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This was long before the two touchdown catches in the opening game, the three touchdown-aiding blocks in the second game, the 600 replica jerseys sold during the third, the leaping, alley-oop reception for the winning score in the fourth ("Stickin' the dagger in 'em," he called that one); before all the speed, strength, guile, the legerdemain, the confirmation and, yes, relief that there may be life -- which is to say reams of spectacular highlight tape -- after Michael Jordan, after all.

Yeah, oh yeah. The new kid is that good.

But last summer, Randy Moss wasn't even dressed out at the Minnesota Vikings minicamp. His ankle was in a cast after a pickup basketball game injury and he was mouthing off at cornerback Corey Fuller.

"Yo, what's up with this guy?" nose tackle Jerry Ball asks, not even looking at Moss. "Can he even play?"

"Yo, Dawg, this guy here is the first Dawg I'm takin' deep," says Moss, who calls everybody Dawg.

"Listen here, son," says Ball, 33, the 12-year veteran and 360-pound philosopher -- sage of the team, if not the entire NFL. "I'd rather see a sermon than hear one. I'd rather you walk with me than just show me the way. The eyes are a better pupil, more willing than the ear. In other words, I see you talkin' something. But I don't see you doin' nothin'. "

Whoops.

Now Moss was the pup -- jammed at the line, word-slapped over the middle, silenced into limping away with his tail squarely between his legs, wondering who was this old fat guy to be trash-smacking him -- Randy Moss! -- from the Bible or some-damn-where?

"But you know what?" Ball says. "The kid's a fighter. He knows exactly who he is. He gets only a few yards away, turns around and he's right back at me."

"Yo, Dawg," Moss calls out. "I'm gonna show you, too."

***

If the first few weeks of the season are any indication, it may not be hyperbolic reasoning to assume that the NFL will soon be Randy Moss' pound, and all the rest of the Dawgs will be merely barking up a tree. From his brilliant opening day against the Tampa Bay Bucs when he scored his first TD by tipping an underthrown pass to himself volleyball-style, to the majestic, high over-the-backboard grab to ice the W over the Chicago Bears, getting the Vikes to 4-0. The first 10 catches of Moss' pro career went for first downs, for godsakes, and right up through his breathlessly anticipated Monday Night debut against Green Bay in Week 5, the 6'5'', 210-pound Moss has already established himself in the pantheon of the game's must-see performers. Brett, Barry, Deion, Jerry. There's hardly anybody else for whom the pros themselves would pay money from their own pockets to watch do their inimitable stuff. And now, Randy?

"I'm not a star," Moss says, demurring. "A star is The Man. I'm not The Man on this team. I just think of myself as a special player, a different type of player."

Not only that, but the kid hasn't knocked off a 7-Eleven, blown up a federal building or shared pizza with a single intern, either.

That was the rub, of course. Even the teams that passed on Moss in the first round of the draft acknowledged he was a superior talent, probably the best wide receiver to come out of college since Jerry Rice. "A once-in-a-lifetime guy," says Hubbard Alexander, the Vikings wide receivers coach. Yet he was still unclaimed when Minnesota selected him with the 21st pick, lowering the rookie's asking price by some $4 million. Ten of the teams that passed him up are on the Vikes' schedule, meaning they're gonna pay, anyway.

Moss' troubled past was considered prologue to a predictable dead end by those teams afflicted with the dreaded Phillipsphobia -- a fear of questionable football citizenry. Notably, the Rams (who had been the ones to draft Lawrence Phillips himself) and the Cowboys had rosters already chockful of problem children. Both passed on Moss, who admits now he was crushed. "I was so stuck on the Cowboys, it wasn't even funny," he says. "I'll always have animosity toward what happened. Those twenty picks that went by -- I know it was because of the 'character' issue and that hurts. But a lot of those teams didn't even bother to talk to me. I just wanted an opportunity to play football. That other stuff was long over."

