Editor’s Note: An ESPN documentary has stirred up old memories of Randy Moss, perhaps the greatest receiver in Vikings history. For those who want to continue reminiscing, here is a Jim Souhan exclusive story on Moss and his roots that first ran in the Star Tribune on July 26, 1998. For more on ESPN’s 30-for-30 “Rand University” documentary, go here.
Randy Moss does not have to be here, sweating under Minnesota’s benevolent sun and Cris Carter’s critical gaze.
It is 9 a.m. Wednesday. Moss, the Vikings’ unsigned first-round draft pick, has just finished an hourlong weightlifting session with Carter at the team’s Winter Park facility. Now Carter is timing Moss in 110-yard sprints, taunting him, then leading him to a 45-degree hill that is the last vestige of Les Steckel’s militaristic coaching regime.
Moss flies up the hill as Carter shouts times and waits below.
This is the Northlands version of the workouts Carter subjected Moss to this summer, near Carter’s home in Boca Raton, Fla. “Those were probably the toughest workouts I’ve ever done in my life,” Moss said, struggling to catch his breath, as sweat cascades over the tattoos that punctuate his upper body.
“He has a good foundation - better than any of the rookies will have going into the league,” Carter said. “But he’s not in the shape I’d like him to be in, the shape he will be in in a few years. He is in a lot better shape than he would have been if he hadn’t gone down there.”
Carter does not have to be here. He pushed himself and a handful of NFL friends and teammates through his annual workouts in Florida, and, as he told receivers coach Hubbard Alexander, “Anything I do now would be window dressing - if I’m not ready now, I never will be.”
He is not sprinting today; he is tending to a long-term investment. After the draft, Carter found Moss’ phone number. “I let him know that I was going to take care of him,” he said.
Carter, a wide receiver of immense talent who overcame a troubled past, sees himself in Moss, a wide receiver of immense talent who has begun to overcome a troubled past.
There are telling differences, in talent and temperament.
Carter, who has admitted to using drugs when he played for the Eagles, admits he didn’t work hard during his first years in the NFL. That Carter would not have submitted so willingly to the tortures espoused by this Carter.
“In the situation he’s in, it’s hard for him to trust a lot of people,” Carter said. “With me, he was able to drop his guard and allow me to enter into his world. I understand his situation.
“Now, I think he’s in the best situation he could ever have been in, being here with us. We care about him.”
Carter turned to watch Moss lope across the field. “Man, he’s hurting now,” Carter said.
Moss thinks the hurting is all in his past.
A huge Du Pont chemical factory scars the Kanawha Valley near Charleston, W. Va. Moss grew up in Rand, a small, unincorporated town on the Charleston side of the factory.
On a recent weekday, Du Pont High, Moss’ alma mater, stood overgrown with weeds. An old man carrying a cane and a plastic bag of crushed soda cans wanders through the parking lot. Moss’ most prominent memory of the school is the section of lockers nicknamed “Redneck Alley” that the school’s black students dreaded walking through.
Jason Owens, a volunteer firefighter and a classmate of Moss’, said the West Virginia coal contains a mineral “that makes it burn kind of nasty.”
But that’s not why Moss finds Rand a great place to be from. “I have no love whatsoever for West Virginia,” Moss said. “I don’t plan to go back. I have family there, but as far as going back there and living, no, West Virginia is not a place for me.
“I reached my goal. I got a chance to get out of there and now that I’m out, I’m satisfied.”
Moss blames the “prejudice and jealousies” of West Virginians for the escalation of his problems from dubious to destructive. A Charleston columnist recently wished, wryly, that he could have a nickel for every time a member of the national media has referred, vaguely, to “Randy Moss’ troubles.” Here is exactly what they were.
• During his senior year at Du Pont High, a friend and football teammate of Moss’ found a racial epithet with his name on it carved into a desktop. Moss’ friend, who is black, beat a white student he believed to be responsible. Moss entered the fight after the white student had been knocked to the ground and kicked him, twice.
Moss, who had recently turned 18, was charged with two felonies. Kanawha County prosecutor Bill Forbes argued that Moss’ actions were vicious and destructive. Moss pleaded guilty to two counts of battery and spent 30 days in jail.
Moss’ supporters, including defense attorney Timothy DiPiero, say it is rare for a person of that age to be tried for a felony as an adult for such a transgression.
“If you look at what he actually did, it’s amazing that so much has been made of it,” Charleston businessman Tony Gordon said. “The perception was that a big football player stomped a kid who was half-dead. That wasn’t it. Getting two felony charges for two kicks in a high school fight? Please.
