Moe Gardner is probably the least fun person you could ever meet. This is evidenced by the solemnity with which his otherwise easily amused infant daughter regards his nightly Arsenio Hall impersonations. Gardner can't really do fun. He does intelligent, sensitive, earnest. He has agendas, expenses, responsibilities. His behavior is correct, his intentions are sincere. "His language," says Illinois defensive coordinator Lou Tepper, "is exemplary."
Gardner, the Illini noseguard, is a leading candidate for the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award, both of which honor the nation's best lineman. However, he is far less interested in these plaudits than he is in his wife and daughter, the plight of Chief Illiniwek and the legacy of Paul Robeson. Enormous responsibility is probably Gardner's most familiar pose, unless it is overburdened weariness, a distinctive slump as he crosses his ankles and bends at the waist, sucking in air. "Moe? Moe's tired," says tackle Mel Agee. In any photograph of the Illinois defense, Gardner is unmistakable in his bent-over partial absence, a helmet poking into the bottom of the frame.
His teammates think of Gardner as being with them but not of them. He is a friendly if somewhat distant acquaintance, puzzling in his refusal to carouse, often too busy for them. "Moe's ahead of us," says linebacker Darrick Brownlow.
Gardner disdains the training table to drive home each night and eat with his family—his wife, Mickie, and four-month-old Morgan. He is a fifth-year senior about to graduate with a degree in sociology, and he intends to go into some line of work that his teammates are not quite sure of. "Something with a political aspect, I think," Brownlow says.
Actually, it's labor relations. His coaches discuss Gardner much as a grade school teacher does a most excellent pupil, not in terms of personality or talent but of comportment. "Moe's very tidy," says Illinois coach John Mackovic.
He is also very economical, because he has to be. "We're broke," says Gardner. He is very organized, pulling a 12-hour course load toward the degree he intends to receive next month and making rent on the small off-campus apartment with his scholarship stipend and the $1,000 per semester he and Mickie get from their Pell grants. They pay the baby bills with the wages he earned last summer on a road-paving crew. "We bought six months of baby food," says Gardner.
He is very tired from the constant act of balancing his football and class schedule with that of Mickie, a senior majoring in medical sociology who will graduate this summer. They will take turns going to graduate school, if they can decide who gets to go first and if he doesn't play for an NFL team, which is still a question. At 6'2" and 242 pounds, Moe may be a touch too light and a fraction too slow to become a successful defensive lineman in the pros. He may simply be a superb college football player.
So in the little university town of Champaign, Mickie and Moe scratch it out in their three-room apartment a mile from the stadium, where on autumn Saturdays he is a football hero, while during the rest of the week he could care less about football. The apartment is filled with baby things, leftover food cartons, and a parakeet named Paris. They represent the life-style, immediate family and narrow circle of Gardner's close friends.
"The people close to me hear my dreams," he says. "It's corny to say it, but Mickie is my best friend. I'd like to have a house in the country, and that's corny, too. What we'd like is our own separate rooms, that we could do whatever we want with. I guess in college you always want something big."
Gardner does nothing on a large or loud scale—not dream, not talk. He is so quiet that three years passed before anyone at Illinois knew he spelled his first name with an e on the end. He never complained when it came out "Mo" in the game programs. "Finally, somebody asked me," he says.