|Randy Moss, businessman, hooked up with NASCAR to purchase 50 percent of a Craftsman Truck Series team. (Geoff burke/Getty Images)|
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - His tenure with the Patriots began with swirling questions about his work ethic and loss of speed, but those innuendos aren't hovering over Randy Moss anymore. They've been left behind with the defensive backs in his rearview mirror.
Moss's dynamic entry in New England and remarkable individual performance in 2007 - the 98 receptions, the NFL-record 23 touchdowns - have shifted the focus surrounding him.
The more prevalent questions, especially since he signed a three-year extension this offseason, now seem to be different, such as what makes him tick off the field.
Who is Randy Moss?
There are some easy answers on the periphery, such as how he's delved into business with fruit smoothie stores (Inta Juice) and a NASCAR truck team, or how he expresses himself with an eclectic wardrobe that can create a stir in his home state of West Virginia.
But those are less revealing. He's the father of four children, generally mistrusting of others' agendas, and devoted to his hometown of Rand, where a sign at the town line tells visitors it's the home of brothers Eric and Randy Moss.
Much has changed for Moss since he joined the Patriots in April 2007.
At this time last year, he was entering his first training camp in New England, with his every move scrutinized. Is he running hard enough? How is his attitude? Can he still blow by defenders?
Yet as Moss prepares for the start of his second training camp with the Patriots tomorrow, those questions have dissipated, replaced by a curiosity about who he is, not necessarily what he does.
It's piqued by Moss's private nature, and lack of trust in those he doesn't know well.
Still, there are times he provides the slightest of openings to outsiders, depending on the time and location. A Moss-guided tour of his fictional alma mater, Rand University, is probably the right place to start.
"This is where I'm able to let my hair down and put my feet up," Moss said in an interview during his recent return to West Virginia. "These people see me and spend time with me, so I feel like they know and understand me. This is home."
Convenient degree"Randy Moss. Rand University."
They are words that stirred some passions at Marshall University, where Moss starred from 1996-97.
When the Patriots were featured in one of their prime-time games last season, the ones in which players introduce themselves to the national television audience by saying their name and college, Moss said he came from Rand U. The decision riled some folks at Marshall.
Rand University, it turns out, is a
"Growing up in a low-income area, the one thing we had was a 7-Eleven," explained Moss's business manager and one of his closest friends, Donnie "Blue" Jones. "We've had all-state athletes here, but because of the environment in which they grew up, people in the community would say, 'It doesn't matter. He isn't going anywhere but Rand University.'
"I was an all-state football player, but when they said that to me, what they meant was that when I was done with high school, I'd be standing at the 7-Eleven drinking a cold beer. That's the university. I graduated from there."
School colors: Green, orange, and white.
"When Randy pays homage to that," Jones explained, "he's basically saying, 'I still have my eye on y'all.' "
West Virginia is one of the few places Moss feels intimately attached to, even if it's where he often had to sift through his real friends, and those who said they were friends.
Moss returned home in late June to host a charity golf tournament, his 10-year-old son by his side, to raise funds for a learning center he plans to build for children in the area.
"I might be accustomed to big-city living, but I've always been a country boy," Moss said of his roots. "Being from here, it helps me stay grounded, because there weren't many things to look forward to, not many people to look up to. That's why I feel lucky and very, very blessed to be successful, and why I'll never get carried away with that success."
Moss is also content to forgo high-end restaurants on his visits, and instead goes to Baby Murad's - a beige shed two blocks from where he grew up and learned to swim in a nearby river by jumping in off a rope. From afar, the shed looks like a spot to store gardening tools, but inside reveals something altogether different - several televisions.
"The shed is basically a country thing, a place to hang out, relax, and tell stories. I'm not a beer drinker, but it's a place for guys to have a few, cut a few jokes, and watch whatever games are on," Moss said.
"That's what being here is about. We don't need big skyscrapers or amusement parks. I think if you gave us a grill, a set of horseshoes and a deck of cards, we'd have our own fun."
The Baby Murad's name is a takeoff from the popular sports bar Murad's on 35th Street in Charleston, where Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama visited following a speech at the University of Charleston March 20.
When kicking back in Baby Murad's, Moss can simply be "Otis."
"That's our nickname for him, back from childhood," Jones explained. "He's not Randy Moss. He's not 'The Man.' It's not about the NFL or the 'Super Freak.' It's Otis from Rand, and with that comes a comfort level he can only get in one place - here.
