What Makes Randy Run

For the country boy from West Virginia, saying the right thing doesn't count for much. Keeping it real does.

There isn't much reason to getexcited on this night, November 1, in Belle, West Virginia. It's a Friday, and the Riverside High School football team--reliably the biggest draw in this working class town of 1,400--is playing its last regular season game. But no one is expecting much drama. A perennial powerhouse, Riverside is going into the game with a 9-1 record and a berth in the state tournament already locked up. The opponent: a mediocre 4-5 squad that historically has had little luck when venturing into these parts of the football-crazy Kanawha River valley. So on this crisp but picture perfect fall night, the stands are just half full. "We've got good, knowledgeable fans here, and there's a lot of support for this team. I don't think another school in West Virginia gets turnouts like Riverside," says Bobbie Howard Sr. from his perch midway up the metal bleachers, cramming his bare hands into the pockets of an oversized winter coat. "But it's cold tonight, and this game probably won't even be close. People know that."

Indeed, the game is never close and not particularly well played. As Riverside grinds out a never-in-doubt 27-12 victory, the two squads combine for seven fumbles, 10 punts, and 18 penalties. But this is Kanawha Valley football, so there are still plenty of aficionados keeping a keen eye on the contest. As he takes in the action, Howard chooses his words carefully. This is a good but not great team, he offers after a while. He would know. Howard has seen nearly every game Riverside has ever played. The school was created in 1999 following the merger of two once-bitter rivals, East Bank and Dupont. Before the merger, Howard followed Dupont, which was closer to his home in the neighboring town of Rand. He never missed a game. For sheer thrills, he says, nothing matched Dupont football, especially the legendary team that won back-to-back state championships in 1992 and '93. Bobbie Jr. was on that team, but Dupont's biggest star--then or ever--was the younger Howard's friend and neighbor, Randy Moss.

A bona fide phenom by the time he was in grade school, Moss dazzled at every sport he tried. To hear people talk about it now, everyone knew he was headed for big things. By the time he was playing high school football, Howard recalls, people crammed into the stands by the thousands just to see what Moss would do. "It didn't matter if the game was going to be a blowout. You just wanted to see him play, watch him," Howard says. "Because you never knew what he was going to do. You never knew." In a small town, talent has a way of standing out. Nobody in these parts ever stood out quite like Randy Moss. With a blend of raw speed, great leaping ability, and spectacular elusiveness, Moss looked like a man among boys at every level he played.

 

On september 24 of this year, Moss engaged in a spectacularly un-elusive bit of driving on a downtown Minneapolis street. If nothing else, the episode forever secured his position in the annals of farcical celebrity traffic altercations. He may have fallen short of Zsa Zsa Gabor, who once famously slapped a Beverly Hills cop for having the audacity to ticket her. But if Moss didn't quite equal Gabor, he came close.

Out for an afternoon drive in his 2002 Lexus, Moss attempted to make an illegal turn on a downtown street. A traffic control agent named Amy Zaccardi then attempted to block him. By most accounts, the incident played out as follows: Either confused or ornery--or some combination of the two--Moss edged the Lexus forward. In response, Zaccardi apparently planted her backside on the hood of his car. Moss then continued to motor down the street. The precise distance the protagonists traveled is in dispute, but everyone agrees the Lexus was proceeding at a glacial pace until Zaccardi eventually fell to the ground. Police were summoned. Moss was placed under arrest. A WCCO-TV camera crew got to the scene in time to shoot video of the remarkably passive Viking as he sat handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. The camera caught him slowly rubbing his thumbs together, as if he had just learned that he was going to need a root canal.

A blunt--or in the squarer accounts, "a marijuana cigarette"--was found in the ashtray of the Lexus, further ensuring that Moss's arrest would precipitate a very predictable shitstorm. The story dominated the local headlines for days. Hypothetical scenarios ricocheted around the all-talk, all-the-time sports universe like shrapnel in a tin broom closet. Should Moss be charged with a felony? Should he go to jail? Should the Vikings suspend him? Should they trade him? Everyone had an opinion.

 

Moss has been a lightning rod for suchcriticisms since his senior year at Dupont, when he was arrested and prosecuted for his role in a particularly nasty schoolyard scrape. In his five pro years, he has stayed on the right side of the law--yet controversy has continued to follow him, usually stemming from his alleged violations of NFL orthodoxy. Most notably, there was the flap over his "I play when I want to play" remark. Ripped from the original context (it came in response to a question of how Moss motivates himself to perform), the wide receiver's off-the-cuff but fundamentally innocuous answer left talking heads sputtering and howling. They said Moss disgraced the game by failing to give the proverbial 110 percent on every down of every game--even though many other receivers do the same, and the legendary Jerry Rice has admitted he does. Moss had his defenders, too; a cover story in Sports Illustrated at the beginning of this season suggested a change in attitude.

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