Already, Moss is being touted as a top-five pick in next year's draft, and few believe he won't go pro after this season. "If I have half as good a season as I had last year, then why not leave?" Moss says. "I have nothing else to prove." If he does go pro, says Atlanta Falcons scout Boyd Dowler, "there's no doubt where he'd be placed: very, very high. Joey Galloway, J.J. Stokes, Keyshawn Johnson—I don't recall anybody who's had his combination of exceptional athletic ability in all these areas. Keyshawn is bigger than Randy, but he's not as talented, not as fast and not as quick."
That kind of praise doesn't impress Moss anymore. "The way I look at it," he says, "God's got a magic wand, and he taps just a few on the head." That he can say this, straight-faced, isn't nearly as disconcerting as the fact that he says it here, in a place about as far from the universe of blue-chip cockiness as you can get. Huntington, wedged between Kentucky and Ohio along the Ohio River, has none of the bucolic self-importance of South Bend or Tallahassee; its aging downtown wages a daily battle between development and decay. The Marshall football program had, until recently, a tradition marked mostly by losing, disgrace and catastrophe. In 1970, one year after the school was kicked out of the Mid-American Conference as punishment for more than 100 NCAA violations, a chartered plane carrying 75 players, coaches, fans, university employees and crew crashed, killing all on board. It remains the worst disaster in U.S. sports history.
Much has changed since then. Coming off its second Division I-AA national championship, Marshall will this year complete a remarkable resurrection with a trio of milestones. The Thundering Herd, long overshadowed by upstate rival West Virginia, will enter the Mountaineers' class on Aug. 30 by joining Division I-A, rejoining the MAC and opening the season with its first game against West Virginia since 1923. Yet nothing legitimizes the Marshall program more than Moss, whose outspoken opinions make the Thundering Herd impossible to ignore. "I don't see any way they can win," Moss says of the Mountaineers, whose scholarship offers he twice turned down. "If West Virginia were like Florida State, the type of team that can get to the big game and win it, I would be there. But I don't like losing."
Indeed, everything about Moss—ambition, talent, trouble and talk—leaves the impression that he is bigger than Marshall, that he is the kind of show-time player churned out yearly by Miami or Nebraska, capable of dazzling the nation on Saturday and causing his coach headaches during the week. "Be blunt: I'm the...I don't want to say big star, but let's say main standout." Moss says. He is, in fact, the school's first Heisman Trophy candidate, but he says the award doesn't matter to him.
No, Marshall has never seen anyone like Moss, and the result is an odd lack of connection between player and school. Marshall has long been an insular, homey place, relying on its own people in the worst of times, and the university takes great pride in the fact that so many of its coaches, announcers and administrators are Marshall grads come home. Yet here is the school's greatest player ever colliding with the greatest moment in Marshall sports history, and he feels as if he's besieged. "I don't trust anybody," Moss says. "If I've got a girlfriend, I don't trust her. My mom, my daughter, I trust them, but anybody else? I don't even trust my roommate."
Coaches, teammates and fans approach Moss and tell him to be careful. He doesn't want to hear it. "If I needed someone to give me advice, then I'd have a second brain to tell me what to do," he says. "I already know: You're not going to get past the judicial system, so many strikes and you're out. I wish my first two hadn't occurred. Nobody told me to kick the guy while he was down, or go out and smoke some herb. I did that on my own. If I did that, I can make my own decisions."
So Moss is a star, alone and wrestling with his mistakes, and the shame of it is all in the timing. For although every college football fan will tell you that his school's program is special, that "it's about more than just football here," Marshall may well be the only place where this is true. No program in America has been beaten down so far and risen again, and this season promises to be the cathartic first step into a new era. Moss is 20 and has no idea what kind of horse he's riding.
"The plane crash was before my time," he says. "I don't try to go back in the past and say this football game is for the people in the plane crash. I've seen the burial ground. I went up there and looked at the names. It was a tragedy, but it really wasn't nothing big."
Up on the hill overlooking Huntington, a flame of stone burns in a downpour. The flame does not flicker, it gives no heat. It sits atop the monument with the 75 names like a lightless beacon, sending a beam no one sees. But everyone can feel it—everyone in town of a certain age, everyone connected to the university, and almost everyone who has anything to do with the modern stadium down the hill.
The stadium is empty today, silenced by July's lazy hand, but in one of its rooms a man sits by a window overlooking the football field. He stares out at the rain and sees faces: Frank Loria. Deke Brackett. Ted Shoebridge. Players, coaches. The doctor who introduced him to the woman who would be his wife. "It's every day," Red Dawson says. "Every day something comes up, and you have a flashback."