HOF preview: Moss went deep to ignite Vikes, transform NFL
MINNEAPOLIS — The ball was flying down the field often for Minnesota during that drizzly night in Green Bay, and Randy Moss kept going over and past the defense to get it.
Five games into his NFL career, Moss was a star. He was a revolutionary, too. There was no moment that better defined his arrival as the league’s premier deep threat than that breakout prime-time performance against the two-time reigning NFC champion and bitter rival Packers.
“Seeing Randall Cunningham smile, seeing him energetic,” Moss said, reflecting on his five-catch, 190-yard, two-touchdown connection with Cunningham that carried the Vikings to a 37-24 victory. “It was just a great feeling.”
When the Vikings landed in Minnesota, his half-brother, Eric Moss, who was briefly his teammate, wondered about the celebrating the big win.
“I said, ‘Going out? No, I want to go home,’” Moss said.
Then defensive tackle John Randle tapped him on the shoulder.
“Man, we’re going to party tonight!” Moss said, recalling Randle’s pronouncement to the rookie. “That’s when I finally understood what it really meant to the guys for us to go into Lambeau and win.”
Twenty years later, with Moss set to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend after being elected in his first year of eligibility, the swift, sleek and sometimes-sassy wide receiver has finally understood the depth of his impact on the game and the privilege of opportunity to serve as a celebrant of the sport.
“I came into the league with, I guess, my head not really screwed on my shoulders properly,” Moss said recently on a conference call with reporters.
Over time, the “homebody-type guy” from tiny Rand, West Virginia, who ranks second in NFL history in touchdown receptions (156) and fourth in receiving yards (15,292), learned how to soften some of the edges he’s carried since he was a kid.
“I’ve been able to open myself up and meet more people, be able to travel the world,” said Moss, who’s in his third season as an ESPN analyst. “Football here in America is a very powerful sport, and just being in that gold jacket, hopefully I can just be able to continue to reach people and continue to do great things.”
Moss will become the 14th inductee from the Vikings, joining former teammates Cris Carter, Chris Doleman, Randall McDaniel and Randle. He’ll be the 27th wide receiver enshrined at the museum in Canton, Ohio. That’s a three-hour drive from his hometown, but it’s sure a long way from poverty-ridden Rand where Moss and his sports-loving friends played football as frequently as they could in the heart of coal country next to the Allegheny Mountains just south of the capital city, Charleston.
“It was something that just felt good. I loved to compete. I just loved going out there just doing what kids do, just getting dirty,” Moss said.
He landed at Marshall University after some off-the-field trouble kept him out of Florida State and Notre Dame, and he took the Thundering Herd to what was then the NCAA Division I-AA national championship in 1996. Several NFL teams remained wary of his past, but Vikings head coach Dennis Green didn’t flinch when Moss was still on the board in the 1998 draft with the 21st overall pick. Moss never forgot the teams that passed on him, with especially punishing performances against Dallas, Detroit and Green Bay.
“I just carried a certain chip on my shoulder because the way I grew up playing was just basically having a tough mentality,” Moss said. “Crying, hurting, in pain? So what? Get up, and let’s go.”
The Vikings finished 15-1 in 1998, infamously missing the Super Bowl by a field goal. The next draft, the Packers took cornerbacks with their first three picks.
Moss never escaped his reputation as a moody player whose behavior and effort were often questioned. That led to his first departure from Minnesota, via trade to Oakland in 2005.
The Raiders dealt him to New England in 2007, when the Patriots became the first 16-0 team before losing in the Super Bowl, to the New York Giants.
After a rocky 2010 for Moss, including being traded by the Patriots and released by the Vikings, he took a year off. He returned in 2012 to reach one more Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers.
Moss was not a particularly physical player, but for his lanky frame he had plenty of strength. His combination of height and speed was exceptional, and his instincts for the game were too.
Carter taught him how to watch the video board at the Metrodome to find the ball in the air, and he had a knack for keeping his hands close enough to his body that if the defensive back in coverage had his back to the quarterback he couldn’t tell when the ball was about to arrive.
In an NFL Films clip that captured a sideline conversation between him and Cunningham during one game, Moss yelled, “Throw it up above his head! They can’t jump with me! Golly!”
For Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen, who has lived his entire life in Minnesota, was a sports-loving 8-year-old in 1998 when Moss helped lead the Vikings to what was then the NFL season scoring record with 556 points. The first team to break it was New England in 2007 with, again, Moss as the premier pass-catcher who set the all-time record that year with 23 touchdown catches.
“It’s fun to look back at his career and watch his old film. I love when that stuff pops up on Instagram, to be able to watch some of those old Randy plays that made me want to play this game,” Thielen said. “I try to emulate him as much as I can.”
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