Moss's blessing, and curse
Achievement and controversy follow star receiver
He mattered because of his exceptional athletic ability. Regardless of which sport Randy Moss conquered in his native West Virginia, whether it was plucking a football out of the sky, running down a baseball in center field, slam-dunking a basketball, or sprinting past everyone on the track, he invariably became the focus. This was not because he craved attention - quite the opposite, actually - but because at any moment, the locals knew he was capable of doing something spectacular, and they wanted to be able to say they were there.
"We were playing in the sectional championship," recalled Jim Fout, his baseball coach at Dunlop High School in Belle, W.Va. "Randy was playing center field, shading toward right. A kid hit the ball to the gap in left-center. I'm looking at it thinking, 'That's a triple.' There was no way anyone was going to catch that ball. Well, not only did Randy catch it, he actually overran it. He had to come back and get it."
Moss's athletic prowess has proven to be a blessing and a curse. In 10 NFL seasons with Minnesota, Oakland, and New England, he has been to the Pro Bowl eight times and is third in career touchdown receptions (124). In his first year with the Patriots, he set an NFL record for touchdown receptions in a season (23).
His performance has made him millions of dollars, but also made him a public figure, whose mistakes have been highlighted nearly as much as his accomplishments.
Moss will take the field for the Patriots this afternoon in the AFC Championship game against the San Diego Chargers with the spotlight firmly fixed on him, partly because of a season in which he reestablished himself as the most feared receiver in the game, but also because of allegations by a Florida woman last week that he caused her "serious injury" in an incident during the Patriots' bye week in early January.
"I don't know why these kind of issues follow him," said Bob Pruett, his football coach at Marshall, "but they always have, all the way back to high school."
The racial tension at Dunlop High School, where blacks were truly in the minority, was palpable. Just a stone's throw from Moss's locker was a hallway called Red Neck Alley, where kids draped their lockers with Confederate flags and symbols of the Ku Klux Klan.
Moss dated a white girl, Libby Offutt, and the boys on Red Neck Alley objected. He heard about it, all day, especially when their daughter, Sydney, was born during his senior year. As Moss trampled school records in multiple sports at Dunlop, the college recruiters started coming around, and the kids who lingered on Red Neck Alley didn't like that, either.
Jason Williams, a point guard for the Miami Heat who played high school basketball with Moss, cringed when he heard kids complain that Moss was taking a scholarship away from a white player, that he should stick to his own kind, that he didn't know his place.
"There are a lot of things about West Virginia you can't possibly understand unless you are from there," said Williams, who is white.
Sometimes Moss ignored the racial taunts. Occasionally, he didn't, and minor skirmishes resulted. Fout told his players that whenever they felt threatened, they should retreat to the gym, where they would be safe, but Moss wasn't one to run away from a confrontation.
By his senior year, he had been named player of the year in West Virginia for basketball, had helped Dunlop win two state championships in football, and had won the 100- and 200-meter state championships in track.
As his celebrity increased, Moss began disappearing from class. He'd ask for a pass to the restroom and be gone for 10, 15 minutes. One day, a suspicious teacher followed him. Moss wasn't in the bathroom - he was in the special education classroom, sitting on the floor playing with Ronald, a boy with Down syndrome who had no inkling Moss was a sports hero. To Ronald, Randy was just a friend.
In turn, Ronald became a welcome escape from the pressures of being Randy Moss.
"Randy was so great with that boy," Fout said. "You wish other people saw that side of him."
Sometimes, Moss and Williams hung out together. Afterward, a few of Williams's friends would shun him for days.
"I tried to explain, 'He's a person, just like me,' " Williams said. "But they didn't want to hear it."
In 1994, he was nearing the completion of his senior year when his friend, Rayeshawn Smith, went to class and found racial slurs carved into his desk. Smith challenged Ernest Roy Johnson, who he believed was responsible, to a fight and asked Moss to back him up.
Punches were thrown. Johnson ended up on the floor, dazed. Moss stood over him, and made a decision that has haunted him to this day.
He reared back and kicked Johnson, leaving him with internal injuries that required hospitalization. Years later, Moss confessed he didn't know what came over him.
"In a fight you don't think," he said in a book "Randy Moss, First in Flight." "It was just like my temper took over - like I was another person."
Moss was arrested and charged as an adult with a felony (malicious wounding). He later pleaded guilty to two counts of battery (misdemeanor) and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. At his hearing, Moss shook Johnson's hand and apologized to his family, but the damage was done. The most celebrated athlete in the state was about to be taught a costly lesson.
"It was a bad scene," Fout said. "What Randy did was wrong. He knows that. But if it had been just another student in the school and not Randy Moss, it never would have become what it did. The student would have been disciplined, for sure, but that prosecuting attorney, once he heard it was Moss, he was going after him."
Just like that, it was all gone: the adulation, the scholarship to Notre Dame, the chance to graduate with his class. Moss was expelled and had to finish at Cabell Alternative School. Holtz pleaded with Notre Dame to consider the mitigating circumstances of the case, but the school stood firm and withdrew its offer. Holtz called Bobby Bowden at Florida State and Bowden agreed to enroll Moss as long as he sat out his first year.
He enrolled in Tallahassee in 1995, dominated in practice, than sat and waited his turn.
