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Catching Up Rookie receiver Randy Moss is haunted by past mistakes, but the Vikings seemingly didn't err by drafting him after 19 other teams had shied away

Sept. 07, 1998
Sept. 07, 1998

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Sept. 7, 1998

Catching Up Rookie receiver Randy Moss is haunted by past mistakes, but the Vikings seemingly didn't err by drafting him after 19 other teams had shied away

It must be their Nordic reserve or just Midwestern manners, but
the Minnesota Vikings are too polite to smirk. They feel like
smirking. They know they have a right to smirk. If Minnesota were
any other team, it would have redesigned its logo to show a
sniggering Scandinavian. "It's a little early for that," says one
club official, all but covering his mouth with his hand. Maybe if
the Vikings had played a regular-season game, he admits, he'd let
you see him smile. But in the meantime, no smirks. Team policy.

This is an article from the Sept. 7, 1998 issue Original Layout

Behind their placid mugs, though, lies an almost unseemly
smugness. The Vikings know in their hearts, if they can't quite
reveal it on their faces, that they secured the organization's
future with a dirt-cheap 21st draft pick. Is it true that 19
teams--the Cincinnati Bengals had the 13th and 17th choices--lacked
the nerve or the good sense to pull the trigger on Randy Moss,
whose speed, range and hands make him the wide receiver for the
next millennium?

The Vikings still hardly believe their luck. Throughout the
preseason Moss has dazzled with his ability to go long, emerge
from downfield confusion and, uncoiling his 6'4" frame, pluck a
football from the atmosphere. He did it in Minnesota's preseason
win over the Carolina Panthers on Aug. 22, running 51 yards
downfield, coming back for the typical too-short pass--"We tend to
underthrow him," says Brad Johnson, who, like the other Vikings
quarterbacks, has struggled to recalibrate his arm to Moss's
otherworldly speed--and then outjumping a defensive back who had
position for an interception.

The catch, the kind of reception that reduces football to a
one-on-one sport, got a lot of replay on sports shows and fanned
the flames of hope in Minnesota, where even the coaches have had
to rethink their cliches to account for Moss's instincts around
the football. Receivers coach Hubbard Alexander, who had
sputtered "once in a lifetime" about Moss the week before, was
blase by the end of the game against Carolina. "I guess that's
going to be a typical play," he said of Moss's big catch, "just
the nature of the business these days."

Even a Pro Bowl wide receiver such as Cris Carter is impressed by
Moss's potential for stardom. "My brother [Butch] played pro
basketball," says Carter, "so I was around when guys like Magic
and Bird were coming in. Do you understand that this kid could be
Michael Jordan? That we're on the ground floor of something
huge?"

This is all pretty strong stuff for a rookie whose big games up
to now have been against the likes of Ball State and Bowling
Green. It's especially strong for a kid for whom most of the
league apparently had no use. Anybody remember draft day, when
NFL general managers and coaches were doing their best impression
of Roberto Duran? No Moss! No Moss! Moss, who had once been
projected as high as three on the draft board, slid out of the
big money, slid so far that a wide receiver from Utah named Kevin
Dyson went ahead of him.

Everybody has high hopes at this time of year, and it's not
unusual for a franchise to trumpet its new talent, to whom, after
all, it has probably paid a seven-figure bonus to sign. This Moss
momentum is something else, however. Even Moss, who has decided
to adopt an air of weary indifference to deflect attention, has
gotten caught up in it--a little. "Those 19 teams," he says of the
franchises that passed on him and thus cost him as much as $1
million a year over the life of his four-year, $4.5 million
contract (plus another $4 million in bonuses), "we'll play some
of them."

All these other teams acknowledged in the days leading up to the
draft the risk of not taking Moss. They were resigned to the
possibility of seeing him in the end zone (where he ended up an
NCAA-record-shattering 25 times last season at Marshall);
they're not idiots, and they can read a stopwatch as well as
anyone in Minnesota. It's just that everyone but the Vikings
also had this picture of Moss wearing a convict's orange
jumpsuit. And these days having a miscreant on the team is more
embarrassing to an organization than getting beat on the corners.

