Ronald “Runt” Moon stands outside the Grace Church in Atlanta, where he recently started volunteering after President Obama granted him clemency from a federal drug conviction. Steve Schaefer / For the AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer

One more run for Runt Moon, football star, crack addict

By the time Moon walked off the field the last time for the Commerce Tigers in 1973, he’d broken just about every high school rushing record in Georgia history. In his junior and senior years, he rushed for more than 100 yards in 27 consecutive games, including seven in which he topped 200 yards. He was the titan of Tigertown, a charismatic, magnetic young man with all the confidence in the world.

“He may have been the best I ever saw,” said Ray Lamb, Moon’s former coach. “Runt was a team player all the way. There was never any big-headedness about him. He always had a smile and there wasn’t a mean bone in his body.”

But few knew Moon had been drinking and smoking dope since he was 12. Few could have believed he’d eventually become a crack addict. And no one could begin to fathom just how far he would fall – that a judge would one day send Moon to prison for life.

“My release date said: ‘When deceased,’” Moon said in a recent interview. “Can you imagine living 12 years of your life like that?”

This month, however, he was released from a federal prison in South Carolina to a halfway house in Atlanta, still very much alive. In August, he was granted mercy by the one remaining person in the country who could do it.

In past decades, tens of thousands of Americans have been sent to prison for lengthy terms for nonviolent drug offenses. Moon’s punishment was not only draconian, it was also mandatory: life in federal prison, no chance of parole.

*****

Fans began showing up hours before game time on Friday nights in Tigertown. They filled the bleachers and lined the chain-link fence that circled the cozy little stadium. Most came to see Runt Moon.

He became so popular that when the team ran down the hill behind the end zone onto the field for pregame warmups, fans grabbed at his tear-away jersey to get shreds of it. Finally, Commerce coaches had Moon wear his regular No. 47 jerseys during warm-ups to save his tear-aways for game time.

Moon got the nickname “Runt” because of his slight frame. During his senior year, he stood 5-8 and weighed 155 pounds. But his size was never a factor.

In one game against the Rabun County, Moon carried the ball just eight times for a jaw-dropping 252 yards (that’s 31.5 yards a carry). Weeks later, against East Hall, Moon ran for another 287 yards.

He finished his senior year with 2,501 yards and 33 TDs. His career totals: 5,683 yards and 78 TDs with a rushing average of 9.3 yards per carry. He held those state rushing records until they were broken by Herschel Walker.

*****

Moon wanted to play football up the road in Athens, but when UGA declined to offer him a scholarship, he settled on Memphis State. As a freshman, Moon quickly made his way up the depth charts with a number of 100-yard games. But he was suspended from the team after he and a roommate were found with a prostitute in their dorm room.

With Moon, there were always women. Lots of them. He now has seven children by six women.

With Coach Lamb’s help, Moon transferred from Memphis State to the University of Louisville. But he was never a star at his new school and, while he dreamed of playing in the NFL, he went undrafted. Then, after a night of partying, a drunken Moon fell and broke his wrist.

That was it. He returned to Commerce and wallowed in self-pity.

“I drowned myself doing drugs and selling them,” Moon said. “I became an addict.”

Moon also became acquainted with the criminal justice system. In 1984, he got busted for selling two ounces of marijuana. Three years later, he got caught dealing a $30 bag of cocaine. Two years after that, he was found in possession of a crack pipe.

The convictions — and time spent behind bars — piled up. In 1997, Moon was convicted once again, this time for selling a $20 rock of cocaine in Jackson County and for forgery in Hall County. For that, he served almost 2½ years in state prison.

*****

What separated Moon from other running backs was his initial burst through the line.

“I never saw him get run down,” said Abe Brown, the quarterback of the 1973 Tigers team. “No one could catch him.”

Just before the coin toss at a game in Watkinsville, Brown recalled, the Oconee Warriors’ mascot rode up on a horse with great fanfare.

“What do you do with that ‘hoss’?” Moon, then a Commerce captain, asked.

“I ride him up and down the field every time Oconee scores a touchdown,” the rider replied.

“Good thing you don’t have to ride him every time I score a touchdown, because you’d run him to death,” Moon said with a grin. Abe Brown remembers that even the refs chuckled.

Commerce won the coin toss and took possession at its own 20-yard-line. Coach Lamb then called the play that made Runt famous: 24 Trap, a blocking scheme designed to open a hole at the line of scrimmage.

