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.

But though there had been less than a consensus on the subject of Moss's character before his arrest, critics now began tripping over each other in a stampede to condemn the mercurial receiver. ESPN's Len Pasquarelli called Moss "a social cripple" and "a cancer" that should be excised. Former NFL coach Jim Mora dubbed him "a jerk and a loser." Ex-Viking quarterback-turned-pundit Sean Salisbury termed Moss an embarrassment and called for his immediate suspension. Cris Collinsworth, host of HBO's Inside the NFL, thundered, "Get him out of there!"

The local media played it a bit more sympathetically. But columnists for both daily papers--the Strib's Pat Reusse and the Pi Press's Bob Sansevere--took the opportunity to play shrink. Both came up with an identical diagnosis: Moss suffers from an adolescent personality problem known as oppositional defiance disorder. In the avalanche of stories that followed, every transgression Moss had ever committed (from squirting a referee with a water bottle to berating a corporate bigwig on the team bus) was rehashed.

Two days after the arrest, a subdued Moss sat down for the cameras at Vikings headquarters in Eden Prairie. He was dressed in workout clothes--a sleeveless sweatshirt with a formfitting undershirt--and a gold Vikings baseball cap. His hair, longer than usual, puffed out at the edges of the cap, giving him a sort of clownish look. He appeared bleary-eyed and distraught. The cap, an artifact from Moss's rookie season, bore the logo "Three Deep"--the old handle for the record-breaking receiving trio of Moss and former teammates Cris Carter and Jake Reed. If you looked closely, you could see that Moss had taken a Sharpie to the cap. He'd crossed out Reed and Carter's names and scrawled the words One Deep next to the original Three Deep logo. Was it a playful little gag? Maybe. But on this day it looked more like a hurt, naked statement: I am alone.

He delivered a rambling, disjointed soliloquy. Allowing that he was nervous, he apologized to his family, friends, teammates, and sponsors. He referred to the pot issue in a way that only confounded matters: "I think the NFL knows what Randy Moss has done with marijuana. And I think the NFL knows what Randy Moss does with marijuana." Then, in a subsequent interview with ESPN's Andrea Kremer, he said that his image had been "shattered" and he broke down and wept.

Moss's remarks would be parsed mightily over the course of the next several news cycles. The marijuana question prompted boundless speculation that Moss was headed for suspension under the NFL's drug abuse policy, speculation that has yet to come to fruition. One local television station, KSTP (Channel 5), interviewed two public relations experts to dissect Moss's performance. Not surprisingly, the flacks gave Moss low marks for not explicitly apologizing to traffic agent Zaccardi, for dressing poorly, and for failing to have a prepared statement.

But that's Randy Moss. Growing up in the West Virginia hills, Moss and his friends valued one ethic above all others: keeping it real. In that hardscrabble milieu, you prove yourself on the playing field or on the street corner. You earn respect through action, not words. And whatever you do, you don't put on airs, because your buddies will spot it, and they'll call you on it. If you want to understand who Moss is, you would do well to overlook the sports page clichés (spoiled, jerk, out of control) and listen to him talk. As he spoke about his woes on September 26, you could hear a certain quality in the vaguely rustic figures of speech he chose ("I don't know if trouble's out to find me, or whatnot, but I'm certainly not out to find trouble") and in his gently lilting twang ("vee-HICK-el").

Whatever else Randy Moss might be, he is pure country.

 

The easiest way to get to rand, west virginia,is to fly to Charleston, the state capital. From there, you drive four miles down I-64 and exit near the village of Malden, boyhood home of Booker T. Washington. Follow this road until you see a sign that reads, "Rand Unincorporated: Home of NFL Players Eric & Randy Moss, Bobbie Howard." If you blink, you're in the next town already. Despite its proximity to Charleston, Rand is not a suburb; it's just a small town. For that matter, Charleston itself seems more like a small town than a state capital. One afternoon I got lost driving on the back roads of Charleston. After wending my way through miles of impossibly rugged and remote terrain, on narrow little roads that seemed to have an indifferent grip on the hillsides, I became convinced I was halfway to Kentucky. Then I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that I had just passed the Charleston city limits.

