Randy Moss has a thing about germs. He approaches a door to the cafeteria in the Vikings' practice facility as if he detects every microscopic organism lurking on the surface. Two steps away, he balls his right hand into the T-shirt under his purple jersey and uses it to pull down the handle, careful not to make skin-to-germ contact. Safely inside, Moss heads for the food counter and gives a bottle of antibacterial hand soap three long pumps. He rubs his enormous, valuable hands until every epidermal cell has been sufficiently coated.

Moss is laughing as he tells the lady working behind the counter, "The man asks why I open the door with my shirt." She rolls her eyes dramatically, and Moss, still rubbing his hands, nearly doubles over.

"Oh, my," she says wearily. "Randy and his germs."

Moss is roaring now. He's the butt of the joke and the jokester at the same time; it's territory he seems to enjoy. "Yeah, these folks know more than anybody: my hygiene is A-plus."

Every door handle is suspect, every handshake a potential virus. It's a wonder Moss can even bring himself to put his gloved hands on a football. His house must be clean. His three children must be clean. Maybe this aversion to potentially infectious contact is why nobody gets much of a shot at him on the field.

"Hands? Clean," Moss says. "Before you get in my refrigerator, your hands gotta be dusted off, every time. Don't go sticking dirty hands in my refrigerator. Can't happen."

A Vikings assistant coach, overhearing the animated discussion of cleanliness and well-versed in Moss' compulsion approaches and wipes both hands across the 84 on the front of Moss' jersey. The player recoils in mock disgust.

Ah, the psychoanalytical possibilities, with germ-paranoia serving as a metaphor for Moss' general wariness about life, his inability to trust, his difficulty with authority. The whole world takes the shape of an ever-growing spore, its menace unchecked, his circumspect attitude toward humanity's contagions symbolized by a huge, spidery hand wrapped in a T-shirt.

Yes, Randy Moss has a thing about germs. Maybe that explains everything.

Or maybe he just doesn't want to get sick.

RIGHT ABOUT here is where you probably expect to read about The Changed Man, where punk becomes prince. You prepare to hear a superstar defend himself, explain that his reputation is based on upbringing or vast conspiracy or serial misunderstanding. He will tell you he's not the guy everybody thinks he is.

That he's clean, like his hands.

Only you don't get that from Randy Moss. That's not his game. His game is ruining a defensive coordinator's week, invading the subconscious of every opposing defensive back, dictating Minnesota's mental state thanks to his singular ability to control the game from the wide-receiver position.

It's not that Moss is unimpressed with public opinion. It's deeper than that. He simply does not care. Whatever you think of him, someone has thought worse. Whatever name you call him, someone has said worse. He brushes aside questions about his public persona by saying, in his best West Virginia country, "I've gotten used to all 'at. When they talk about me growing up mentally, I laugh. I've had the same motto since I came to this league: I do what I want to do, I play when I want to play, and I do things the way I want to do them. I haven't changed a thing."

This is, of course, another form of cliche: the star who is what he is, damn the opinions. But listen to the recorded testimony. Listen to Kelly Campbell, an unquestionably talented but easily distracted third-year receiver with the Vikings. This past summer Campbell answered the phone and Moss was on the other end, introducing himself as Campbell's new training-camp roommate.

They spent their days in Mankato talking football and not football. Campbell, who exasperated Vikings coach Mike Tice with his practice habits during his first two years, now calls Moss Big Bro. "He taught me a lot about what I can do to become a better player and a better man," says Campbell. "He knows my energy sometimes goes in the wrong direction, and he can identify with that. In this game you find a lot of veteran guys who have big heads and are too stuck up to help a little guy get better. I'm lucky Big Bro's not like that."

The quickest way to end a conversation with Moss is to mention the word "maturity." He considers it patronizing. Still, how else to describe a guy who stunned Daunte Culpepper last year during a training-camp lunch by discussing practice habits: "I'm starting to realize I can't practice a certain way during the week and expect to play another way on Sunday," Moss said. He then proceeded to have his first 1,500-yard season.

This summer, Moss and Culpepper drove from Florida to training camp together. Disgusted with the Vikings' failure to make the playoffs after a 6-0 start, Moss talked football nearly the whole way. At that point, Moss had already studied this season's opponents with a computer program that he urged Tice to set up last May. When he arrived at camp, he presented Tice with several pages of handwritten notes on attacking the Cowboys. In Week 1, Moss caught two touchdown passes against Dallas, and

Culpepper threw to nine different receivers, including Campbell on a 43-yard TD, as the Vikes shredded 2003's best D for 35 points.

Tice, Moss' most fervent booster, says he sees the M word in practice, in the film room, all the way down to Moss' facial expressions. Yes, facial expressions. When you're a volatile star in the 24-hour information age, a stray frown will run on endless loop for the next six days. In a game last November against the Packers, during the Vikings' 3-7 slide toward oblivion, Tice summoned Moss on the sideline. "The energy of our football team comes from you," Tice said. "Smile a little for me." The result of that encounter is in dispute: Tice says Moss smiled, Moss says he didn't.

Of course, Tice has no choice but to believe in Moss. A coach has games to win, a job to keep, a family to feed. But his nearly over-the-top praise seems too effusive to be fake. "At practice he's like the Pied Piper, leading the young receivers everywhere he goes," Tice says. "If he stopped short, there'd be three or four receivers with broken noses."