Moon took the handoff, burst through the hole and sprinted 80 yards for a touchdown. But there was a flag for illegal motion; the TD was taken away, the ball moved back to Commerce’s 15-yard line.

When Brown got the next play, he couldn’t believe it: 24 Trap again. “How could this be?” Brown thought at the time. “Runt’s got to be winded.”

Moon took the handoff and this time scampered 85 yards for a touchdown that counted. (Commerce still uses the same trap play. But it’s now called “Runt 4.”)

*****

On Thanksgiving Day 2014, Artis Lamar Johnson, just six months out of prison, was pulled over in Winder for not wearing a seat belt.

The officer gave Johnson a ticket and was about to drive away when a dispatcher reported that Johnson was wanted for a probation violation. The officer searched Johnson’s car and found 65 grams of powder cocaine and 25 grams of crack.

With his prior convictions, including one for drug trafficking, Johnson now faced a life sentence. But a sergeant with the Barrow County Sheriff’s Office offered him a deal, according to court testimony: help me make some drug busts and I’ll make your charges go away.

The officer said he wanted Johnson to set up a specific drug dealer. Although Johnson said he didn’t know the dealer, he knew someone who did: Ronald Moon.

Johnson said he’d known Moon for years. And he recalled hearing Moon say he’d grown up with the drug dealer the sergeant had in his cross hairs, Johnson said.

So the plan was set: use Moon to get to the other guy.

*****

Football may not have been Moon’s favorite sport. He won state wrestling titles his junior and senior years and was undefeated on the mat.

“I did like football, but wrestling made me quick,” Moon said.

On the football field, Moon played both offense and defense and occasionally punted; he took a pounding working both sides of the ball and rushing 30 or more times a game.

“He’d sometimes return to the huddle in real pain and say, ‘Stand up straight so they can’t see me. Let me catch my breath,’” said Don Watkins, a former teammate. “Then there he’d go, off on another 40- or 50-yard run.”

During one preseason practice camp, coaches began pounding on the players’ doors every morning at 5:30 a.m.

Most players groaned and complained, but Moon would turn on his stereo and play The Rascals’ “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” Watkins recalled. He grimaced at the thought of both the wakeup calls and the song, day after day.

*****

When Artis Johnson showed up in Commerce in December 2004, Moon was doing well for the first time in years. After his latest release from prison, he’d gone into treatment and stopped using dope. He was married and had his own painting business.

Johnson would later testify that Moon told him just that — he was finally clean, had been for three years.

But Johnson saw an opening and began working on Moon. Did Moon want some crack? Would he help Johnson find a dealer?

“I told him I was trying to live an honest life, drug-free,” Moon said. “But he still would always call me, trying to get me to do it.”

Johnson soon got involved in remodeling a club in Athens and hired Moon to paint it. Then he invited Moon over to his house, where he was cooking up some crack cocaine.

It was as if Moon had never stopped using. He would disappear for days, his then-wife LaTonya said. The money in their accounts vanished.

In early February 2005, Moon reached out to Johnson and set up a deal for four ounces of crack and five ounces of powder cocaine. Days later, Moon met Johnson and another man in a Walmart parking lot in Winder. The other man was Dave Joseph, an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration. He handed Moon $6,500 for the drugs.

About two months later, Moon reached out directly to Joseph and offered to set up a methamphetamine deal. The two met at a Bi-Lo parking lot in Commerce and drove to a house where Joseph paid $4,000 for the meth. Not long after, Moon would be indicted for the three drug deals: the coke, the crack and the meth.

*****

In Moon’s junior year, his undefeated team lost its chance at the state championship after Carrollton thumped Commerce, 42-6, in the North Georgia title game. A year later Commerce was undefeated and ranked No. 1 when, once again, it met Carrollton.

This time, Moon rushed for 206 yards and three touchdowns. Final score: Commerce 35, Carrollton 25.

Moon played his final game in Tigertown the following Friday night for the state championship. Commerce faced Mount de Sales Academy. The Catholic school from Macon had a highly regarded defense, led by linebacker and future UGA star Ben Zambiasi. It also had a surprise for Commerce: a six-man line on defense with Zambiasi roving alone at middle linebacker.

Zambiasi would make an extraordinary 24 tackles, leading de Sales to a 21-8 victory.

Moon rushed 25 times for 125 yards, a relatively modest showing for him.

“I don’t know what went wrong, but something sure did,” he said after the game. “I wish it wasn’t over.”