Over, mostly, even before Moss showed up at Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va., and for two years basically Mark McGwire'd college football. Not only did he catch 168 passes and score 53 touchdowns, he also amassed 4,528 total all-purpose yards -- receiving, rushing, kickoff and punt returns -- averaging 168 yards of offense every time he fastened his chinstrap for a game. The folks at Marshall, moreover, have somehow figured that if Moss had stayed in college and played out his varsity eligibility, he would have finished with 103 TDs, 348 catches, 6,650 yards receiving and 630 points scored, all of which would be records. His coach, Bob Pruett, uttered the immortal line: "You'd have to be Willie off the pickle boat not to recognize that when Randy stepped on the field, it was like the Kentucky Derby."

It had always been that way for Moss, who had long since taken his place beside Jerry West in West Virginia sporting legend. Raised in the rural mine-scarred territories around Charleston -- he lived in tiny Rand and traversed the ugly smoke stacks to go to school at DuPont High in the neighboring town of Belle -- Moss Jerrymandered the sainted West simply by quadrupling his sports. In football, playing safety and kicker as well as everything else, he led DuPont to two state titles. In basketball, he was twice named the state player of the year. (Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause says Moss could have played in the NBA.) In baseball, he was the best centerfielder in the state. Then one spring, he tried track and won two sprint events at the state meet, a double he would repeat at the Southern Conference Indoors.

The trouble began in March 1995, after Moss had committed to Notre Dame. A racially-inspired fight broke out at DuPont in which, Moss says, he "stomped" a white student. "DuPont had about 600 kids, maybe 30 black. There was a lot of racism goin' on all the time," says Moss now. "The whites had their own section of lockers, called Redneck Alley, and they were always talking about fightin' us. 'Racist fight.' 'Racist fight.' I didn't know how to handle it. But when it happened, it was a chance for me to get back. In a fight, you don't think. You just strike."

Moss was sentenced to 30 days and expelled from school. Notre Dame told him to take a hike. But Lou Holtz called Bobby Bowden with a good word about Moss and, quick as a Moss fly route, Bowden signed him for Florida State, insisting, however, that Moss redshirt his first year. In the summer of '96, Moss tested positive for marijuana. "What was I thinking? Nothing, obviously," Moss says with annoyance. Goodbye FSU, and hello Marshall, the last-chance saloon -- then a Division I-AA school where transfers could play right away.

For two years, Moss kept his nose clean, and when he led Marshall to the Division I-AA national title over Montana his first season, Montana athletic director Wayne Hogan sent a note to Bowden, saying "If you hadn't kicked Moss off your team, we'd both be national champions."

Teammates nicknamed him the Freak for his supernatural skills on the grid; the Freak got himself a "Superfreak" tattoo on his right arm, added a gold hoop earring and braided his hair in cornrows. "I know people still perceived me as a thug," Moss has said. "They were like, 'Here comes trouble.' But I wasn't that way. I was on the straight and narrow. Just give me respect, and I'll be respectful back."

One more incident -- a fateful third strike to all those NFL teams observing from afar -- came when Moss and his girlfriend, a former Hooters waitress named Libby Offutt (and the mother of his two children, Sydney, 4, and Thaddeus, 5 months), got in a shouting, shoving match which resulted in domestic battery charges being filed against both.

"We both wanted charges dropped, but the police made it sound like a rumble. We were just arguing; it happens," says Libby, who now commutes from West Virginia with the two kids in tow to Moss' new home in Eden Prairie, Minn., a few minutes from Vikings headquarters. In this northernmost outpost, Offutt, who is white, has been misidentified more than once as Moss' "nanny."

"That hurts, Mom," Libby told her mother recently. "Just flash that ring at 'em. They'll figure it out," says Margarette (Sissy) Offutt.

"Randy is in our blood now," says Libby's father, Frank. "I'm on the Internet constantly defending him. Finally, they're talking about his accomplishments rather than his past. This is a great kid who just made some dumb mistakes. Credit to the Vikings for figuring it out."

What Minnesota coach Dennis Green and the organization also figured out was that they couldn't ignore such a deep-threat weapon. One who would give the Vikes an accomplished third receiver to stretch the field and divide the coverage on their annual 1,000-yard stars Cris Carter and Jake Reed. Besides, any team whose roster squad includes a Stalin (Colinet, a defensive end) and a Liwienski (Chris, a practice squad offensive lineman) isn't about to blanch at a rolling stoner named Moss who had to gather himself.