The town of Rand, bounded on one side by the muddy waters of the Kanawha River and on the other by a railroad track, is laid out in a grid approximately five blocks wide and 10 blocks long. It is home to some 2,000 mostly working class people. But while West Virginia is overwhelmingly white, Rand is racially mixed--about 40 percent black, 60 percent white. The housing stock consists of trailers of varied vintage, the occasional apartment building, and scads of modest little one-story wooden houses. There are just a few businesses in Rand, most of them plopped down haphazardly on residential streets. If you're lucky enough to have a job, you might work at the enormous Dupont chemical refinery down the road in Belle; you might work in the coal mines, though technological advances have made those jobs scarcer; you might commute into Charleston. But a lot of people here don't have jobs. In Rand there is no school and--to the dismay of many residents--no cop.

"People call Rand 'Dodge City,' because it can be rough," says Lorenzo King Whitestone. A Rand native now relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, Whitestone grew up just down the street from the battered white rambler on Church Drive where Maxine Moss raised her three children. As Whitestone tells it, Maxine and his own mother, the Rev. Barbara Whitestone, pooled their resources to raise the kids. "There wasn't a lot of money. Maxine worked as a health nurse, and my mom was a minister, and they were both single parents. We relied on their family and they relied on ours. I remember our mothers scratching the bottom of their pocketbooks to make sure they could buy enough food to feed all eight kids. We didn't always know where our food was gonna come from," Whitestone recalls.

The women did their best to keep their children out of trouble, chiefly by sending them to church as often as possible. "We all came from a Pentecostal background, and so we all went to church four to five days a week. Maxine and my mother, they were both very strict on us. We were disciplined by Mr. Do Right." Mr. Do Right was a piece of thick rubber, with copper and rope in the middle, that Whitestone's departed father had fashioned int o the shape of a paddle. "My mom and Maxine kept Mr. Do Right handy. So anytime we got in trouble, we had to meet him. He was supposed to make us act right, and most of the time he did."

Ten years older than Moss, Whitestone regarded Randy as a younger brother. He remembers him as a shy but playful child who loved Walter Payton and the Chicago Bears. In Rand, sports--even pickup games--were a deadly serious business, says Whitestone. "Football was heaven for us. You go to Church Drive and have a touch game, and it's competitive as the NFL. Everybody's gonna talk junk. You can be eight years old, or 40 years old, it doesn't make a difference."

To get an idea of the value of sports in Rand, look no further than Sam and Vanessa Singleton's double-wide on Raven Drive. The back bedroom is the Randy Moss room. His first shoe--not the first one he wore, the first one he endorsed--dangles from a pushpin tack. "That's the pair he wore in New York for the scrimmage," says Sam Singleton, a soft-spoken retired coal miner. "And this right here is my pass, for when I go to Vikings games." Photos of Moss and assorted game day souvenirs adorn the walls of the room. A faded color photograph shows the Belle Bulldogs, the midget league football team Singleton coached. As the Bulldogs' coach, Singleton had seen his share of good athletes over the years. But he wasn't prepared for Moss. As it happened, young Randy was not the only kid on that particular team who displayed unusual prowess. Bobbie Howard and Singleton's son Man played beside Moss. Howard is now a reserve linebacker with the Chicago Bears. Man was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers. It was, says Singleton, an amazing convergence of talent. "When them kids would walk on the field and sling the football 20 yards, and the other kids are only throwing it five yards, you knew these kids was awesome. They just had it."

