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In Rand, sympathy for Moss remained high throughout the legal ordeals. Outside Rand, it was--and is--a different story. "There are people who are still nuts about the guy. They'll make excuses; they'll look the other way. But I think the overwhelming majority of people in West Virginia are no fans," observes Mitch Vingle, sports editor at the Charleston Gazette. "Some people were ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. But then he started ripping West Virginia, and saying everybody's racist and all this bull crap. People didn't understand where that venom came from."
After serving his sentence, Moss stayed in West Virginia, walking on at Marshall University, 40 miles down the road in Huntington. In his first season, he tied the 1-AA record for TD receptions in a season (28) and won a national championship. After another spectacular season, Moss received an invitation to the Heisman Award ceremony at New York's Downtown Athletic Club. By then, the Reverend Watts had forged a close relationship with Moss. He and Tim DiPiero decided to impart a little fatherly advice to the Heisman candidate: Lose the cornrows. Watts recalls: "We told him, the media and white America isn't really into the braids on athletes. You might want to think about cutting your hair, because people will read it wrong and the draft is coming up. He sat there and listened to us, very respectfully. Didn't say anything. And when we were finished, we asked him whether he would cut his hair, and he said, 'Nope. This is me. I play football. I'm one of the best in the country, and I shouldn't have to convince nobody.'"
Watts thought that was a mistake--one that cost him in the draft. But, he says, he admired Moss's underlying motivation. "He doesn't want to be a phony or a fake. That means a lot to him. And I admire the fact that he says, 'I'm going to be my own man, I'm not going to say anything just so people like me.'" In Lorenzo Whitestone's view, Moss is simply living up to the fundamental Rand ethic, one that carries its own costs. "When you're from a small town like Rand, everybody knows everybody, and there's a lot of pressure to, as they say in the 'hood, keep it real for the homeboys," he says.
Moss's image-is-nothing approach may have been driven by the impulse to keep it real for the homeboys. Or it may simply have been the product of an overwhelming amount of bad publicity. In 1997, while he was still at Marshall, Sports Illustrated profiled him. Among other things, the writer asked Moss about the 1970 plane accident that claimed the life of 75 people, including the entire Marshall football team, coaches, fans, and crew: Was he motivated by the 27-year-old tragedy? Taken out of context, Moss's reply ("It was a tragedy, but it really wasn't nothing big") infuriated many Marshall fans and alumni. "I knew a brother of one of the guys on the plane, and he was hating Randy when he read that," says Tim DiPiero.
When Moss finally entered the draft, he was widely projected as a top five pick. In the end, 19 teams passed over him before the Vikings selected him with the 21st pick. No one doubted his talent. But he was tagged a troublemaker, and few teams were ready to take the public relations risk. But if the media and the NFL were slow to forgive and forget, so was Moss. Donnie "Blue" Jones is a Rand native who works as Moss's personal assistant. "I think his life would be a lot easier if he could just open up," Jones says. "But he knows anything he says can get twisted. If you know Moss, you love him. If you don't know him, you might hate him. That's Moss."
I don't know Moss. Among the journalists who cover the Vikings, few do. Still, as Donnie Jones points out, the disdain expressed for Moss is generally inversely proportional to the degree of contact. Paul Allen, the Vikings radio play-by-play man and a host of a sports talk show on KFAN-AM, has been around the locker room for Moss's entire tenure with the team. Though Moss has never been on his show and, until this year, didn't know his name, Allen says Moss has always been civil. And though he can be aloof on a personal level, most beat reporters don't seem to mind that much. "I can't say I have a problem with him, personally or professionally," says Bill Williamson, who covers the Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Williamson acknowledges that Moss seldom makes himself available for midweek interviews; no one in the Twin Cities market has done an extensive sit-down with him. But on Sundays, Williamson says, he is generally accessible for the post-game questions. "He's a guy who doesn't trust a lot of people, and he can be surly. But I do appreciate that he thinks about questions you ask, and when he talks, he looks you in the eye and he respects you."
Last year, a week after the initial furor over the "I play when I want to play" remark, Moss was asked about the quote in a conference call with reporters. Did he want to take it back? Or clarify what he meant? His response: "Hell, no. That shit is what I said." A second public outcry ensued. But a man from Rand stands by his words. You say what you mean, you mean what you say. It is an anti-image ethic. Whatever else he is, Moss is the antithesis of extremely image-conscious athletes such as his old teammate Cris Carter or, more notably, that most beloved of Minnesota sports icons, Kirby Puckett.
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