Elgin, S.C. – Almost 300 eighth-graders line the blue, plastic bleachers in the Stover Middle School gym on a Thursday morning in February, and the crowd is buzzing. It’s question-and-answer time.
“Did you play with Megatron?”
“Did you play with Kurt Warner?”
“What’s the hardest you’ve ever been hit?”
Langston Moore and Preston Thorne, the men fielding these questions, have held the attention of the preteens for nearly an hour now. There are a couple of reasons for that.
The first one is obvious: They are former defensive tackles at the University of South Carolina, and they look like former defensive tackles. “They’re larger than life,” said Cayce Elementary School principal Andrew Drozdak.
The other reason Moore and Thorne are so good at this? They have done this presentation hundreds of times, crisscrossing the state again and again over the last six years.
Moore and Thorne are here because they are former SEC and NFL football players. It’s the ticket that gets them in the door and gets the kids’ attention, but they are not here to talk about the game. They’re here to talk about books.
The pair just finished reading the third Gamecocks-centric children’s book they’ve authored, all of which hit on the same theme – you are not controlled by your situation or circumstances but instead by your attitude and aptitudes. They preach tentpoles of reading, writing and speaking.
“If you have these three skills, you can do anything,” Thorne says.
These events are reading pep rallies, complete with call-and-response chants and lots of audience participation. They tell the students they want them to “go pro in books.” They meet with students from different age groups and tailor their message to each. They eat lunch with the kids. They have breakout meetings with athletes.
“We’re just saying the same thing that the teachers say,” Thorne said. “But it’s a different package.”
“They are very popular,” said Elizabeth Graham, the media specialist at Woodland Heights Elementary in Spartanburg, S.C. “Everyone is like, ‘We have to get them to our school.’ It’s way more than their books. That’s what I’ve been impressed with.”
During the Q&A, most of the questions are aimed at Moore, who went on to a five-year NFL career after his playing days with the Gamecocks, but finally, Thorne gets one.
“What stopped you from going to the NFL?”
“That’s my favorite question,” Thorne says. He then asks the crowd what they think the answer is.
“You got injured.”
“You wanted a different job.”
Finally, a brave soul in the back suggests the correct answer, which Thorne repeats for the rest of the group: “I wasn’t good enough,” he says. “Most of the world doesn’t make it to the NFL. That’s OK.”
Moore and Thorne’s stories started in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, a four-county area in the lowest right-hand corner of the state that includes some of the country’s most expensive real estate and most vivid history.
Thorne grew up in Summerville, about 25 miles northwest of Charleston. In 1993, when Thorne was in sixth grade, the school district provided buses to get all the middle school kids to the game in which Summerville High head coach John McKissick broke the national high school record for wins.
McKissick, whom Throne would play under when he got to high school, would coach for another 21 years and retire with 621 victories, the most by any coach at any level of football.
“One of those real Americana deals,” Thorne said. “It was kind of an idyllic place to grow up, especially if you played sports.”
Thorne’s first love was baseball — as a husky kid, he idolized former Twins slugger Kirby Puckett, and made all-state at first base as a high school senior — but football teams were the ones most interested in his collegiate services.
“All the big boys started calling in football,” he said. “Tenth or 11th grade, people started chirping around, and it was really fascinating to me. I’m the only athlete in my family, so all of it was brand new to us.”
He chose South Carolina over Duke and Baylor and arrived in head coach Lou Holtz’s second season, a year after the Gamecocks had gone 0-11. His fondest athletic memory from his time remains watching students storm the field and tear down the goal post after the Gamecocks beat New Mexico State in the 2000 season-opener to snap a 21-game losing streak.
“It was this surreal type of feeling,” he said. “It was just really cool to be a part of that.”
Thorne’s career on the field never gained the traction that he hoped it might, especially after he tore his ACL, PCL and MCL during his junior season. But by that time, he’d already begun to wonder if the NFL was in his future after watching teammate Kalimba Edwards get drafted in the second round of the 2002 draft.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, why isn’t he the first pick ever?’ Thorne said. “He was the most impressive guy I had ever seen.”
Thorne studied in the history department under Dr. Bobby Donaldson, who has gone on to become the director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research in Columbia, S.C.; Dr. Val Littlefield, now South Carolina’s faculty athletic representative for the Southeastern Conference and a member of the league’s executive committee; and Dr. Cleveland Sellers, a civil rights activist and professor who was the only person arrested after the Orangeburg Massacre, a 1968 incident in which three 18-year-olds were killed by police during a protest on the campus of South Carolina State.