Moreover, Green, who fought for Moss' selection against other voices in the Vikes' war room, is himself the product of a hard inner-city upbringing in Harrisburg, Pa. He recognized the atmosphere, the racism, the complicated adolescent drill.

"It was all familiar," says Green. "We got reports on everything from how Randy wore his hat backwards to his cornrows. But I saw this kid's love for the game. I knew he knew he was walking a thin line. His passion to play football would keep him out of trouble. Hey, you kidding me? We got guys in this league with dreadlocks."

Not to mention rap sheets longer than Moss' list of NCAA records. So what was the big deal? The Vikings' support system, which would make sure the new jewel was kept to a polish, included Moss' own half brother, Eric, an offensive tackle who is just getting to know him again and provides a family bond. Then there is the strongest influence of all, the veteran All-Pro receiver, Carter, who -- unbeknownst to Moss -- had been there, done that and come this close to finishing his own career before it started, behind similar bars.

"Such a great part of Randy looked like me, smelled like me. I thought he was me all over again," says Carter, who bombed out of Ohio State in 1987, losing his senior year, as the central figure in an agent-payments scandal that could have landed Carter in jail for 10 years and cost him a $500,000 fine for lying to a grand jury. Later, Carter addicted himself out of his first NFL stop in Philadelphia -- round up the usual suspects, wine, women and drugs -- before being waived and picked up for $100 by the Vikings.

And Moss thinks he came cheap.

"I think Randy was amazed at all the things that had happened to me," says Carter. "It's hard for him to trust a lot of people. But he was able to drop his guard and let me in. He realized I'd already been to that world."

Carter, 32, now an ordained minister and a pillar of the NFL community, first connected with Moss when the younger man joined him last summer at Carter's own Fast Inc., a multi-sport workout facility near Carter's home in Boca Raton, Fla. "It's intense training, Michael Johnson-type training," says Carter. Moss was up and at 'em by 7 a.m., running, pumping iron. "Vomiting a lot, going through hell," he says. But the kid never complained. "It got me ready for what to expect in the league."

"I was impressed Randy took the initiative," says Carter. "He's very young, immature. I had to show him about a bank, about shopping, car registration, stuff like that. What's best for his body, he takes to that. Lifting, abs work, massage, chiropractor. But when we got to Minnesota, I wanted to smother him with the social stuff, too. If he wants to indulge in alcohol, I tell him where to do it. If he feels like getting hammered, what night to do that.

"Look, the kid's no angel. But I wasn't either. Now I'm satisfied to go out to dinner with my wife and kids and go home. But there was a time I wasn't. I understand all that."

Carter is certain Moss is over his chagrin at his embarrassing drop in the draft. "I told him to forget about the contract," says Carter. "Really, he didn't lose any money because he never had it to lose in the first place. We look at those other teams (which passed on Moss) on tape, and I think he realizes this is the place that could showcase him the most. The Cowboys could have done that too. But, socially, Dallas would not have been the place for him. Deion [Sanders] would have helped. But there are external forces in Dallas fighting Deion, and everybody knows that.

"I also talked to Randy about his past. I grew up in small-town America, black, disadvantaged. [Carter's family lived on welfare.] It's a bad situation. But he's not the first big-name guy to come out of a place like that and handle it. Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, Michael Jordan himself. Hey, a hard background is not an excuse."

Moss, who moved to a neighborhood a few minutes away from Carter, says he doesn't visit clubs, party much or even go "downtown." On a Friday night, he'll take in a local high school game but stand by the fence so as not to be recognized. "I don't want to get hassled," he says. "I don't mind people coming up, saying 'Yo, Moss, how you doin'?' But, hey Dawg, sometimes people get all overexcited and spread the adulation. I'm uneasy then.

"Cris Carter's helped me a lot on the 'ball side. He has a good heart and a good head. He's a special person. But I don't think of him as no mentor. He's given his life to the Lord. I love the Lord too. But that's where we're separate. Cris doesn't have to worry about me. I go home, play with my kids, go to bed and get up and go to work."