“If you haven’t been on this side of the color spectrum you don’t understand the kind of passion that surrounded this young man. The truth of the matter is if he had signed to go to West Virginia, his penalties and punishments wouldn’t have been so severe. I hate to say that about the place where I live, but it’s true.”
Moss’ supporters say there were cases of other high school athletes playing larger roles in high school fights at the time, and they were neither charged with felonies nor attacked by the media.
“If he had been an average football player, not much would have been made of it,” Offutt said.
• In April 1996, on the day he was to begin finishing his prison sentence, Moss smoked a joint. He was given a drug test during his first week in prison and came up positive. He was tossed into solitary confinement for a week, and 60 days were added to his sentence. “I’m the dummy,” Moss said at the time.
• That Nov. 17, the day after Moss broke two Division I-AA receiving records, he was charged with domestic battery after arguing with the mother of his two children, Libby Offutt. Later, he said he had simply been restraining Offutt; Offutt’s father, Frank, said, “They were both to blame.”
DiPiero said the media coverage of Moss during each of his transgressions was “O.J.-like.” Forbes could not be reached for comment.
“I think I made little mistakes that the state of West Virginia blew out of proportion,” Moss said. “They never did care for me. I think once I decided not to go to the University of West Virginia, they took advantage of every slip-up to try to hold me back. But I come from a strong family and I didn’t feel nothing could stop the Moss family.”
Moss grew up carrying his brother’s pads to midget-league football games. Now Eric Moss is a backup offensive lineman for the Vikings; then “he was a star,” Randy remembers. “I just wanted people to notice me.”
The trouble with Randy
Moss’ transgressions changed not only his career but perhaps the landscape of college football. Former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz called Moss the best high school football player he had ever seen. Bobby Bowden compared him to Deion Sanders, saying “he has greatness written all over him.” Marshall track coach Jeff Small said Moss could become better than Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson.
Moss originally signed with Notre Dame, which withdrew its scholarship offer after the stomping incident, saying Moss had improperly filled out his scholarship application.
When Moss tested positive for marijuana, Florida State, where Bowden had watched Moss riddle his top-ranked defense in practice, revoked his scholarship.
When Moss led Marshall to the Division I-AA national title last year over Montana, Montana athletic director Wayne Hogan sent a letter to Bowden, saying, “If you hadn’t kicked him off the team, we’d both be national champions.”
Likewise, Moss’ “troubled past” could change the NFL landscape. Twenty teams passed on Moss, who conservatively was judged one of the top five talents in the draft. Rams coach Dick Vermeil ruled out drafting Moss, saying he wouldn’t spend his owner’s money on a high-risk pick. Of course, it was the Rams who chose Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips, who dragged his girlfriend by the hair down a flight of steps in college and continued to add to his rap sheet in the pros.
As the draft approached in April, Moss - and pictures of him wearing the orange jumpsuit of a prisoner - became the centerpiece of every newspaper’s critical look at the NFL’s willingness to draft problematic players.
“It seems like every time Lawrence Phillips did something bad, the more it hurt Randy,” DiPiero said.
No NFL officials have publicly explained why Moss slipped to 21st. The Vikings say they did enough homework on Moss that they didn’t hesitate taking him. Teams such as the Cowboys and Rams - who have been embarrassed by their players’ tribulations - steered clear.
Moss’ supporters make three arguments on his behalf: He was a model athlete at Marshall; other athletes and teenagers who have committed similar offenses to Moss’ were not punished nearly as severely; and Moss is a private person who keeps private charitable acts that could have tempered his image.
“He’s certainly different than what’s been, for the most part, printed about him,” said Frank Offutt. “It seems like it’s awful hard to get rid of those bad things that happen to you. I think he’s a good person, and I’ve known him since he was a junior in high school.”
Offutt, who is white, initially forbade his daughter from dating black men. “I changed my mind, and I came to like Randy,” Offutt said. “I’m a big Randy Moss supporter. People look at me kind of funny when I say this, but when I defend him, I say we’re blood relatives. There’s a little girl and now a little boy at my house that have my blood and his blood in them.”
Offutt, DiPiero and Gordon - a former Charleston University basketball star who befriended Moss - say no other locals would have been treated as harshly as Moss by the legal system and gossip mill.
Marshall coach Bob Pruett, a native of Beckley, W. Va., agrees. He wore No. 88 at Marshall years before Moss would make it famous.
