Here comes football's reigning diva in a good mood. You hear him before you see him. He's singing from deep inside the made-for-Minnesota hood of his jacket. It's a subzero Monday, and he's floating up to his locker like all the great ones -- head up, gaze straight ahead, careful to avoid eye contact. He is a man who gets bothered, and men who get bothered train themselves to be all alone in a roomful of people. It is a kind of art.
He gets to his locker -- a Vesuvial collection of shoes and gear -- and says he'll talk. "Let's talk while I dress," he says. Yes, a good mood. Some of his teammates and several reporters in the locker room commiserate with each other out of the corners of sly grins. Randy Moss talks. Must be somebody's lucky day. This mood seems to catch him a little by surprise, too. You get the feeling he didn't expect it either. But the care and cultivation of mystery and unpredictability is a conscious part of Moss' game. He wants to keep everybody guessing -- his teammates, his fans, the inquisitive public. "Got to," he says. "Always."
He's not easy to deal with -- even harder for defensive backs to cover -- nor does he pretend to be or even want to be. Where's the challenge in being easy? Tell the life story? No, thanks. Play nice for the cameras? No, thanks. "Not everyone has good intentions," says Vikings coach Dennis Green. "Randy knows this. Some people have a bad agenda. He's been in some bad situations, so he shouldn't be naive." So what the world wants and what the world gets aren't the same. The world wants everything, and once it gets that it'll want more. Let someone else turn that wheel. "I'm a guy here to play football," Moss says. "I'm not here for photos or newspapers or TV shows or trophies or awards. I'm not into all that. If they don't like it, so what."
Do his teammates understand him? "Depends on what day it is," says one. Opponents have been more direct. Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, perhaps the most accommodating superstar the NFL has seen, told a St. Louis television station, "Randy's just a guy I don't see eye to eye with. I take my responsibilities in this league a little differently."
No one has been able to get Moss to believe a man of his talent and impact can't escape the spotlight, because he has, saving most of his words for the moments following virtuoso performances, like the one he turned in against New Orleans in the divisional playoffs. That too was art: two touches, two touchdowns, each coming on the third play of each half, 121 yards. "You don't want to get me started," he said afterward. "That's the worst thing you don't ever want to do in a football game. Don't let 84 get started."
Well, he's started, but just. Moss is still only 23 years old. He wears braces and self-consciously talks around them. He is a countrified diva -- raw and regal. He gives off the air of a guy who can do what he wants when he wants, which is pretty much the core and essence of Randy Moss and his game. But when he talks, when he opens the shutters wide enough to create light, what you get is a beam of blunt honesty. This is not a guy who networks. This is not a guy who spins. This is not a guy who seeks angles.
Ask him about his public persona, which straddles the line between intriguing iconoclast and arrested adolescent, and he says, "In a way, I am what they say I am." He shrugs as he takes off a chain carrying an enormous jeweled crucifix. "I am a hard-ass. I'm hard to get along with. Most of the time I'm moody. All that's true. I got no problem with people saying that." Moss admits to getting into verbal scrapes with people at airports and hotels -- people who want more than he is willing to provide. He has had three incidents with referees -- squirting one with a water bottle, making contact with another and cursing a third -- over the past 13 months, putting him on the NFL's escalating-fine program for repeat offenders.
"Everybody knows I got a temper," he says. "It's not a temper temper -- not an off-the-field temper. It's a competitive temper, wanting to do good. But as far as being a guy who disrupts a lot of things, who doesn't want to listen? Nah, man. Nah. That's false. That's false because I'm excelling."
He has his own ideas about what is important. In his three-year career, he was once named NFC Offensive Rookie of the Month and has been recognized as the NFC Player of the Week three times. On the days he was honored, a member of the Vikings public relations staff doubled back after the presentations to fish out the trophies from the locker room trash can. He has kept just two awards from a short lifetime of receiving them: the Offensive Rookie of the Year trophy from 1998, and the 1997 Fred Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best college receiver. "I only keep the big ones," he says.
Ask him what people don't understand about him and he says it's the football -- how much he cares about the game and works for it. He likes the life and the money and the freedom -- sure he does. He's 23 and the best at what he does in the whole damn world. What 23-year-old wouldn't want what he's got?
He initially balked at being interviewed for this story, suggesting he would rather talk after he got a Super Bowl ring. After the disappointments of the past two seasons, the Super Bowl has become something of an obsession in the Twin Cities. The fall months have not been a problem for the Vikings. Winter is different. Winter is playoff time, and the Vikings' performances in past playoffs have raised questions of legitimacy. They were 15-1 in 1998 and lost to the underdog Falcons in the NFC championship game. Last year they lost to the Rams in a divisional playoff game. Apparently, whatever corrective measures the Vikings took during their playoff bye week this season have taken hold. They dominated the Saints, and no one played a bigger part than Moss. Still, Minnesotans wonder: Are the regular seasons a cruel tease? Are the Vikings the Atlanta Braves of the NFL?