Randy Moss, leader? Randy Moss, mentor? Well, yeah. He needs help on Sundays, so it's in his best interest to expose players like Campbell to what Tice calls his "sharp football mind." Early in his career, Moss subjugated himself to allow Cris Carter to reap the benefits of being his alleged mentor. "I let him have that," says Moss, who is nonetheless convinced that a tug-of-war over credit for Minnesota's 15-1 season during his rookie year in 1998 led to the NFC championship game loss to Atlanta. The experience taught him a lesson: ego is a germ, and if there's one dirty handle in a room of 53 players, everybody will eventually be infected. Says Moss, "I think ego is why we don't have a Super Bowl ring here right now."

That's not to say Moss doesn't have a high estimation of his worth. But it's hard to argue that it's not well earned. He still embodies every defensive back's angst: the long calves like pipe stems that shouldn't be able to move so fast, the

gasoline-hose arms that start long and extend with the ball in the air. Defensive coordinators try to harness him with double- and triple-teams, and yet he finds a way.

Vikes linebacker Chris Claiborne illustrates Moss' impact in describing a third-and-one vs. Green Bay last year. "Daunte threw to Randy for a touchdown," he says. "Every other team in the league runs that ball, but when you've got the best guy going, you don't have to play like every other team."

Two years ago, Tice's "Randy Ratio"-his plan to get the ball to Moss 40% of the time-was fodder for mockery. The subject is no longer a staple of local headlines, but roughly the same percentage of the team's pass plays are designed to reach Moss' ultraclean hands.

And if there's no official Randy Ratio any longer, there are definitely Randy Rules, an acknowledgment that his presence alone can change the course of a game. "Having someone like Randy Moss in a game-breaking moment is a tremendous advantage," says Culpepper. "Not only for what he can do, but how he can be used as a decoy." Adds backup QB Gus Frerotte, "If he's double- or triple-teamed, you throw it to someone else. If he's single-covered, you throw it to Randy. With the game on the line, it's really that simple."

Even simpler near the goal line, where the presence of Moss in a defender's psyche grows from priority to obsession. Moss' awareness of his status grows, too. "The only time I see Randy frustrated now is when a team takes him out by putting two or three guys on him, and we're not successful," Tice says. "He'll voice his frustration by saying, 'Hey, we're not getting it done, so you might as well chuck it to me.' "

In his Week 2 Monday Night Football matchup against Terrell Owens and the Eagles, Moss tasted some of that frustration as the Vikings self-destructed in a 27-16 loss. The Philly defense stalked Moss like a wolf pack-one guy close, another guy deep, a third guy watching from the side. And still he managed eight catches for 69 yards and a TD. But that's been the story all season. In three games, Moss has 19 catches for 215 yards and 5 touchdowns.

THREE PHOTOGRAPHS and one piece of art hang in Moss' locker at Minnesota's practice facility in Eden Prairie.

The artwork is a drawing from the son of a Vikings trainer. It depicts Moss' hands as enormous and all-powerful, running from his waist nearly to his knees, the perfect child's perspective on a man whose hands made him famous.

One photograph shows Moss with his brother, but the most prominent pic is unassuming, even slightly amateurish. In it, Moss is walking off the practice field, two steps behind a huge man wearing No. 77-former teammate Korey Stringer. More than three years after Stringer collapsed in training camp and died, Moss, the only Viking graveside when Stringer's casket was lowered into the ground, remains deeply affected.

"From the call I got at 2 in the morning until today, right now, I still think about it," he says. "Something happened that day that will take guys the rest of their lives to get over. I see his locker every day, empty. I appreciate what Big K did for my life, and I can look around here in the lockers, see Big K everywhere and know other people appreciate it, too."

The last photo, though, may be the most telling. It shows Moss with 8-year-old Kassi Spier, whom the wideout met during his first training camp, and with whom he has remained close since. Spier was found to have leukemia in May 2000, and perhaps the most newsworthy aspect of their relationship is that Moss refuses to talk about it. Every media outlet attempted to delve into Moss' softer side after the relationship became public last summer. Some still try, and the answer is the same: no. "I know how she feels about me, and she knows how I feel about her," Moss says. "Our relationship is not important to anybody but us."

As he so often does for Moss, Tice explains: "Randy wants everyone to think he's a tough guy, but his relationship with this little girl is really something. It's typical of Randy. He's great with kids. He doesn't trust authority. And he doesn't trust adults because he thinks they all want something from him. And you know what? He's not far off."

There's always a layer, tangible or not, that separates Moss from the world. But when it is suggested that he could capitalize on the story of the little girl and negate the images of him snarling on the sideline or squirting water on an official or walking head-down through the doors of the county jail, his response is succinct: "I don't really care."

Then he bursts out laughing. The questions keep coming, in different forms, and still nobody gets it. He doesn't care about public perception, but nobody believes him. He finds this whole game of hide-and-seek funny, which may be another indication of maturity. "I've been by myself my whole life, raised by a single parent who was working all the time to provide for us," he says. "So I was alone. And who knows you better than yourself? Nobody. I don't need someone to tell me who I am. I don't need to see something on TV to know it's real."

The germs are out there, and vigilance is the only defense. He's a man whose unpredictability is his best and worst trait, whose motto creates as much separation as one of his routes. "I do what I want to do, I play when I want to play, and I do things the way I want to do them." If he repeats it enough, maybe the germs won't find him. Maybe the sickness won't take hold.

The Changed Man? You can hear the laughter from here. Moss says he won't change, nor does he think he should. To him that feels clean.

Pure, even.