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Originally published October 31, 2009 at 2:56 PM | Page modified October 31, 2009 at 10:12 PM

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Long road home for Meadowdale football star Naji Moore-Taylor

Chance meeting in 2005 led Naji to leave New York City and move to Washington, to start a new life with a new family.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Naji Moore-Taylor doesn't want to go home. The school day is over, but he can't bring himself to face the fury of his mother.

From his school in Queens, he walks through the rain to the subway. He knows he doesn't belong in this neighborhood, but doesn't stop. His feet hurt. The sun fades and he is hungry. He is tired and alone. He boards a train headed anywhere but home.

He is not sure where to go or who can help. Only 11 or 12, he wanders throughout the night, walking through Manhattan until dirt covers his Jordans. Then he rides the train until he falls asleep.

When Moore-Taylor looks into his past, he needs a minute to gather his thoughts. He shifts his attention to his left elbow and picks at a fresh turf burn.

For the first time in his life, the Meadowdale High School senior football star is ready to share the story of his turbulent childhood.

But he needs a minute.

The images of those early years are faded and warped like an old, brittle movie strip. Key dates of his life are a little more than good guesses. Yet once he starts to recall those early years, they roll scene by scene, reopening the emotional scars of a childhood spent in the New York City foster-care system.

One of his earliest memories is of the father he never really knew getting shot seven times in a drive-by. Moore-Taylor will never forget the thick scar that stretched down Richard Moore's chest, from collarbone to belly button after the surgery to remove five bullets.

It is an enduring image, a tangible symbol of the emotional wounds that continue to heal through relationships with friends, family, football and faith.

"A lot of messed-up things have happened to me," he says. "A lot of things I wouldn't want to happen to me, but I definitely wouldn't change them. I'm proud of myself. It took me a long time to say that."

Moore-Taylor is not sure how he ended up in his first foster home before the age of 2, but he stopped counting after the 15th. With each new family, he wondered if life with his mother, Aiesha, would be different.

"We thought she would be great to live with," says Moore-Taylor, who has two sisters, Chardae Salters and Myesha Moore.

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He found out. When he was about 10, he joined his mother in the seemingly endless stretch of crumbling concrete that makes up Co-op City in the Bronx.

He never found the love he craved.

"I love her to death, but you don't ever tell your kids that you hate them," he says as he squeezes a Gatorade bottle. "You never tell your kid that you wish you never had them. You never tell your kid that you're a mistake, you ruined their life."

He was confused, angry. One day, he refused to return. He rode the New York City subway system for two weeks. He watched a cop get assaulted, hookers work the streets and a man get mugged.

His future felt somewhere between bleak and hopeless.

"That was probably the lowest part of my life, sleeping on the trains for two weeks," says Moore-Taylor, a well-spoken 17-year-old whose voice holds a hint of the New York streets.

At the time, he had never heard of Lynnwood. He had yet to meet Kate and Dan Taylor. He had no way of knowing he would one day find a home in Washington.

Kate Taylor pulls the lasagna out of the oven and sets it on the counter. As the smell of garlic fills the room, the door to the garage opens. Dan Taylor walks in with their adopted son, Naji.

Dan is a teacher and girls basketball coach. Kate is a substitute teacher. Naji is a teenager with a messy room — he insists it was clean the day before — and a cheerleader girlfriend. They are three people who look nothing alike, yet it works.

As they get ready for dinner, Kate makes her son a protein shake. She starts a story of her own.

Kate had been on Christian missions before. But her decision in 2005 to take a three-week evangelical journey to New York that included volunteering at the Hoop Heaven Basketball Camp changed her life.

She couldn't take her eyes off the hardworking 13-year-old who was so much fun to follow.

"He was the most natural leader that any of us saw," she says.

The white woman from the suburbs of Seattle and the black boy from the hardscrabble streets of the Bronx shared stories and talked about the latest Harry Potter book.