Coach Lamb remembers seeing something extraordinary after the game: Mount de Sales players lined up in front of Moon so they could tear off pieces of his jersey.

*****

Federal prosecutors had notified Moon that, because of his three prior convictions, he faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted this time.

It was 24 Trap all over again: Moon’s team had to open a hole in the prosecution’s case. He settled on an entrapment defense, hoping the jury would see that he would never have re-entered the drug trade had the government not lured him in.

“Mr. Moon had been clean for almost three to four years,” his federal public defender, Judy Fleming, told the jury. “Clean. Drug free. Sober. … Then along comes the government, which goes to great lengths to involve him in drug sales for the sole purpose of getting these drug dealers.”

Moon took the stand in his defense, spoke of his football glory days and of his struggles with addiction.

“It’s miserable,” he said. “It’s always a craving for it like you got to have it, you know … eating at you all the time.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Allen Moye, a seasoned prosecutor, derided Moon’s entrapment defense and reminded jurors that, at the time of the trial, the high school football playoffs were underway.

“Mr. Moon is a sympathetic, if not pathetic, picture,” Moye said. “He is a wasted life. … We can all feel pity.”

But the law, he said, left no room for sympathy.

The jury was back in less than two hours: guilty on all three counts. Moon received his life sentence.

Johnson, the snitch who helped get Moon convicted, was never prosecuted for the drugs found in his car that Thanksgiving Day. He is now deceased.

*****

For almost a decade, Moon says he lived amid horrifying violence at high-security prisons in Kentucky and Louisana. About three years ago, he was transferred a medium-security prison in Salters, S.C., where he no longer had to constantly look over his shoulder.

He began attending Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous classes. “I finally learned about my addiction,” he said.

In 2014, the Justice Department announced its clemency initiative for federal inmates serving lengthy terms for nonviolent drug offenses. The U.S. government had finally joined in criminal justice reforms led by the states, including Georgia. They’d determined costly prison beds would be used for violent criminals, not for drug addicts.

Stephanie Kearns, who heads the federal public defender office in Atlanta, said it’s been heartbreaking to see so many nonviolent offenders spend so many years in prison.

“But I’m lucky to have been practicing long enough to finally see the tide turn in a different direction, to see a bipartisan realization that what happened was wrong, that we’ve made a horrible mistake here,” Kearns said.

The Justice Department said it would prioritize applications from inmates serving a sentence of at least 10 years, had shown good behavior in prison, had no history of violence and were not tied to large-scale gangs or cartels.

From his cell, Moon filed his own petition. A friend helped out by getting more than 1,000 signatures on a petition supporting the bid. Lamb, now retired after coaching 35 years, also made calls on his former star player’s behalf.

*****

On Aug. 3, Moon was on his way with other inmates to take a random drug test. But a guard stepped in and told Moon he had to go to the lieutenant’s office. The impossible had happened.

Moon’s clemency petition had made it all the way to the White House. That day, President Barack Obama was granting commutations to 214 federal inmates, including Ronald “Runt” Moon.

The warden told Moon his sentence was no longer life in prison. He was to be released from federal custody on Dec. 1.

“I started crying and thanking Jesus,” Moon said.

Moon said he couldn’t notify any member of his family until hours later, after the White House made it official. His first call was to his brother Willie, who has supported him since his first day in prison.

“I’m coming home!” Moon bellowed.

“Don’t play with me,” his brother said.

“Obama is going to let me out!” Moon exclaimed.

Prosecutor Moye, now retired, said in a recent interview he was pleased to hear the news. Moye said he would have supported Moon’s clemency application had he still been in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“Runt was in no way the target,” Moye said. “There was a bigger fish we were trying to get. … Everyone who worked on the case, including the agents, was of the opinion that giving him a life sentence was simply draconian.”

Moye then asked to relay a message to the man he’d put in prison for life: “Tell him I wish him good luck.”

The news spread fast through Commerce.

Brown, the former quarterback, now works for the nearby Marysville Baptist Church and still attends Tigers home games.

“Our role is to get in behind him and give him whatever support he needs,” Brown said. “Does he realize this has to be his last chance? You can’t change the past, but you can change the future, and that’s what Runt needs to do.”

Moon said, once out, he wants to speak to young people about addiction and bad choices.

Does he think he can make it this time?

“I know God is real and prison is real and I had a hard time in prison,” he said. “I’m going to cherish every day I have when I get out. I know the struggle is going to be hard. Believe me, I know how hard it is. But I got this.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X