Out of shape? Randle was outraged. He believed he was in the best shape of his life. He bolted for the airport and, while waiting for his flight home, picked up a football magazine. He studied the roster of the only other team that had shown tepid interest in him—the Vikings—and noticed that Minnesota also had small defensive linemen. About a week later the Vikings invited Randle to training camp.
Recalls Randle, "It was then that I told God, 'If you just give me one chance, I'll never look back and say, "What if?" ' One chance. That's all I wanted. I'd never leave the field thinking I could have done more."
Randle clawed his way onto the Vikings, playing each snap as if it were his last. In 1991 he started eight games and had 9½ sacks; in '92 he and fellow tackle Henry Thomas were the core of a cat-quick defense with a philosophy that ran counter to the prevailing mode of pass rushing. At the time, teams believed that the fastest way to the quarterback was from the outside, with speed rushers like Smith and Lawrence Taylor. Randle and Thomas took shorter routes, ripping past guards and centers, particularly on the Metrodome's fast artificial track. In '93 and '94 the two combined for 42 sacks. "John is the toughest player I play," Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre says. "On artificial turf he's unblockable."
By 1996 trades, NFL economics and coaching opportunities had robbed Minnesota of Thomas, as well as of other defensive linemen who complemented Randle, defensive coordinator Tony Dungy and eccentric but effective defensive line coach John Teerlinck. "When I lost all those people," Randle says, "I knew I had to become more of a student of the game. I had to work harder, get in better shape. And I had to study my opponent more."
This is when Randle became the nut case whom offenses have come to deeply respect. He was always a mouthy player, but only in '96 did he start using words as a psychological weapon. He began reading up on each week's opponent in newspapers and team media guides and made notes about each of the linemen he would face. "You take any edge you can get," Randle says, "and sometimes you can get players off their game. You just need to take their concentration away for a split second."
What has come out of Randle's mouth is sometimes gentle, sometimes a blue streak. "Don't listen to him," quarterbacks will yell at their offensive mates. But when Randle gets going, it's hard to 1) keep a straight face or 2) keep from trying to slug him.
"Green Bay's got great p.r. guys," Randle says, "and I've learned a lot from their stuff. I know their guards as well as their fans do. Adam Timmerman's from Cherokee, Iowa. He works the farm with his family. Aaron Taylor loves cars. I read where he had a 1969 Impala and just got a new Blazer. And I read how emotional he was coming back from a knee injury."
So when the Pack visited the Metrodome in '96, Randle started in on Taylor.
"A.T., how you doing?"