The phone call from the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame came unexpectedly to Merrill Moses.
He had never heard of the organization, but that was OK; the organization knew about Moses — how he was the starting goalkeeper for the United States men’s Olympic water polo team that took silver in 2008 in Beijing, how he was voted Best Goalkeeper at those games, how he led Pepperdine University to the 1997 NCAA national championship and how he was named tournament MVP after stopping 70 shots.
Now Moses is in good company at the Hall of Fame, which has honored more than 300 athletes at all levels of sport and has a permanent exhibition at American Jewish University. This summer’s honorees included Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Mike Lieberthal, 2006 Olympic figure skating silver medalist Sasha Cohen and current UCLA starting quarterback Josh Rosen.
“People on the committee do great research,” said Mitch Fenton, Hall of Fame board member and voter. “Not everybody is Sandy Koufax, but there are jewels in the community, and we’re happy to recognize them.”
No one who follows water polo would deny that Moses, 38, has done plenty in the pool, following a career trajectory in which success at each level propelled him to the next.
“I’ve been the best goalkeeper in the United States for 15 years,” he said. “I’ve seen the shots, been in this pressure. I’ve played so many high-level games and seen so many high-level shooters.”
Moses credits much of his success to his physical build.
“I could be the slowest swimmer on the team and it wouldn’t matter. I am one of the three slowest swimmers,” he said. Moses is 6 feet 3 inches tall, but his outstretched arms measure 6 feet 8 inches from fingertip to fingertip. “I have monkey arms,” he said.
Those arms (and the rest of his body) played football as a youth. As he entered Miraleste High in Palos Verdes Estates, he realized any playing time he would have would be cut because Miraleste joined with two other high schools to form Peninsula High. Three teams suddenly became one, and he knew he wasn’t good enough to make that one team. Besides, it was too hot, so he searched for something else to do.
“I heard whistles coming from the pool,” he said, and he went to investigate. He had stumbled upon water polo practice and, liking what he saw, decided to join the program as a field player. During his sophomore year, the junior varsity team needed a goalkeeper. The coach made everyone try out, and Moses won. But he still wanted to play in the field, so he split his time.
By his junior year, now on the varsity team, his coach declared Moses would be the full-time goalkeeper. “I fought him,” Moses said, “but in my senior year, I thanked him.”
He was not recruited, however, so he decided to walk on at Pepperdine in Malibu. The Waves were (and still are) coached by Terry Schroeder, considered one of the sport’s greatest players and coaches. Schroeder won silver playing for the U.S. in 1984 and 1988 and also competed in 1992. He left Pepperdine to coach the national team in 2005 before returning to the Waves in 2012 as a volunteer assistant coach to Moses, who was interim head coach starting in 2011. They switched roles in 2013.
Moses walked up to Schroeder the first day and said, “I’m going to be your starting goalkeeper.” And he was for four years, not only winning the national title but garnering All-American honors as goalkeeper in 1997.
The NCAA championship got Moses noticed by the U.S. national team, and he was invited to join it in time for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. He didn’t make the squad, which didn’t surprise him. It was 2004 that hurt more — he was the last player cut.
Beijing was different. Moses led the team to the podium for the first time in 20 years, taking best goalkeeper honors and being named to the All-World team. Unfortunately, he lost his medal on Dec. 28, 2010, when burglars broke into his mother’s house in Manteca and stole it, along with other jewelry that included an Olympic ring and a watch the U.S. Olympic Committee gave him.
“They took an enormous amount of stuff, but I’m focusing on the watch, the ring and that medal, because it can’t be replaced,” his mother, Marlene Moses, told the Stockton Record at the time. (The medal was eventually replaced, her son said.)
Winning a silver medal earned him opportunities to play professionally in Europe, where water polo is second in popularity behind soccer. He started in lesser leagues in Spain and then Croatia, where he led Sibenik to third place and won the Yellow Cap Award for most consistent player after also getting his club into the Euro league championships for the first time, where it finished eighth. That got him noticed in Italy, home to one of the top leagues in the world.
Nervi, a club facing relegation to the second division, hired Moses midseason in 2009-10 to help turn things around, and he led the team to the playoffs and maintained its first-division status. He led Nervi to the playoffs the next year, too.
Since then, he has twice led Team USA to gold in the Pan American Games, and he was on the 2012 Olympic team that finished eighth in London.
“We peaked too early,” he said. “Our best games were in the preliminaries and then fell off. It wasn’t my best Olympics.”
Water polo takes so much of his time that there’s hardly any room to practice his faith. Moses, who is married to a non-Jew and has two young daughters, had a bar mitzvah back in the day, and he still goes to his father’s house for Passover seder. But now, he said, “It’s hard to get to temple with my schedule.”
College water polo runs from August to December, his professional pursuits run pretty much from January to August, and somewhere he has to find time to recruit for Pepperdine. The calendar is such that he doesn’t see himself being active in Jewish life until after the next Olympics.
Moses fully expects 2016 to be a better Olympiad for him. If he makes the team, he will become the second-oldest goalkeeper to ever play in the Olympics (he’ll turn 39 during the Games). Although the team won’t be selected until next year, Moses is confident he’ll get the call.
Just like he did for the Hall of Fame.