With Maxine Moss sometimes working two jobs, the Singleton household became Randy's home away from home. Even today, when he comes back to visit West Virginia--on a bye week or in the off-season--this is where he can often be found. "He'll call up and say, 'Boogieman, I'm home.' And then he'll holler, 'I need the 84 special.' And there you go; I'll fix him the 84 special. Fried chicken. Green beans. Mashed potatoes." When Randy was still a boy, his mother would ground him occasionally; the Singletons provided the means of escape. "Miss Maxine would say, 'Randy needs to do this, Randy needs to do that,' and I'm saying, 'Yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am.' But the whole time, I'm getting him back out on the football field or the baseball field," Singleton laughs. "So whenever he heard my raggedy old truck coming down the road, he'd get to smiling because he knew I was coming to his rescue."

When Moss was in the seventh grade, stories of a lanky kid from Rand who could dunk a basketball had already made their way to Charleston. Moss's legend exploded when he entered Dupont High School in the 10th grade. The school, a perennial powerhouse, won back-to-back football championships after Moss's arrival. He also excelled in baseball and on the basketball court, where he played with future NBA point guard Jason Williams and twice earned West Virginia Player of the Year honors.

In those days Moss often found himself at sports banquets and awards ceremonies. "I used to make him go, and he'd always say, 'Sam, you know I don't like this,'" Singleton recalls. "And I'd tell him, 'You're gonna stay at this until it's over.' But if I left early, he was gone too." Vanessa Singleton theorizes that such family-oriented events were hard on young Moss. "His mom had to work, so she couldn't go most of the time. I really think that had a lot to do with it, not having a parent there when all his buddies had a mother or father there. I think that's why he never wanted to go out in public, why he just wants to play the game and be left alone."

By the time he was a senior, Moss had been in the athletic spotlight for almost a decade. If he'd grown a bit cocky, why should anyone be surprised? Yet Tim Floyd, who coached Moss for several years in a summer basketball league, says Moss was more respectful to adults than most give him credit for. "Randy would sometimes have that faraway look, but he was always listening when you didn't think he was. He never disrespected me," Floyd recalls. He could also be something of a mystery, even to those close to him. "There were times where he just didn't talk. He might wake up and he didn't feel like it," adds Floyd, who traveled with Moss on barnstorming basketball tours. "One night I looked him straight in the eye and I asked him, 'When was the last time a male figure told you that he loved you?' And he said, 'Never.' And I said, 'I want you to understand, Randy, I love you. I'm not queer. I'm not homosexual. But I love you.' I hugged him, and he hugged me."

If Moss's fellow West Virginians ever felt a similar affection, it began to erode when, during his senior year, the schoolboy star was arrested on charges that he and a friend, Rayeshawn Smith, had assaulted a white classmate. By most accounts, Smith believed that the white boy had carved the words All Niggers Must Die into a desk and scrawled Rayeshawn's name next to it. According to witnesses, Smith initiated the attack, and Moss finished it, stomping the felled youth one to four times. Initially, the Kanawha County prosecutor charged Moss, who had just turned 18, with a felony--malicious wounding. Ultimately, Moss pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor battery charge and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. But there were other repercussions: He was expelled from school, and Notre Dame, which had offered Moss a football scholarship, rescinded the offer, nominally because he hadn't filled out the paperwork properly.

Disappointed, Moss sought other options, finally settling on Florida State. As a redshirt freshman, he impressed everyone. The following summer he returned to West Virginia to serve out the remainder of his 30-day sentence. Before turning himself in, Moss smoked a joint with a buddy. The indiscretion was revealed by a routine urine test, and suddenly Moss was at the center of a new controversy. Fearing that Moss might be sent to the penitentiary, Tim DiPiero--Moss's lawyer and now agent--called upon an influential friend in Charleston's black community, the Rev. Matthew Watts, to rally support.