A certain macho detachment extends into every aspect of Moss' life. Asked about his future with Offutt, he mostly glares, snapping, "I don't need to live with anybody."

Asked about his short, preppy, Minnesota-new haircut (which was perceived to be an attempt -- cornrows to Savile Row -- at a new image), he rejects explanation. His previous style, he says, got "boring" and "itchy." Asked about his more open attitude -- in his final year at Marshall, he seemed aloof and tightly wound -- Moss says: "It's all about the money. All I wanted out of college was to get to the next level. Now I'm there. I got my money and I got my security and now all I have to do is play football. That part is easy."

Apart from a solid gold dollar sign nearly the size of a helmet which he sometimes hangs from his neck -- ouch! -- Moss has not splurged. ("That'll come in the off-season," he vows, pseudo-cocky still.) He drives a simple, green Isuzu Trooper, and dresses in sneakers and jeans. "Getting dressed up in one of those Coogi sweaters and a pair of slacks is like wearing a Brioni suit to Randy," laughs Carter.

To the Minnesota media, Moss has been, alternately, moody and charming. When Jeff Seidel of the St. Paul Pioneer Press broached the sensitive subject of the weird, wart-like growth on the side of his left pinky finger -- which his daughter, Sydney, was also born with and it has since been removed -- Moss delightedly launched into a soliloquy describing it as "my magic. It's almost a sixth finger. If I had six, you think I'd ever miss a ball?"

Even with five (times two), Moss has already set the NFL aflame. In a two-session preseason scrimmage against New Orleans, he humiliated the Saints, scoring six touchdowns. In an exhibition against Kansas City, he showed up Dale Carter and James Hasty, the league's best tandem of corners. As the level of importance kept getting higher, more questions kept being asked, and Moss simply kept giving answers and getting better. As Seidel says: "The only question left is, where do the Vikings erect his bust?"

Moss is easily the most exciting player to enter the league since Sanders and Sanders. Everybody from his own coach to wizened scouts already compare him to top receivers: Michael Irvin, Herman Moore and even the nonpareil, Rice. His own teammate, Carter, a member of this famous club who himself once set the all-time record for catches in a season (122 in 1994), says: "You hate to compare him to Jerry. But there are guys who are fast, then there are guys who are football fast with all the equipment on. Randy just explodes to the ball and blows by people, just like Jerry."

Randall Cunningham, reborn himself in the Twin Cities and now the Vikings' starting quarterback since Brad Johnson broke his leg, swears it's a challenge to take a three-step drop and try to overthrow the fleet rookie. "QBs would like to have the confidence to throw that deep to everybody," says Cunningham. "I don't think the kid will catch every ball. But his adjustments are so great, he's not going to let anything get intercepted, either."

John Madden raves about Moss' all-round talents. "One of the best blocking wide receivers in football," Madden says. "He does all those little things. He looks like he has been playing in the league for five or six years."

"Long after we're all gone," says the ancient statesman Ball, "Lord, they will talk about Randy Moss."

As for the present, the elder Vikings make the kid fetch the doughnuts at Saturday walk-throughs and force him to sit by the door to work the light switch at tape-viewing sessions. "You got to understand, we don't treat Randy like this baaad man," laughs Carter. "He's still just another rookie."

But Moss knows better. He's hardly humbled or even surprised by all the adulation. Like most sports prodigies whose stunning entrance creates a phenomenon -- the unknown Becker dominating Wimbledon, the astonishing Woods wrecking the Masters, the legendary Jordan flying through the NCAAs and the NBA -- the gifted all seem to know when it's their time. They just know.

He knows exactly who he is.

"Hey look, Dawg. In high school, I knew I'd make it big in The League. College was just college. That was to help me get to the NFL. This is the top level, there's nothing higher. It's time. I expected this. I'm not The Freak up here yet—because I haven't done too much freaky. I haven't had no four- or five-touchdown days or 200-yard games so far. But give me some space. I'll be in The League for a few more years. I'll get there. This is where you get to strut your show. Eventually, it's going to happen."

Hey look, Dawg. Or Freak. You've probably been hauling too many doughnuts and jumping too many defenders to notice. It already has.

This article appears in the October 19, 1998 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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