaking loss of life, the 170-mile winds did a number of the small town, toppling buildings, tree and power lines. While the community went to work to piece their lives back together, the Moores, Armstrong and the Houston Texans stepped up to help, as much as they could. 

“Thankfully, me, A.J. and Cornell, we’re in situations where God put us in the league where we’re able to financially help our city, our town,” C.J. said. “Right after the storm, we got things together, necessities and a lot of things that our community needed. We just kinda gave it away, whether it was tissue, hand sanitizer, snacks, clothes. We had so many other people. I know A.J.’s team, Houston, did a lot of stuff to help.

“It was a pretty big process and I’m sure it’s still going on,” C.J. said. 

So yeah, this year has been rough for everyone due to the pandemic, but the residents of Bassfield and the surrounding communities that were in the path of the multiple tornadoes that touched down that weekend have had it rougher than most. 

And while the Moore brothers will realize a dream this week, one they’ve had since childhood, what they’re truly thankful for is each other and their family, which will get to experience the moment together, even though they’re apart.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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