Tattooed on the inside of Missouri freshman defensive tackle Josh Moore’s forearms are the words “cancer” and “survivor.”
It’s the first tattoo Moore got several years after pulling through a bout with childhood cancer.
“He has so many different tattoos now I can’t keep up, but I do know that was his first one,” Cynthia Moore said, recalling the first time she saw those words inked on her son’s arms.
Moore was 8 when he was diagnosed with cancer.
“All I remember is them telling me I had a unique type of cancer that might go towards my brain,” he said. “I started fainting at random times and had random bloody noses. We knew something was wrong with me.”
Neither he nor his mom, can remember the exact type of cancer, but he had a tumor removed from the side of his neck during a delicate 8-hour surgery.
The tumor was in proximity to nerves that, if damaged, would have led to drooping on that side of Moore’s face.
Eight weeks of daily low-dose radiation treatments at an outpatient facility in Overland Park followed.
“It was very scary at that point,” Cynthia Moore said. “When you hear the word ‘cancer,’ you don’t know what to expect, especially when it involves your child.”
Moore certainly didn’t grasp the severity of being diagnosed with cancer right away. What 8-year-old would?
“He had no concept of the danger of it,” Cynthia Moore said.
Most of the doctors at Children’s Mercy Hospital in downtown Kansas City were careful to dance around the worst prognosis, but he started to understand the gravity of cancer when one doctor let slip that it potentially was a life-or-death situation.
“That kind of woke him up a little bit,” Cynthia Moore said.
Before cancer, Moore was a fairly typical kid. He grew up near 26th and Prospect in Kansas City, Mo., and loved playing football and basketball.
That also changed with Moore’s cancer diagnosis. Doctors barred him from playing sports for more than a year after his treatment.
“They said … if a helmet hit my neck weird, I might be done,” he said.
Moore, who was declared cured after five yearly checkups showed no signs of recurrence, played with reckless abandon when he finally was cleared to resume playing. But it was more of a chance to be a kid again than a vehicle to bigger or better things in life at that time.
Moore moved to Olathe before high school and it was then-Olathe North coach Pete Flood who first recognized his special athletic gifts and planted the seed that college football was a possibility.
He emerged as a two-way star at defensive end and tight and for the Eagles.
Moorehad some heavy hitters in the college football world begging for his services.
He originally committed to Ohio State as a tight end, but the Buckeyes got nervous as he scrambled to get his grades up so he’d be eligible.
Moore then committed to Kansas, but reconsidered with the struggling Jayhawks program in flux.
Meanwhile, Missouri’s interest never wavered and Moore eventually rewarded that loyalty with a late commitment.
Now, he’s racked up seven tackles, including a half-tackle for a loss, with a quarterback hurry in 10 games as a reserve for one of the nation’s best defenses.
“It’s very impressive — very, very impressive,” Tigers defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “That kid, I’m telling you, wait until you see him in three years or four years, whatever. You’re going to like it.”
Moore, who turned 19 on Thanksgiving, is now a budding NFL prospect and a thoughtful college freshman with an interest in communications, but it’s those two words — “cancer survivor” — that have come to define him the most.
“There’s not a day that I don’t think about,” Moore said of beating cancer. “I might complain because I’m tired, but then I think about how it could be a lot worse. I could have not made it and wouldn’t be here.”
When coach Gary Pinkel dropped the bombshell that he had follicular lymphoma and would resign after the season during a Nov. 13 meeting before the Tigers boarded buses for the BYU game in Kansas City, it shook up Moore.
“The first thing I did was I put my head down, because I couldn’t believe it,” Moore said. “I know what it feels like when somebody tells you that you’ve got cancer. There’s no feeling like that ever. That’s the worst thing you can ever hear, for real. … It took me way back. I remember the days when I was really sick. I know he’s going through that too, so it’s really tough.”
Pinkel said Monday during his weekly news conference that he hadn’t spoken with Moore about it yet, but he invited him to sit down Tuesday morning in his office for a conversation.
“Josh understands what (Pinkel’s) going through,” Cynthia Moore said. “It’s a challenge. It’s a long road. Nothing’s going to be quick. It’s going to be a long road.”
Moore braced for a heart-to-heart talk like between a father and a son: “He’s the main reason why I came (to Missouri) …, but I understand (his decision) completely. You don’t want to be coaching football. That’s not what you want to think about when you have cancer.”
Unlike Pinkel, who is ready to slow things down as he ramps up for his cancer fight, Moore feels like he’s been given a new lease on life and is eager to make the most of it.
“I never thought I would be playing college football, so this is exciting,” Moore said. “I’ve got to take advantage of my opportunity here as much as I can.”
Moore was thrust into a more prominent role than he expected after junior Harold Brantley suffered season-ending injuries in a June car accident.
Moore’s playing time bumped up again last two weeks after fellow freshman Terry Beckner Jr. was sidelined with torn knee ligaments.
“I’m used to it now, but I didn’t expect it and I didn’t want to get my playing time because people got hurt,” he said. “I want to earn my playing time, but unfortunately it happened that way.”
Pinkel said his secretary is compiling all the letters, emails and phone calls he’s received from well-wishers around the country.
“I’m going to answer everybody once we’re done here,” Pinkel said. “It’s amazing how many people have been touched by cancer, and it’s amazing how supportive people are. There’s a lot of great people.”
Moore also wants to give back, specifically to children with cancer, when he has the means. It’s a promise he made to other young cancer survivors he met at Children’s Mercy.
“Nobody knows what that feels like when somebody tells you that you have cancer and you might not make it even with the treatment,” he said. “It’s just big to me, because I’m really blessed.
“Some kids aren’t as fortunate as I am, making it through that. … I kind of think it was meant to be. Maybe there’s something special about me, where God let me live and there’s a reason why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m going to keep working to make sure that I help other people too, not just me.”