It never came. In April 1996, when Moss reported to serve his sentence from the battery case, he tested positive for marijuana. Florida State bounced him, and another 90 days were tacked on to his sentence. He spent the summer in jail, and no other Division 1A program would touch him.
Randy Moss was officially bad news.
The "hating" had begun.
'I've been hated all my life'
Last month, after the Patriots had beaten the Baltimore Ravens, 27-24, and Moss had caught four passes for 34 yards and a touchdown, he was asked to comment on criticism from analyst Ron Jaworski that he hadn't run his routes as hard as should have.
"I've been hated all my life, and I don't think it's going to stop now," Moss said. "When you're up, people hate you. When you're down, people love you."
Williams, who had graduated from Dunlop by the time the racial incident involving Moss unfolded, conceded he was worried when he first learned what had happened.
"But I knew how good he was," Williams said. "I knew someone would give him another chance."
In 1996, Moss was invited to enroll at Marshall, a Division 1-AA school in West Virginia. Moss caught 78 passes for 1,709 yards and tied Jerry Rice's Division 1-AA record of 28 touchdowns. Marshall won a championship, then moved up to Division 1-A the following year. Moss caught 96 balls for 1,820 yards, was voted the best receiver in the nation, and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
"He was going to be a top-five pick," Pruett said.
His numbers warranted it, but Moss was soon under the microscope again. In 1997, he and Offutt became embroiled in an argument, and concerned neighbors dialed 911. According to statements supplied to the police, Moss would not let Offutt get up from a sitting position and "threw steaming hot water on her" when she told him to leave. Moss said Offutt "hit and kicked" him and broke his gold chain. Both declined to press charges when police arrived, but both were arrested for domestic battery.
The charges were later dropped, but the incident landed in his NFL file.
On draft day, Moss slipped all the way to the 21st pick, selected by Minnesota.
Former Vikings coach Dennis Green said from the first day Moss arrived, "He was a young guy who would do whatever it took to win."
"This world is full of 'incidents' ," said Green. "I'll stick with the guy who gave me everything he had."
Holtz said he offered Moss a scholarship after watching him interact with his mother, Maxine, who made her son attend church weekly, forbade swearing, and worked two jobs to raise him on her own.
"The day I went to his house for my visit, there were only two soft chairs in the living room," Holtz said. "I sat in one, and Randy's mom sat in the other. Randy sat on the arm, right next to his mother. Throughout the recruiting process, he showed her the utmost respect. I'll never forget that."
Holtz said Moss has made mistakes because he's not unlike many players who are immersed in a culture that worships athletes.
"The problem is with natural athletes like him, who are so talented, nobody has held him accountable for anything," said Holtz. "People get so mesmerized by what he can do."
Moss has been the most important difference between a Patriots team that was eliminated by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2006 AFC Championship game and a club that has been perfect this season. Asked what has impressed him most about his receiver, coach Bill Belichick answered, "His consistency. He's the same guy every day. He's the same professional guy every day."
Shortly after Moss was traded from Oakland to New England, former Raiders coach Art Shell questioned his attitude and his future, predicting the receiver would "drive [Tom] Brady and Belichick crazy." Tackle Barry Sims announced the team was better off without Moss, who, as an uninterested party, caught just 42 balls for 553 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2006.
As consistently great as Moss has been in New England this season, he was as consistently disappointing in Oakland last season.
"Losing makes everyone bad," Williams said. "In Oakland, he didn't have guys around him. They couldn't win there. And Randy is all about winning."
Moss's ex-coaches agree on one thing: He must believe you are in his corner. If he does, he will be loyal, attentive, and reliable. If not, he will have trouble performing.
"I'm the biggest Randy Moss fan there is," Pruett said. "When I hear these things about him, I just have to think they don't know him.
"The only thing about Randy is, when he's right, he's right. He's not going to budge. Maybe it's that stubbornness that gets in the way."
Fout said Moss never missed a basketball practice in three seasons. When colleges tried to schedule a weekend football recruiting trip, he declined, telling them, "Sorry, fellas, I've got a ballgame."
While in Minnesota, Moss was known for arranging for busloads of underprivileged children to come see an NFL game. Yet he once abused his own Viking corporate sponsors so harshly that he was ordered to undergo anger management counseling.
When the 1996 Marshall championship team held a reunion recently, Moss got wind that some of his teammates couldn't afford to come, so he paid their way. "That's respect for the program, for the game," Pruett said.
Yet Moss demonstrated so little respect for an official in a 2000 Vikings playoff game against St. Louis that he squirted him with a water bottle and was fined $40,000.
Jim Fout was there when a young Moss kicked a boy who lay on the ground, unable to defend himself. He was also there when Moss got on the ground himself, to bring a smile to a special needs child.
"There are things Randy wished never happened," said Fout. "He's not perfect. None of us are."
The "hating," Moss said recently, will always dog him, no matter what he does.
And yet, if he leaps above a crowd of defenders today and catches a football with one hand, making it look so easy you'd think that's how it's meant to be done, the "hating" will dissipate in an instant.
And he will matter - as he always has.
Jackie MacMullan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Correction: Because of a reporting error, the name of the high school Randy Moss attended was incorrect in a Page One story on Sunday about the Patriots star receiver. Moss attended DuPont High School in Belle, W. Va.)