“I tell people, I guess I could have gone to one of these fancy universities, but I really got a world-class history education at South Carolina,” Thorne said. “I couldn’t have had a better experience as a student.”
With his degree complete and the NFL not calling, Thorne signed up for a year-long AmeriCorps commitment to recharge his batteries. Two months later, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and Thorne spent nine months helping with cleanup.
“That was definitely a life-changing time period,” he said. “It was amazing. It gave me a chance to see the best in people. Those areas were devastated, and you just saw people continuously working together. In the worst of those times, you saw the best of communities, which is something I carry with me.”
Thorne’s host on his official visit to South Carolina as a recruit? That would be Moore, whose first major obstacle to becoming a college, then professional football player came in the form of his mother, Stephanie Sexton, who forbade him to play.
Instead, his mom enrolled him in a tap dance class. And with youth football off the table, he took up baseball. But after trying out for the James Island baseball team as an eighth-grader, he was flagged down by football coach David Reese.
“I had completely forgotten about football being an option because that was always a no,” Moore said. “(Reese) was like, ‘Man you’re a big guy. Did you ever think about playing football?’”
Mom relented, and “from there, it was nothing else but football for the next 20 years,” Moore said.
Moore developed into one of the state’s top players and signed with South Carolina as part of Holtz’s first recruiting class in 1999, making him part of the Gamecocks’ infamous 0-11 season. All the Gamecocks took their lumps that year, including Moore, who was moved temporarily to offensive line despite being assured during his recruitment that wouldn’t happen.
“I’m starting on the offensive line, which I didn’t want to play, but here we are, life happens, and I have to start against some really good teams,” Moore said. “I always think about our quarterback Kevin Sides because Arkansas, those dudes just crushed him, and it was all our fault. We sucked. That stands out to me.”
Moore was miserable. He said he called home “every other night” to tell Sexton he didn’t want to be at Carolina, bemoaning that he didn’t take the scholarships offered by national powers Florida State or Virginia Tech.
But his mom’s insistence on dance class actually paid off (“We were working on ankle flexion and all this stuff,” Moore said. “So we always tell the kids that their parents are smarter than they think they are.”); the down year with the Gamecocks taught him perseverance; and his unwanted move to the offensive line helped him learn how to defeat their techniques when he moved back to the defensive line.
In his final season at South Carolina, Moore was named All-SEC and third-team All-American and was drafted in the sixth round by the Cincinnati Bengals. “I’m very familiar with the whole Ohio area, but on draft day it was like a blind spot,” he said. “When they called my name, I was like, ‘Dang, yeah I forgot they had a team. Yeah I’ll come, for sure.’”
After one year with the Bengals, he played two seasons in Arizona and two seasons in Detroit.
Like Thorne, he was shaped by his off-the-field experiences at South Carolina. His father, Ken, died in Moore’s second year at the school and Sexton was diagnosed with cancer the next year. The university’s community and fan base embraced him to a degree that sticks with him still.
“I have met a lot of guys who went to a program and have never gone back because it’s just real transactional for them,” Moore said. “But this is one of those things that sounds cheesy, but the Forever to Thee stuff really is true in my life.”
He and Thorne are fixtures in Columbia. Moore now lives in Dallas, but he and his wife, Martina, plan to move back as soon as their daughter finishes high school (Moore flies in from Texas for several-day stretches to complete his speaking events). When he’s at home in Dallas, he calls in to spend an hour a week chatting with the guys at 107.5-FM, South Carolina’s flagship radio station. Thorne sits in the studio for an hour with one of the station’s morning shows.
“They’ve become community icons,” said Jay Philips, co-host of “The Halftime Show” on 107.5. “People gravitate toward what they are doing. I think there’s a real feeling of guys that are doing something instead of saying something when it comes to giving back.”
— Kimberly S McSwain (@mcswain_k) May 19, 2022
Moore and Thorne will soon hit school visit No. 275. They don’t usually keep detailed mileage records but when they kept track in the spring semester of 2019, the odometer reading topped 11,000 miles.
And in a state where only 15 percent of Black fourth-graders ranked at the proficient reading level or above in the most recent national report card released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, two Black men standing up in the middle of this gym and emphasizing the importance of education makes a difference.
“They are willing to do whatever,” said Graham. “It’s not just about athletics. That’s what draws the kids in, but … (Moore and Thorne) tell them you need to go pro in books and read, write and speak well. They really emphasize if you want to have money or do well in life, you need to do those things.
“I think it’s really great because the kids see these big football players who dress cool and they really like that, but then they have a lot more to their message.”