Moss was indeed flagged three times by age 20, the first two
incidents costing him scholarships at Notre Dame and Florida
State before he could play a big-time down. There was the
stomping of a kid in high school; a positive test for marijuana
that, because it broke the probation resulting from the first
episode, landed him in jail for two months; and then, after his
freshman year at Marshall, a charge of domestic battery against
the mother of his two children. Taken individually, the incidents
might not have been particularly disconcerting to NFL brass. The
stomping, to which Moss pleaded guilty, may have been over a
racial epithet; the drug use was stupidity; as for the battery
(the charges were dropped), the woman's father said she and Moss
were both at fault, and he repeatedly expressed his support for
Moss.

But most people took the three incidents together, and they were
alarmed. Then, when Moss canceled out of the NFL scouting combine
in February--for dental surgery, he said--he raised eyebrows. "You
create suspicions," New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka said at
the time, adding that he'd lost interest in Moss.

The Vikings aren't so arrogant as to think that either their
organization or their geography is a social curative. As team
chaplain Keith Johnson points out, there's "no city in the NFL
where you can't get into trouble." But Minnesota does think it
has some advantages over other franchises in the harnessing of a
coltish young man. And once the Vikings decided that's all Moss
is--they interviewed people who had known Moss in West Virginia
and grilled his half-brother, Eric, who is a Minnesota
lineman--they committed themselves to picking him.

Well, coach Dennis Green committed himself. Because nobody else
believed a talent such as Moss would be available for the
Vikings, it was up to Green to keep Moss's name alive within the
organization. At Green's prompting, members of the front office
talked to Moss several times before the draft. Then on draft day
Green kept spreading Moss's name through the ranks. He first
called Carter, both as a courtesy to the team leader and to let
him know he intended to draft a receiver. Carter told Green to
dream on. He had been watching the draft and thought it "unfair"
that Moss had drifted out of the top five. But he was certain
Moss wouldn't go much lower. If by some miracle Moss was
available at No. 21, Carter told Green, "go for it."

As Moss continued to drop through the first round, Green dialed
Keith Johnson to make sure he wasn't crazy in thinking that the
Vikings players would support somebody so widely perceived as a
misfit. Johnson, too, gave him the thumbs-up. Since Carter is
also an ordained minister, Green's call to Johnson completed a
religious round-the-horn.

But Green was already confident that Minnesota was the club for
Moss. "There's nothing like coming to a winning team, where
everybody's upbeat and you've got a system in place," he says.
Plus Moss, for all his potential, wouldn't be asked to carry the
Vikings. He wasn't going to be anything but the third receiver,
supplementing the catch corps of Carter and Jake Reed. Green was
additionally confident of Moss's success because Carter had
overcome cocaine abuse nine years before, had embraced religion
and professionalism and had become a Hall of Fame-caliber
receiver. If Carter were to take Moss under his wing--and knowing
Carter's missionary side, Green was pretty sure he would--the
prodigy would be in good hands.

Things worked out better than Green dreamed. Carter called Moss
after he was drafted to welcome him to the Vikings, but it was
Moss who later suggested that he go to Carter's home in Boca
Raton, Fla., to work out with him. Like any rookie whose gifts
had carried him effortlessly, Moss was shocked at the amount of
work Carter and a few of his cronies put in. "It's that old
'whatever I've been doing is working' thing," says Carter,
laughing, "but Randy worked hard and didn't complain."

Since then the two receivers have formed an unlikely
tandem--Carter is 10 years older than Moss--based on similar
experiences as big-time athletes from small communities who
hurdled infamy to make the pros. "I've talked with him about
hundreds of things, but it's better I just live in front of him,"
Carter says, recognizing that he'd best save his preaching for
Sundays.