“He never sold drugs, held up a 7-Eleven, was in a gang or shot somebody,” Pruett has said. “There are people playing college or pro football who have done that or worse. But it’s Randy that everyone questions. He made mistakes, but come on. How many of us could afford to be judged our whole lives on something we did when we were 18 or 19?
“You have to understand a small but proud state like this,” Pruett said another time. “People here want desperately to root for someone who will make up for all the bad that’s said by outsiders about the state. But Randy let them down twice. He didn’t stay in state and then he got into trouble. They completely turned on him.”
That’s one reason DiPiero befriended Moss, and invited Moss to the pickup basketball games he plays in. That’s also a reason Gordon began constructing a support system for a player he promises will “light up the NFL.”
Both men talk of Moss’ acts of kindness toward children and the less-fortunate, citing a trip to a poverty-stricken area of Mexico. “You should have seen Randy,” Gordon said. “He thought we were going on vacation, and we pull into this place that was undescribably rundown, and he was great with those people.”
Said Offutt: “My lasting memory of Randy is that after his high school won the state title, all of his teammates were jumping around, slapping each other on the back, and Randy was over by the stands, grabbing a little kid so he could be a part of it. I get mad at Randy sometimes, but there’s a lot of good in him.”
How good is he?
Moss says there was nothing to do in Rand but play sports. So he played everything. Today Chicago Bulls executive Jerry Krause says Moss could have been an NBA player — Moss competed in Nike camps with Kevin Garnett — and he would have been drafted had he shown interest in baseball.
Moss, who is 6-5 and runs a 4.2 40-yard dash, won two sprints at the West Virginia state high school track meet as a sophomore, after practicing for a couple of weeks, and has talked of competing in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, “just to see how I stack up.”
Former teammates called him “The Freak,” because of his freakish abilities. His newest teammates are similarly impressed.
“The only player I could even begin to compare him to is AC,” Cris Carter says of former Vikings great Anthony Carter. “AC could do some things, athletically, that I’ve never seen anyone do. Their games are different, but he’s got that burst like AC had.
“The one thing AC had, he had a big heart. And only time will tell how big Randy’s heart is.”
Sports Illustrated football reporter Paul Zimmerman has written that Moss “has never done one tough thing on a football field.” Pruett disagrees. He’s as likely to praise Moss’ unselfishness and blocking abilities as his pass-catching.
At Marshall, Moss caught 78 passes for 29 touchdowns and 1,709 yards - as a freshman. Marshall went 15-0 and won the national title. Last year, he caught 90 passes for 1,647 yards and 25 touchdowns. “He should be a force in this league,” Bengals coach Bruce Coslet said.
Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy explained why he thought Moss slipped in the draft. “When you draft someone and nothing is publicized, then you are fairly certain that the person is A-1 material even though you still may have problems,” Dungy said. “But if a player has been in trouble and it’s been publicized, then how much has not been publicized? It may be more than I know.”
Yet the Vikings, who feel they did their homework on Moss, were thrilled to find him at No. 21. “I think for what we want him to do, he’ll be good right away,” Carter said. “I think eventually, he’ll be a great player. He doesn’t complain. He does everything you ask him to do.
“He’s just a young kid, that’s all. A little immature. But a good kid.”
Said Gordon: “I’ve seen greater men fall to lesser tribulations.”
Be like Rice
Moss roomed with receiver Jerrald Long at Marshall. “On Sundays, we’d sit around and watch the NFL and all Randy wanted to see was Jerry Rice,” Long said of the 49ers superstar. “That’s all he thinks about, being a great receiver, and he always wanted to see how Jerry Rice did what he does. He wants to be like him - he wants to be great like him.”
Rice was a Division I-AA star who, after interning one season, developed into the greatest receiver ever. Moss is a Division I-AA star who is bigger and faster and perhaps just as ambitious as Rice.
On this Wednesday morning, Moss has finally caught his breath. He uses it to describe his escapes from prisons real and imagined.
“I have to give a pretty good amount of credit to my attorneys and to coach Pruett and everyone at Marshall - but I don’t feel there’s anyone else I need to credit,” he said. “Coach Pruett took me under his wing and showed me the path, and it was my job to move down the path. I think they’re all happy I made it.”
Does he have regrets? Moss laughs, wearily. “I think I wish I had never been raised in West Virginia,” he said. “No, I have none, man, it’s just that you get on the subject of West Virginia and I get going. I think now that I’m out of there, there’s no holding me back. I’m rid of all the problems and the racism that was directed toward me.
“I think that will push me hard, to prove those people were wrong about me. And hopefully I’ll smile back in their faces in a few years.”