Moe Neal Jr. pulled back the sleeve covering up part of his right arm to reveal an elaborate design. His mother’s name, Tracy, ranges from just below his elbow down to his wrist, each letter stretching the width of his forearm. His grandmother’s name, Mae, written in script, fits on the inside of his wrist with a large set of clasped praying hands above it.
It’s his family arm, he said. Doves and clouds unite the two names. He’s added a guardian angel with roses and a dove on his bicep, and there’s still enough space for his little nephew’s name and his older brother. He plans to finish the arm soon.
But one person is noticeably missing. Moe Neal Sr. His father.
“I’m saving something for my dad,” Moe Neal Jr. said, smiling and rubbing his arm.
Moe Neal Jr., Little Moe, admits he’s a daddy’s boy. He still sits in his father’s lap like when he was a kid and sometimes stays in the hotel room when his dad visits Syracuse for games. They talk every day about football, school and girls — some conversations lead to secrets that they keep from the rest of the family.
Moe Neal Sr., Big Moe, didn’t miss any of Little Moe’s games in his first season at SU. He stayed with his son in Syracuse for the first week of spring practices this year, observing Little Moe’s position switch from running back to wide receiver. Little Moe is “going to play” next season, SU head coach Dino Babers said, but the coaching staff isn’t sure where.
Little Moe is driven by a desire to be just like his father yet nothing like him at all. The Big Moe of the present, who often drives 12 hours alone from his home in Gastonia, North Carolina, to SU for games, is the goal. The one of the past, who stayed out late and battled drug addictions, is what to avoid. The lessons that Big Moe learned through the good and bad parts of his life are what he’s used to shape his son.
“Blessing from God to spare his life out there in the streets,” Little Moe said, “just to straighten up and to become a better dad. And just tending me and guiding me because Lord knows where I would be without him.”
When Big Moe was young, he decided if he had a child that he’d want it to call him by his first name. He wanted to be a best friend.
His wish came true. Though Big Moe’s birth name is Shelly, and Little Moe’s is Darius, they call each other Moe because the comparison a middle school football coach drew between Shelly and the leader of “The Three Stooges.” Big Moe had a habit of losing a shoe or running into the goal post after touchdowns.
As an infant, Little Moe raced around the house in diapers and avoided the toys littered across the floor without having to look down. Big Moe watched, impressed, realizing he could groom his son into a talented athlete — when he was home. The father’s penchant for late nights and drugs drove a wedge between the family. Sometimes he’d be out until the early hours of the morning. Other times, he wouldn’t come home at all.
He missed Little Moe’s birth because he was in prison, Little Moe said. The father met his son when the baby came home from the hospital, and then Big Moe went away to either rehab or a halfway house, his stepson Preston Watts said.
By age 7 or 8, Little Moe realized what was going on. He was disappointed in his father, though he never discussed it with the rest of the family.
“Where are you going?” Little Moe asked when his dad was leaving at night.
“I’m going to see a man about a dog,” Big Moe always replied.
Little Moe didn’t know what to do except go to his room and pray. He asked for help for his father to stay straight “while he was doing bad.” He implored God to bring his dad home.
Dear Lord, please look over my father as he’s out there in the streets.
“Just making bad decisions,” Big Moe said of his life at the time. He declined to say any more than that.
With his father gone and his mother working multiple shifts every day to support the family, Little Moe was raised in part by Watts, his older half-brother. Watts cooked noodles and taught Little Moe how to play Madden by age 4. Watts was the one to ensure his little brother got to bed on time.
Still, Big Moe and Little Moe were — and are — inseparable. They played sports together, talked and cried. Little Moe found it “easy” to love his dad through the “rough times.”
“If something happens to you, we’re gonna have to put that boy in the grave with you,” Big Moe recalls his mother telling him.
Big Moe was out late one night when Little Moe was in elementary school. He was riding around on his moped when two men approached him. One smacked him in the head with a pistol and knocked him to the ground. The man stood over Big Moe, put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. It jammed.
Big Moe heard the click, got up and ran away.
When he arrived home, Big Moe was beat up “really pretty bad,” Watts said. “Very brutal.”
“He told us he was done with that lifestyle. He wasn’t trying to do that no more. He was ready to better himself.”
The family believed him, Watts said.
When Little Moe hit middle school, his father started talking to him about drugs. Big Moe hid nothing. He didn’t want his son to be “green” to the world. His No. 1 lesson: Do as I say, not as you see me do.
“You be a leader not a follower,” Big Moe told his son. “Be better than me. Take that next step. You lead.”
Jessica Sheldon | Staff Photographer
Little Moe saw a man who had almost thrown his life away. He knew he didn’t want to do the same. That was more powerful than any lecture could be.
Sometimes, though, Big Moe thought his son wasn’t listening. It took until the two went to watch a high school football game together that it all finally clicked.
As they walked up to the stadium, Big Moe stopped his son, specifically telling him not to horseplay or run around. But as they got through the gate, Little Moe pushed his friend and took off running, only to fall partly into a manhole that was covered up by grass.
He gashed his leg down to the “meat, the white part” of his leg. Big Moe took his son to the hospital to get several stitches.
“Son, I want you to understand just listen to me,” Big Moe said as his son cried. “I promise you I won’t tell you anything wrong. Just listen, I got you.”
Looking back on the moment, Little Moe believes God intervened just to show him that his father wanted to help him. To start listening to him.
Big Moe taught his son to have a firm handshake, make eye contact and eat properly at a table. He drilled him with mock interview questions as the two lifted weights in the backyard. Big Moe knew his son would have to face them some day.
Above all else: stay straight and stay within yourself. Don’t let anyone throw you off course.
When Little Moe’s friends were doing drugs at parties, he’d say no, he said. His dad often called or texted, urging him to come home. Most of the time, Big Moe advised against going at all.
At school, Big Moe constantly visited the counselor’s office, checking in on his son’s grades and the paperwork Little Moe needed for college — a dream Big Moe always had for himself but never attained. He pestered the teachers and principal enough to help Little Moe graduate high school early and enroll at SU in the spring.
“Everything I see, I tell him,” Big Moe said.
“Everything he says comes to pass,” Little Moe said.
Big Moe spends several days and weeks at a time in Syracuse on what he calls his little vacations. Players, coaches and others will often tell him how great of a father he is. What they don’t realize, Big Moe said, is how great his son has been for him.
The focus once geared toward negative influences is now fixed on his son.
Little Moe isn’t planning to add his dad’s name with the rest of the family on his arm. He wants an etching of his father’s face, likely on his chest above his own heart.
“He sees himself in me,” Little Moe said. “He lives his life through me. That’s what he always says. He don’t want to see me throw my life away like he did growing up. He just tries to guide me in the right direction.”
Published on April 20, 2017 at 11:53 pm