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Bruins safety Rahim Moore has reason to smile

UCLA sophomore safety Rahim Moore was smiling. He’s always smiling.

This, however, wasn’t the “I got you” look -- the one that follows a moment that thrusts the spotlight on him, such as when he chased down a fumble against Tennessee in his first college game last season.

This was the “I know what it takes” smile.

“During the summer, experts would talk about all these other defensive backs and I never saw a list with my name on it,” said Moore, who leads the nation with nine interceptions. “I thought, ‘Wow, I really have to work hard.’ Nothing is given to you.”

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Moore is talking. He’s always talking . . . and smiling.

This, however, isn’t his usual stream of consciousness, which was on display Saturday when he mugged for the camera in a UCLA promotional video during the team’s visit to Magic Mountain.

This is the “I know what it took” conversation.

“I used to tell my mom: ‘I don’t want to go to school. I want to go to football,’ ” Moore said. “I love the game so much. I would stay after practice playing catch or tackling guys. It’s all I wanted to do. Well, I went to school.”

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The straight -- and narrow -- line Moore has followed between then and now has been rough at times. But it has been direct, like the path he has taken to the football so many times this season.

Another Christmas has come and it’s better than some. Moore will celebrate with his mother, Nowana Buchanan, and family today. On Friday he gets on a plane for the nation’s capital, where the Bruins will play Temple in the EagleBank Bowl on Tuesday.

It’s another step in the journey.

“I am so proud of his accomplishments,” said Buchanan, a single mother with three children. “Every kid should follow the path of their dream. Every kid should desire to be positive in life and have a goal. I’ve seen him grow and seen him go after his dream. And he didn’t get into any trouble. That is the most rewarding thing.”

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There is little doubt that Moore, a 19-year-old with deep religious beliefs, is the light bulb around which many of his teammates hover, providing a nonstop monologue to anyone within range.

“We’d be shopping when he was a little kid and he’d start talking to people, adults, like they were friends, and I’d say, ‘How do you know those people?’ ” Buchanan said.

Moore’s presence is felt, whether he is chattering about his fear of roller coasters at an amusement park or trying to inject some passion into the defense.

“He has that same raspy voice ever since I’ve known him,” said UCLA cornerback Aaron Hester, who met Moore when they were opponents in youth football. “When he talks, guys listen. Of course, he talks so fast, sometimes they turn to me and ask, ‘What did he just say?’ I’ve known him so long, I can translate.”

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The talk isn’t cheap. Moore’s play gives his words strength.

Honors have rolled in, among them a second-team All-American selection by the Walter Camp Foundation. Moore was headed in that direction since he intercepted three passes against San Diego State in the season opener and two more the week after in an upset over Tennessee.

True, a few were woefully thrown passes, but now when a ball is thrown over a receiver’s head in practice, players call it a “Rahim.” Still, there is skill in making the simple play.

“He’s like a great defensive center fielder,” UCLA safeties coach Tim Hundley said. “He sees the ball and tracks it really well, and he catches the ball. You only get so many chances.”

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Moore has seized his, on and off the field.

This Christmas is better than some.

“We’ll open gifts, laugh, be with family, it’s a joyous time,” Buchanan said.

It wasn’t always so. Growing up in South L.A. was a struggle. Yet, there were Christmases where Buchanan took her children to help feed the homeless at shelters.

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Buchanan has worked for different banks since she was 19, which has evolved into a better financial situation. Moore’s father is loosely in the picture, but, “he didn’t put food on the table or give Mom money,” Moore said.

The poverty hit home when Moore was 12.

“Mom was struggling for rent money,” Moore said. “I didn’t know that at the time. We went to eat tacos and Mom didn’t have any. I found out she hadn’t eaten in three days. I had never even thought about when my Mom ate. But she was making sure we were fed first.”

Jermaine Webster, Moore’s uncle, helped out, particularly around Christmas. “He made sure we got the gear,” Moore said. It was a hand-to-mouth existence.

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Buchanan received support from her family to make sure her children were attended to while she was at work. But she was definitely in charge.

“I had a rule, if I’m getting up to go to work, we’re all getting up,” said Buchanan, who has a son who is 27 and a daughter who is 15. “No one was going to sit at home watching TV. We’re all going to go about our day.

“You worry about your children and you want to guide them in the right direction.”

That, though, was not always enough. Rasheed Kees, Moore’s older brother, was a talented football player at Los Angeles Dorsey High, attracting interest from colleges. “My mom still has the letters from schools,” Moore said. But Kees drifted after high school and is in jail.

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“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” is all Moore will say. “I think he lost his focus.”

Not so with Moore.

“I had a lot of aggression as a little kid,” he said. “I was a roughneck, with the scars to prove it. My mom was like, ‘I’m going to get you in football.’ ”

Said Buchanan: “I put him in sports to occupy his time and direct all that energy.”

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Said Moore: “Energy? Man, one time when I was a kid, I hit my brother with an ashtray and busted his head. ‘Energy,’ that’s good.”

Football helped. At 4, Moore was a water boy for Kees’ team and he was hooked. But it was not as simple as putting him on the field.

Moore’s outgoing personality pushed the envelope, which at times caused trouble in class.

“There was one open house night, where I told my mom that these two teachers were out sick,” Moore said. “Those were the two who were looking to talk to her.”

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It got straightened out.

“Like President Obama has said, spare the rod, spoil the child,” Moore said, with that ever-present grin. “My mom would whup me.” But, he said she would also “preach respect for elders, doing well in school and love the Lord. She made sure I always watched my Ps and Qs. My mom made sure that I made the right choices and was hanging around the right crew.”

Now the payback is sweet.

Said Buchanan: “If I’m talking with some young man, Rahim will come right over and get in his face, ‘Hi, I’m Rahim, this is my mom.’ He’s very protective.”

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It’s something he learned at home.

“I could have easily been out on the streets, like guys I knew and some of my family,” Moore said. “My mom stayed on me. She was father and mother. She wanted me to be a great man.”

chris.foster@latimes.com


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