As she sat with Naji one hot, humid afternoon, she knew this boy would become her son.

"I was so scared," she says. "I had only known him for three days. What do I say?"

She asked Naji even before talking to her husband.

"If you had the opportunity to be in a family permanently, would you live anywhere?" she asked.

"I guess so," he replied.

"Because I live in Washington. I really think you're supposed to be in my family permanently," she said. "What if my husband and I adopted you and you became our son?"

"Are you serious?" he asked.

She called Dan that night and he agreed, even though he had yet to meet Naji. He understood. This was their calling. He could hear it in his wife's voice.

Kate left in August, but came back a month later to watch him play football and work on the adoption paperwork.

In late November 2005, Naji made his first trip to Washington.

"This is it," Dan said the first day he met Naji. "This is our family."

The adoption process wasn't easy. It took about nine months before Naji could move across the country. He arrived in May 2006.

"It was the best Mother's Day ever," Kate says.

Moore-Taylor always leads. He sits in the front of his Meadowdale High School classes — with No. 1 shaved into the side of his head. He clears the way as the drum line moves through the school on homecoming. He starts the Mavericks' pregame chant.

"You kind of like being in front, Naji," remarks social-studies teacher Marcus Merrifield during class.

This is the teenager people know. This is the guy with the 10-karat smile that sparkles as brightly as the studs he wears in both ears.

"He's got more potential than Van Camp's got pork and beans," says Ken Hutcherson, a former Seahawks player who is the pastor at Antioch Bible Church and a mentor to Moore-Taylor.

Yet he has another side.

When he first joined the Taylors, he lashed out. He kicked a hole in the pantry door — since fixed — and a hole remains along the stairway. Like the turf burn on his arm and the image of his father's scar, it serves as a metaphorical marker of emotional wounds that continue to heal.

He never expected this new life to last. He pushed his family to the limit. Failure would bring an I-told-you-so moment.

"When I see those red flags, when I start to get in this mood or an action, I'm just — 'Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Don't want to go down that road,' " Moore-Taylor says.

It didn't help that Richard Moore, the father he was finally starting to connect with, was murdered during a robbery in his apartment soon after his son moved away.

"It ate me up," Moore-Taylor says. "I felt like sometimes it was my fault, even though it had nothing to do with me. That kind of reflected outwardly toward my academics. I didn't want to play sports. I didn't want to do anything. I felt cheated."

Because of the turmoil, he repeated his freshman year. The Taylors never wavered. They are strict — no TV or computer in his room — but doting. Kate is always there at night to stay up and talk or fix a snack.

As he matured, there were more lessons. At a party after the football season his sophomore year, he violated the contract athletes sign at the start of the school year. Dan and Kate told him to go forward and admit his mistake. It cost him the first three games of his junior season.

"It hasn't been a straight road," Meadowdale coach Mark Stewart says. "He's had to adjust to people being around him that are trying to look out for his best interests, even though he might not have always seen it that way."

As the Mavericks prepare for the playoffs, the 6-foot, 190-pound do-everything running back is their vocal leader and best player. While his touchdown numbers are impressive — 22 in nine games — Stewart said he thinks Moore-Taylor could play safety in college.

So far, though, he has not drawn a lot of interest from recruiters. After all Moore-Taylor has been through, it doesn't bother him.

"There's going to be that one guy that's like, 'Maybe he changed.' That's the guy I'm playing for," Moore-Taylor says.

No matter where he ends up — he plans on going to college and would one day like to coach — he thinks about where he came from and how far he has come. He already considers his life a success.

"I think about the person I could have been," he says. "It's a good feeling. I know a lot of people I've met over my life would be proud. I'm excited to see the man that I'm going to become."

As Moore-Taylor finishes his story, he tugs at a thin strip of leather that rings his right wrist. One word is etched in the band: respect.

After a life full of turmoil, that is all Naji Moore-Taylor is looking for.

Mason Kelley: 206-464-8277 or mkelley@seattletimes.com

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