Everybody's watching him. Randy Moss can feel the eyes of the lunchtime crowd at the Bob Evans restaurant, the double takes and furtive glances from the men in short sleeves and wide ties. He's got his act down: gray hood over his head, butt slumped in the booth, eyes as lifeless as buttons. Moss is a wide receiver at Marshall University, in Huntington, W.Va., and he figures to be rich before long. He jabs at his toast with a plastic straw.
"If I didn't have this hood on, and they saw us sitting here, people would say an agent picked up Randy Moss and took him to Bob Evans," he says. "That's why I got this hood on. Some people are looking, and some are not. Some know I'm here and you're here, they see a bill and they'll say, 'The agent paid for his food.' Anything can happen."
He shrugs. Moss says he doesn't care about the world's judgments anymore, and it's easy to believe he means it. Certainly no player in college football bears more stains on his name. Two and a half years ago, as a high school senior, Moss stomped a kid in a fight, pleaded guilty to two counts of battery and was sentenced to 30 days in jail and a year's probation. That cost him a scholarship to Notre Dame. He enrolled at Florida State. The following spring he broke probation by smoking marijuana, was kicked out of Florida State and served two more months in prison. Then last fall, as Moss was on his way to shattering various NCAA and Marshall records with 28 touchdowns and 1,709 receiving yards as a freshman, he was charged with domestic battery against the mother of his baby daughter.
Yet Moss is not much interested in image-mending. His first words this morning were that he slept through his communications class. His hair is braided in long rows against his skull, a style he knows will give the wrong impression. "People perceive: Only black thug guys have braids," he says, his voice carrying to a dozen tables. "If I want to grow hair, I'll grow it. If I want to wear lipstick and makeup, I'll do that. God didn't put makeup on this world just for women. They perceive me as a thug? I'm not. I'm a gentleman. I know what I am, my mom knows what I am, most people know what I am. Don't judge me until you know me."
Notre Dame did just that, and Moss will never forgive the school for it. "They didn't take me, because they see me as a thug," he says. "Then Florida State...I don't know. You win some, you lose some. That's a loss." Moss pauses, laughs a humorless laugh. "But in the long run I'm going to have the victory. In the long run...victorious."
Moss is sure of this because he has sports' trump card: talent. Better, Moss has the kind of breathtaking athletic gifts seen once in a generation. At 6'5", with a 39-inch vertical leap and 4.25 speed in the 40, he established himself as West Virginia's greatest high school athlete since Jerry West. Irish coach Lou Holtz declared him one of the best high school football players he'd ever seen. Moss was twice named West Virginia's Player of the Year—in basketball. "He does things you've never seen anyone else do," says Jim Fout, Moss's basketball coach at DuPont High in the town of Belle. Moss also ran track for a while. As a sophomore he was the state champ in the 100 and 200 meters.
Nearly every college wanted him, troubled or not. During Moss's trial for the stomping incident, Kanawha County prosecutor Bill Forbes received a half-dozen calls from football coaches around the country assuring him they could make Moss a better citizen if he was released to their care. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden ultimately got Moss and quickly understood his colleagues' hunger. Early in the fall of 1995, during an impromptu late-night footrace among the Seminoles' fastest players, Moss came in second. When he went through practice the following spring as a redshirt freshman, the defense couldn't stop him from scoring. "He was as good as Deion Sanders," Bowden says. "Deion's my measuring stick for athletic ability, and this kid was just a bigger Deion."
Marshall took Moss in last summer after his chances elsewhere had dwindled to nothing, and he was instantly recognized as the best player on the practice field. He then strolled through Marshall's Southern Conference schedule like a grown man dropped into Pop Warner games. His teammates called him the Freak. In the Division I-AA title game, a 49-29 rout of Montana, Moss caught four touchdown passes to tie the single-season college record of 28 set by Jerry Rice in 1984 as a senior. Then, in February, Moss entered the Southern Conference indoor track championships after only three days of practice and won the 55 meters in 6.32 seconds and the 200 meters in 21.15—just .02 off the conference record.
Before coming to Marshall last year, football coach Bobby Pruett spent two years as defensive coordinator at Florida watching dominant Gators wideouts such as Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony, who went seventh and 16th, respectively, in the first round of the 1997 NFL draft. Neither, Pruett says, has Moss's weaponry. "He's the best athlete I've ever been around," Pruett says. Last year against Western Carolina, Marshall running back Llow Turner took a handoff on a sweep with Moss five yards behind him. "Next thing I know," Pruett says, "Randy's five yards in front, and in a matter of 15 yards he threw two blocks and sprung Llow for a touchdown. Llow runs a 4.5, and Randy caught him.
"Here's a guy who's 6'5". That's hard to find. Can jump out of the gym. Hard to find. Great body control. Hard to find. He's got great hands, and he can run faster than anybody else on the field!" By now Pruett has his hands up around his face, mouth wide open, looking like one of those horror-struck victims in a Dracula flick.