Sure, everybody wants a ring, from the lowest-rung special-teamer to football's reigning diva. It's the most threadbare cliché in sports. But Moss' quest is different, because he believes he has the power to make it happen, to snatch a trip to the Super Bowl out of the air like one of Daunte Culpepper's throws -- if they let him. Consider the Saints game a campaign speech.
You see, Moss believes in Moss. Completely, wholeheartedly, with every fiber and corpuscle of his being. Moss believes in Moss not only when he is single-covered but also when he is double- and triple-covered. He might consider 1-on-11 even odds. Throw it up there, he says, and everybody stand back and watch. "He's so confident in himself that even if he is doubled, he likes his chances," says Vikings backup quarterback Bubby Brister. "He's probably right. He's so good it's hard to argue with him." Says Vikings receiver Matthew Hatchette: "Playing football with Randy is like playing basketball with Michael Jordan."
As Jordan did, Moss thus far has played like no one else has at his position. This year, he led the league in touchdown receptions with 15. He had five scores of 40 or more yards, eight games with more than 100 yards receiving (Minnesota is 15-4 when he does that), 12 of his 16 games with a touchdown catch. He is the most feared deep threat in the league, and he gives the Vikings a score-now element that no other playoff team can match.
"Does it fall to me in the playoffs?" Moss asks. "Hell, every game does. Most of the time it is me. Most of the time teams try to take me out of the game. That's their focus." He looks up from tying his shoe. "But most of the time, I manage to slither my way into that end zone. That's the difference."
He gets frustrated, though. With genius comes impatience, and make no mistake: What Moss does on the field is a form of genius. The game is in those legs and in those hands. Witness catch No.2 against the Saints: Moss hauled in a sideline hitch pass at the line of scrimmage with four defenders in front of him. Swoosh! Sixty-eight yards later he scored untouched.
And when he has to run down a pass, his body twists into an origami of extended arms and perfectly placed feet. He goes over and around defensive backs as if unencumbered by the usual constraints of muscle and bone and equipment. Just throw it up there and let's see.
But when Culpepper doesn't throw it up there ... or, more accurately, when Culpepper doesn't throw it up there and the Vikings struggle, the seams show. Moss gets frustrated. That above-it-all demeanor comes across as boredom, or disinterest. He doesn't always appear engaged, and if a Super Bowl is in the Vikings' immediate future, it will require the services of a fully engaged, locked-and-loaded Randy Moss.
Opposing defensive backs choose their words carefully when they speak of Moss. They understand his precisely calibrated sense of retribution. Those who dismiss him (like the 19 teams that passed over him in the 1998 draft) pay a never-ending toll for their sins. Dallas is the primary example: He hit them for seven catches, 144 yards and two scores this year. Their meter, apparently, is still running.
But in a 40-29 loss to the Rams on Dec. 10, Moss did a lot of jogging. He jogged on runs to the other side of the field and pass plays that weren't intended for him. With the Rams putting a strong pass rush on Culpepper, there were several opportunities for Moss to redirect his route and reenter the play. He rarely did. After the game, Rams corner Todd Lyght said, "Like the films show, when he isn't the primary receiver, he'll take a play off. If it's a run away from him, he'll shut it down. He knows the backside cornerback can't make the play, so he'll give himself a rest."
Moss doesn't dispute the characterization. "It doesn't really bother me when people talk about me taking plays off," he says. "It only bothers me when I'm on the field and I take a play off, and the ball's thrown and I'm not where I should be. Or if Robert [Smith] comes through there and I'm taking that play off. Only when something bad happens on the field."
"I'm not going to say Randy took plays off," says Rams corner Dre Bly. "But if any team wants to win the Super Bowl, they need maximum effort from everybody. That's just the way it is."
You'd expect Green, for whom January has been an NFL hell, to echo Bly's expectations, but no. "I don't worry too much about that," he says. "Everybody who gets paid is expected to play. I'm not going to go out and challenge a guy -- are you going 100%? That's not my job. It's the player's individual job to carry his own water."
So how can Randy Moss carry enough water to help Minnesota conquer its January demons? Other than making the most of his touches -- and apparently two can be enough -- he has to let patience overtake frustration, let maximum effort replace part-time malaise. Then he'll keep making things easy for Green and the rest of the Vikings. "Teams do whatever they can to stop Randy, so it's up to us to make that threshold of pain very severe," Green says. "They need to say, 'Okay, Moss caught one pass, but we're losing 17-3.' So we're going to have to make them change that plan, and then it's up to us to come back to Randy. That's where he can do the most damage."
Moss says defense makes no difference. He says tactics make no difference. Just throw it up there and see what happens. "Teams try to trash-talk me and rough me up every Sunday," he says. "Me? I don't play that game. Don't need to. I'm known to be mouthy, but not on the field. Out there, I'm just trying to hurt your feelings. I want to go out there and make you feel bad."
Three years after Moss crashed the NFL party, at least 19 teams feel bad every Sunday, and he still considers himself apart from the rest. In the league, but not of it. And should the Vikings survive, come Jan. 28, he'll relish the role of victorious interloper, the stripper who wins the Miss USA pageant.
And you can bet that trophy won't have to be fished out of the trash.
This article appears in the January 22 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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