"Never in the history of the Kanawha County court system had a case received so much attention," Watts recalls. "There was just a constant drumbeat: He's a thug, he's never been any good, we ought to lock him up and throw away the key. That was the sentiment on the streets of this town. It totally caught me off guard." Part of it, says Watts, was a matter of timing. Moss's troubles came in the middle of the O.J. Simpson trial. The bad behavior of athletes was a leading topic of the day, and people were quick to condemn transgressors. Offended by what he perceived as a gross overreaction, Watts interceded on Moss's behalf. Appearing before the presiding judge, Watts pleaded for leniency and offered to participate in developing a probation plan for Moss. In the end, the judge sentenced Moss to an additional 60 days in jail, including seven days in solitary. The sentence--which resulted in Florida State revoking its scholarship--struck many black people in West Virginia as patently unfair. In poring over the court records, Watt says, he was unable to find another case in which a defendant convicted on a misdemeanor charge had had his probation revoked for a dirty urine test.

"Randy withdrew after that," adds Lorenzo Whitestone. "How many people came through that system who broke their probation by smoking marijuana and wound up on the national news? Who was held in jail for three months? You can't name one." In Whitestone's view, it was all the product of a grandstanding prosecutor. A year earlier, Whitestone had gotten mixed up with some drug dealers in Rand, was shot, and nearly died. "When I got shot, the same prosecuting attorney was in office, but he never showed up at my trial. Yet you get a kid get caught smoking marijuana, and the big-dog DA is in charge of the case? It just wasn't fair." Incensed, Whitestone organized a street rally to support Moss and to protest the racial environment at Dupont High School.

At the time, there were just two black employees--a choral director and a janitor--among the school's staff of 45. According to Whitestone, the dearth of black authority figures at Dupont had long been a sore spot, and it probably exacerbated some of the existing racial tensions between kids from Rand and the students from outlying areas, where they had little if any contact with black people. The fact that Moss had a blond girlfriend (and, by his junior year in high school, a child with her) only made matters worse, says Whitestone. "A majority of the brothers in Rand had white girlfriends. In Rand, it wasn't a big deal. But in some of the surrounding communities, it was," Whitestone adds. "When I went to Dupont, some of the white girls were called nigger lovers. I remember our principal calling some of us black athletes into this office, telling us not to bring white girls to the prom. Now, that's unheard of these days, but that was 1984. I don't think it was that bad when Randy was there. But there were still some of those attitudes."

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.

Image drives the sports marketing machine. And the machine punishes those who don't work in its interests. Two years ago, the New York Giants routed the Vikings 41-0 in the NFC championship game. The defeat marked the moment when the franchise--consistently competitive for a decade under Denny Green--slid from contender to palooka. Afterward, Moss was asked whether Cris Carter would or should return to the team. "I would love for Cris to come back," Moss said. "But I really don't want Cris to come back and have his hopes set on winning a Super Bowl. I don't really want to say something I might regret. But it's going to be hard for us to win a Super Bowl in Minnesota. It's going to be hard." To many fans, those words represented heresy of the worst sort, and Moss was lambasted. Heretic or not, he was prescient. The team was falling apart. Even in this era of quick turnarounds, it's hard to imagine the Vikings mounting another Super Bowl drive in the near future. Aside from Moss and perhaps a dozen other players (mostly on the offensive side of the ball), the cupboards are bare. This season is obviously a washout. At this point the only compelling question for longtime fans is whether the Vikings will manage to get a top five pick for their meager 2002 efforts.

 

Following his arrest in September, Moss turned in what was doubtless the worst performance of his career in a road game at Seattle. The Vikings were humiliated by a 45-10 margin. It was one of the more dismal showings in the team's history. Moss's play was particularly shocking. By all accounts one of the league's top big-play artists, he somehow managed to drop four potential touchdowns. Later, in the locker room, he assessed his performance with characteristic bluntness: "Hell, no, I ain't never had a game like that, not junior high, high school, or college," he said, adding, "It irks my soul to perform like that."

An irked soul. Maybe that's what Moss is. He has a $75 million contract and a boatload of NFL records, with more seemingly on the way. But that's done little to erase a hardheaded candor that is just this side of outright fatalism, a fatalism that looms over him like the coal-depleted mountains that overshadow the Kanawha River valley.

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