Students can — and will — dream about athletic careers like Moore and Thorne’s, but during their presentations, the pair tries to bring a dose of reality by using their own stories. “I was the No. 1 overall pick,” Moore told the students at Stover before bursting their bubble. “… of the sixth round. My mama went to work the next day.”
They talk about their books — “Just A Chicken,” “Just A Chicken Little” and “USTA Wuz A Rooster,” all of which are illustrated by local artist Kev Roche, whose work also has been prominently featured on ESPN’s Major League Baseball coverage.
Daniel Allen Jr. was a fifth-grader at Cayce Elementary when Moore and Thorne visited in 2020. He already loved writing — so much so that he had already written a book about dinosaurs. But he learned from Moore and Thorne that his creation didn’t have to be his alone.
“They wanted to help me get it published,” Allen said.
Now, there are copies of “Daniel Versus the Dinosaurs,” with Daniel’s story and illustrations by other Cayce students, in the school’s library.
“That book is in all of our classrooms and our media center, bar-coded like any other book you would see in the library,” said Drozdak, Cayce’s principal. “It’s part of his legacy and something our kids can see.”
“We want to tell kids, there is nothing wrong with being well-read, well-spoken, well-written,” Moore said. “A lot of times, those are going to be your superpowers where you can go out and make a whole bunch of money — or at least go out there and give yourself an opportunity.”
Both players came from homes where reading was emphasized, but they know that’s not the case for many of the faces they see in the crowds at these schools.
“My mother, I guess I don’t remember a lot she told me, but she told me, ‘You’re not going to be a dumb jock,’ and that’s something that has always stuck with me and something I have always carried around with me,” Thorne said. “That was the expectation.”
As a child, Moore watched his father write and rewrite stories and commercials for his job in radio and watched his mom come home from teaching and relax with a book.
“I’d be like, ‘This lady is crazy,” he said. “The last thing I want to do when I come home is read.’”
Now he’s writing books along with Thorne. But even after the idea for the books had crystallized, the logistics were challenging, especially considering all the trademark issues involved with publishing books that made clear references to SEC teams.
“A certain SEC mascot held us up for three months,” Thorne said.
In the first draft of the first book, “Al the Elephant” wore a houndstooth hat like former Crimson Tide head coach Bear Bryant. “Alabama was like, ‘No,’” Thorne said, so Al now wears a more generic crimson hat.
The books have spawned several enterprises housed under their umbrella company, Athletes & Artists. It includes a seven-part narrative podcast called “The Fight,” which chronicles the 2004 brawl during the South Carolina-Clemson football game. (The author of this story served as a writer and narrator for the podcast.)
Last year, Thorne and Moore signed Gamecocks wide receiver and quarterback Dakereon Joyner to a name, image and likeness sponsorship deal. So before Joyner gained college football fame as the tearful MVP of the 2020 Duke’s Mayo Bowl, he was joining Moore and Thorne on school visits.
“I think it’s very important, just having somebody who has been in (the kids’) shoes coming back and shedding some light,” Joyner said. “Reading, writing and speaking are very important, and I wish I had kind of focused on those things as a younger kid. The older I get, I live and I learn.”
All of these endeavors took “skills” that Moore and Thorne had to hone, they tell the kids. Football, on the other hand, is a “talent.” Some people have talent, they say, but everybody can have skills, and they can and should be developed.
At South Carolina’s spring game, a high school student recognized Moore and Thorne from their visit to his elementary school and loved their books.
“The kids were more interested in that than football,” Moore said. “It was cool to see that from the beginning that we didn’t have to pull out football gimmicks.”
We want you to go pro like we did…
Go Pro in #reading #writing and #speaking and you’ll be in the NBA for life! #neverbrokeagain#skillspay
Never #justa day at school #readingworkout pic.twitter.com/aY0AU0sEtY
— Athletes & Artists (@AthleteArtist_) March 24, 2022
Thorne was a high school teacher for 11 years, but it didn’t occur to him or Moore to start making school visits until they were selling their books at South Carolina football games. They quickly noticed the impact their visits were making.
“I saw the teachers nodding their heads, and they were effusive with their praise and were like, ‘That was actually in our lesson plan,’” Thorne said. “With little kids, if you’re big enough and make enough funny faces, they’ll usually be OK.
“But to me it was the approval of the teachers, getting them to recognize that this was going to be a real educational experience, and we weren’t just some old guys who were going to be just talking about ‘Back in our day playing football.’”
(Marius Anderson / The Athletic)