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by Tom Friend

He is no longer a two-way player (wide receiver/thug). He has mouths to feed and walls to scale and paychecks to deposit and a nine route to run. He has this place he likes to visit-the end zone-and he is there virtually every Sunday, and it has everything to do with his long legs and his long arms and his long story.

Can a rookie be Comeback Player of the Year? This one came back from a bad rep and a judgmental Downtown Athletic Club. From a penitentiary, and from racism, and from Division 1-AA. This one comes back to the huddle several times every game and asks Randall Cunningham to toss it high and far. Sometimes he listens, sometimes he doesn't, says Randy Moss, who cannot, under any circumstance, be overthrown, and who makes his Vikings a great January playoff story.

Go long, they told him when he got to Minnesota, and his 6'4" string bean of a body has been headed down the sideline ever since. The Vikings call it a nine route, and he runs it 90% of the time, nearly always taking two defenders along for the ride. It means the rest of the Vikings can play 10-on-9, which is why Randy Moss is a game-changer whether he touches the ball or not.

He is more AFL than NFL, more Lance Alworth than Jerry Rice. John Hadl to Alworth in the 1960s was one Hail Mary after another, and Alworth had the hands to go get it. Moss runs those same routes, and he's so tall he can jump over two defenders and still make a basket catch. The young Rice turned 10-yard slants into 60-yard scores; Moss turns 60-yard heaves into 60-yard scores. He is better off in the vertical offense.

Moss has smashed the rookie touchdown record of 13, previously shared by Green Bay's Bill Howton (1952) and San Diego's John Jefferson (1979), and every score is like his first. He does the Minnesota version of the Lambeau Leap-scaling a Metrodome wall after each touchdown-and the fans pat him on the back while he's up there. The irony is most of them would have been frightened of him a year ago.

So were 19 NFL general managers, the ones who passed him by in the college draft. Moss is the reason to watch the Vikings in January, but he's also one reason the NFL needs more black men in the front offices.

If only they had called Maxine, his mother, she could have told them about his West Virginia high school, where boys wrote All Niggers Must Die on desks. That she made Randy go to church three times a week. That she did not allow a single curse word in her home-or beer, either. That she worked 20-hour days as a nurse's aide, and that she had to let him grow up on his own. And that he vowed to take care of her someday, but wasn't going to cut off his cornrows just because some stranger told him to.

The whole league loves him now. It's not that he reinvented himself. He just removed the 'rows and started going deep. Six points cures all.