"You're looking at a guy who could go be anywhere in the world he wants to be and relax, but he'd rather be in Rand in the shed, looking at a TV, laughing and listening to war stories. It's pure to him, man, and he's pure in that he takes care of us, so we take care of him."
Catching up to a recordThere is one other place that comes close to giving Moss such a feeling of comfort, at least since he joined the Patriots, and that's the football field.
But on his recent trip home, Moss was less inclined to speak of his performance on the field. The purpose of the trip was to supply hundreds of children with new Pony sneakers and T-shirts, and Moss cut a group media interview short when he was asked about Super Bowl XLII, feeling the questions should be solely about the children.
Only later, in a quieter setting with a West Virginia reporter, did he slightly open up about football and Super Bowl XLII.
"It's what I do for a living, so the good thing about that is I can gear back up for the following year," he said.
Moss noted that he was excited about the upcoming season, and later that night - speaking to a group supporting his charity endeavor - revealed how much the touchdown record meant to him.
"The one thing I've said before is that if there was one record I really wanted to break, that's it, just for the fact it's the position that I play," he said. "Being able to keep coming back, season after season after season, no matter what goes on with wins and losses, you still have individual goals. You put those on the back burner, but you have them, and for that record to be broken, it is something that I've cherished this offseason."
Jones said Moss is also cherishing the chance to play again with quarterback Tom Brady, as well as being part of a team structure that allows him to block out off-field noise that has sometimes followed him.
"He's at peace, the happiest I've seen him, and I've been around him for a long time," Jones said. "He's happy, and I think it shows because he's giving himself to people more."
That helps explains why Moss re-signed with New England (three years for $27 million) in March, accepting less money than the aggressive Philadelphia Eagles were offering.
Moss's decision to remain in New England came 11 months after his initial meeting with top Patriots officials, when he was hopeful the team would acquire him from the Raiders, where things had turned sour.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick recalled that he had spoken before that meeting to people who had prior dealings with Moss, and that Moss has come as advertised.
"It wasn't lip service," Belichick said. "He's always been really good to deal with - honest and straightforward. I call him, boom, he's there. He's smart, he understands the big picture, and understands the little things."
Moss's former teammate at Marshall, Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, felt from the start that a Moss-Patriots union was a perfect fit.
"I think going to New England was the best thing for Randy, where he could go to a veteran, experienced team and solely concentrate on himself and how he could become a better professional," Pennington said. "They have a system up there that takes care of things and allows players to stay focused, and I think that's been good for him."
Someone to lean onTo partially understand what makes Moss tick off the field, and why he keeps a close circle of friends, requires a trip back in time.
"It's been well documented over the years that Randy has a real issue with trust, and reading people," Jones said. "Since he was 14, 15 years old, somebody always wanted something from him, so his circle has always remained small.
"To make a long story short, man, if you see someone with him, really interacting with him, and him being himself, there is trust there. It's been built up over time, and to breach that trust is a bad thing because it's hard to get. Most of the people you see around him are real loyal and love him."
It's also why Moss seems to devote the majority of his charity work to children.
"The good thing about the kids that I really, really appreciate is that the kids aren't going to lie to you," Moss said. "They're going to keep it real with you. Kids are not going to lie to you and I'm not going to lie to the kids."
During his visit, Moss implored hundreds of children to embrace their parents or guardians when they returned home. Later, in a quiet moment, he passionately explained his message.
"All I had was my mom growing up, and I think you look around here, and a lot of people can see where we are - it's the 'hood," he said. "In the 'hood, you don't really get to experience the love, because you have to grow up so fast. In the 'hood, kids raise themselves, so they really don't have a lot of time to spend at home with their parents - it's always rippin' and runnin'.
"Back when I was growing up, I didn't have one person to tell me to go home and kiss my mom, or give her a hug, and tell her I love her. Kids don't really get to hear that, but I think it's really important. I love kids to hug me, and I kiss them back. Every time I hang up with one of my children, it's always, 'I love you, Dad. I love you, too.'
"Now that you're getting older, and I have close friends who are losing their parents, losing their mom, losing their dads . . . "
Moss's thoughts tailed off, left hanging in the humid West Virginia air, perhaps to be revisited another day.
He had opened his world ever so slightly, and to those who stepped inside, it's clear there is an even more powerful story to be told in the future.
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.