"The first time I spoke with him," Carter continues, "I
recognized something different." Though he can't put his finger
on it, he seems to mean an athletic charisma. Carter isn't the
only one to have noticed it. The rest of the Vikings understand
that an unformed greatness has been plopped in their midst.
Alexander marvels at the coolness of his prospect. Before
Minnesota's first preseason game, against the New England
Patriots on Aug. 9, "I expected some nerves," Alexander says. "I
had some nerves. Randy was so calm, I got even more nervous."
Moss caught two passes for 54 yards, including a 44-yard
touchdown, in the Vikings' 28-0 win. All told, Moss finished
Minnesota's 4-0 preseason with 14 receptions for 223 yards and
four touchdowns.

Randall Cunningham, Minnesota's veteran quarterback, is similarly
amused and impressed by Moss's athletic nonchalance. "He just
doesn't know, just doesn't realize," Cunningham says. "He doesn't
understand that when we're playing Kansas City, he's up against
the best [secondary]. It hasn't hit him. There's no fright, just
this kind of innocence. No worry, no fear of failure. He's like
all of us when we're young, before we do fail. A very few of us
never do."

Moss has failed, of course. He has failed ingloriously,
repeatedly and in front of lots of people. He has paid in ways
that go beyond his diminished contract, finding himself
characterized as a thug when all he wanted to be was a pro
football player. In college he so trusted his talent, which had
after all carried him past every obstacle, that he didn't bother
to appear apologetic about his misdeeds. His talent--the 4.2
speed, the ability to reach back across his body on a crossing
pattern without shifting gears--was explanation enough. But now,
having reckoned with the NFL's new violent-crime policy, he's far
less defiant. The braids are gone, the tough talk muted.

On Aug. 15, when Moss caught four passes for 33 yards and a
touchdown in Minnesota's 34-0 victory over Kansas City, Chiefs
defenders repeatedly tried to rattle him--his face mask was yanked
around on one play--but he refused to be baited. "If I take a
swing," says Carter of such situations, "I'm a competitor. If
Randy does...."

Moss cautions you not to read anything into this. His haircut is
"just a matter of taste." As for his on-field citizenship, he
says there may come a day when he swings at a man. His attitude
in public is fierce, almost comical indifference. Carter says the
man you see isn't the one Carter sees; in time Moss will let the
rest of the world in. But for now he'll maintain that practiced
detachment. When he's asked if he's close to Eric (they grew up
in separate homes and attended different high schools), he says
they're very close. So it's good to have landed on a team with
him? Randy does a self-check for enthusiasm and says, "It's not a
good thing or a bad thing. It's just what it is."

But given what he has been through, and what he's about to
experience, his wariness is understandable. Like any good
receiver, he understands the benefit of distance. He may be a
little awkward about achieving it off the field, but he's young.
When you ask him what he's looking forward to as his career
begins, he admits it would be "nice" to see Barry Sanders, Jerry
Rice and Brett Favre. Then, setting his mouth in that public
grimace, he adds, "Ain't too many people I want to see." He
regrets having sounded like a kid there for a second.

That's all he is, of course, a kid with a past that haunts him
even as he tries to create his future. He's too young to
understand the public's appetite for second acts, a nation's
ritual rush to forgive. He's too afraid, under that flinty and
faked cynicism, that there are no second acts, there is no
forgiveness. For now, he just wants a little room off the line of
scrimmage, a chance to get into open field.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR. [Randy Moss]COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [Randy Moss in game]

WELL-RECEIVED

Though he's a first-round draft choice, Randy Moss (left)
shouldn't feel any pressure to make an early impact in
Minnesota. Based on their combined receptions, receiving yards
and touchdown catches, Vikings veterans Cris Carter and Jake
Reed have been the NFL's most productive pair of wideouts over
the past three seasons.

PLAYERS, TEAM CATCHES YARDS AVG. TDS

Cris Carter-Jake Reed, Vikings 519 7,228 13.9 62
Herman Moore-Johnnie Morton, Lions 512 6,636 13.0 51
Bert Emanuel-Terance Mathis, Falcons* 423 5,563 13.0 42
Carl Pickens-Darnay Scott, Bengals 415 5,560 13.4 49
Rob Moore-Frank Sanders, Cardinals 414 6,220 15.0 27

*Emanuel signed with the Bucs in the off-season

With Moss, Carter says, the Vikings could be "on the ground
floor of something huge."