Past the pain

Arsenic. Lye. Pipe cleaner.

Combined, these three poisons changed the trajectory of Art Moore’s life, but in a way no one would have expected.

After graduating from the University of Tulsa in 1972, the 6-foot-6-inch, 260-pound defensive tackle was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. Moore went on to play the bulk of his career with the New England Patriots in the mid-1970s.

Off the field, Moore lived the high life, drinking heavily and using drugs. It was going into his sixth season in the league when, according to Moore, a jealous former teammate who had been cut mixed a toxic cocktail and served it to him. The drink savaged Moore’s entire digestive tract. Unable to eat or even hold down an aspirin, he took medical leave from the NFL and was laid up in the hospital for many weeks.

It was there he became a Christian and he vowed to quit depending on alcohol and drugs. Within a few months Moore met his wife, Gail, a professional singer, and together they formed the Yes I Can ministry in 1979.

“I had to peel the skin off tomatoes because he couldn’t digest it or eat regular food,” Gail Moore recalls. “When we first met he thought he was going to die, but I told him God was going to use him to reach thousands with the gospel.”

Moore was so sick at the time he chose not to press charges. Moore knows who poisoned him, but prefers not to tell. He says he hopes one day to speak again with the man responsible so he can tell him that what was meant to hurt him actually worked out for his good.

‘I don’t think anything wrong with fighting,” one teenage girl blurts out, her feet curling beneath her chair as she faces a small circle of her peers. Openly defiant and unprovoked, her confession breaks the group’s positive momentum in two. “We fight for fun sometimes. If I want to fight, I’m going to fight!”

All but one of the girls in this group of 15 high school students were sent to Valley Park Alternative School after being expelled from area public schools for various physical altercations. One brought a knife from home and cut a rival who had amassed a gang of friends to intimidate her. One smacked a teacher with a hole-punch.

When many Baton Rougeans hear the name Valley Park, they think only of gangs and drugs. But the truth is that among the school’s 240 kids there are a lot of A-students, too. In December Valley Park was the only school in the South to send two students to the Iowa Caucuses, where they got an inside look at the campaign process and some face-time with the candidates.

This is a group of teens whose lives are filled with tough circumstances and even tougher decisions. Most simply lack the adult guidance to navigate them.

But facilitating their discussion today are Art Moore and his wife, Gail. He’s a former NFL star, she’s a professional singer whose youth counseling ministry, Yes I Can, has worked with Valley Park students for more than five years.

Principal Pamela Mackie has been at the school for three of those years, and says she can’t imagine Valley Park without the work the Moores are doing.

“Every child needs counseling,” she says. “And the idea is that those who go through Yes I Can will be models for the other students and be listeners for some of their peers.”

That’s what the Moores are doing this morning, meeting a new group of students, getting them to share their feelings with caring adults for the first time. And they listen.

A lot of it is helping these kids find a positive way to vent their daily frustrations.

Why does security wave a metal detector over me every day? My mother is addicted to drugs, so am I responsible for her? One 14-year-old confesses to be at Valley Park because she got drunk on Crown Royal before cursing out her teacher.

“I used to just have to have a beer every day to get going,” Art Moore tells her, his giant 6-foot-6-inch frame and deep, but gentle, voice in stark contrast. “So why are you drinking?” he asks. She looks to the floor, but opens up. “It soothes my mind,” she says meekly.

Art and Gail Moore work hard to build students’ self-esteem and offer an alternate picture of what life can be like for them. Last fall their panel discussion included several convicted felons showing the students a grim portrait of where poor choices can lead them. Today, introducing the word “placate” triggers a discussion among the students about situations in which they gave in to negative peer pressure. One admits he began selling marijuana because his older brother was making money from it and asked for his help.

The lunch bell rings and the meeting ends with a lot of smiles. Eventually, the Moores will meet with this group three times a week, but today was a good start.

Brandon Jones, a 17-year-old kicked out of Glen Oaks, tells the Moores how much he appreciates their time. He is trying to get his grades up at Valley Park—and quit smoking. He plans to join the National Guard after graduation to help support his mother, sister and girlfriend.

“This is my third year with [Yes I Can],” he says. “Art’s been through some of the same things I’ve been through. They bring something positive, and they keep me focused.”