The Vikings aren't so arrogant as to think that either their organization or their geography is a social curative. As team chaplain Keith Johnson points out, there's "no city in the NFL where you can't get into trouble." But Minnesota does think it has some advantages over other franchises in the harnessing of a coltish young man. And once the Vikings decided that's all Moss is—they interviewed people who had known Moss in West Virginia and grilled his half-brother, Eric, who is a Minnesota lineman—they committed themselves to picking him.
Well, coach Dennis Green committed himself. Because nobody else believed a talent such as Moss would be available for the Vikings, it was up to Green to keep Moss's name alive within the organization. At Green's prompting, members of the front office talked to Moss several times before the draft. Then on draft day Green kept spreading Moss's name through the ranks. He first called Carter, both as a courtesy to the team leader and to let him know he intended to draft a receiver. Carter told Green to dream on. He had been watching the draft and thought it "unfair" that Moss had drifted out of the top five. But he was certain Moss wouldn't go much lower. If by some miracle Moss was available at No. 21, Carter told Green, "go for it."
As Moss continued to drop through the first round, Green dialed Keith Johnson to make sure he wasn't crazy in thinking that the Vikings players would support somebody so widely perceived as a misfit. Johnson, too, gave him the thumbs-up. Since Carter is also an ordained minister, Green's call to Johnson completed a religious round-the-horn.
But Green was already confident that Minnesota was the club for Moss. "There's nothing like coming to a winning team, where everybody's upbeat and you've got a system in place," he says. Plus Moss, for all his potential, wouldn't be asked to carry the Vikings. He wasn't going to be anything but the third receiver, supplementing the catch corps of Carter and Jake Reed. Green was additionally confident of Moss's success because Carter had overcome cocaine abuse nine years before, had embraced religion and professionalism and had become a Hall of Fame-caliber receiver. If Carter were to take Moss under his wing—and knowing Carter's missionary side, Green was pretty sure he would—the prodigy would be in good hands.
Things worked out better than Green dreamed. Carter called Moss after he was drafted to welcome him to the Vikings, but it was Moss who later suggested that he go to Carter's home in Boca Raton, Fla., to work out with him. Like any rookie whose gifts had carried him effortlessly, Moss was shocked at the amount of work Carter and a few of his cronies put in. "It's that old 'whatever I've been doing is working' thing," says Carter, laughing, "but Randy worked hard and didn't complain."
Since then the two receivers have formed an unlikely tandem—Carter is 10 years older than Moss—based on similar experiences as big-time athletes from small communities who hurdled infamy to make the pros. "I've talked with him about hundreds of things, but it's better I just live in front of him," Carter says, recognizing that he'd best save his preaching for Sundays.
"The first time I spoke with him," Carter continues, "I recognized something different." Though he can't put his finger on it, he seems to mean an athletic charisma. Carter isn't the only one to have noticed it. The rest of the Vikings understand that an unformed greatness has been plopped in their midst. Alexander marvels at the coolness of his prospect. Before Minnesota's first preseason game, against the New England Patriots on Aug. 9, "I expected some nerves," Alexander says. "I had some nerves. Randy was so calm, I got even more nervous." Moss caught two passes for 54 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown, in the Vikings' 28-0 win. All told, Moss finished Minnesota's 4-0 preseason with 14 receptions for 223 yards and four touchdowns.
Randall Cunningham, Minnesota's veteran quarterback, is similarly amused and impressed by Moss's athletic nonchalance. "He just doesn't know, just doesn't realize," Cunningham says. "He doesn't understand that when we're playing Kansas City, he's up against the best [secondary]. It hasn't hit him. There's no fright, just this kind of innocence. No worry, no fear of failure. He's like all of us when we're young, before we do fail. A very few of us never do."
Moss has failed, of course. He has failed ingloriously, repeatedly and in front of lots of people. He has paid in ways that go beyond his diminished contract, finding himself characterized as a thug when all he wanted to be was a pro football player. In college he so trusted his talent, which had after all carried him past every obstacle, that he didn't bother to appear apologetic about his misdeeds. His talent—the 4.2 speed, the ability to reach back across his body on a crossing pattern without shifting gears—was explanation enough. But now, having reckoned with the NFL's new violent-crime policy, he's far less defiant. The braids are gone, the tough talk muted.
On Aug. 15, when Moss caught four passes for 33 yards and a touchdown in Minnesota's 34-0 victory over Kansas City, Chiefs defenders repeatedly tried to rattle him—his face mask was yanked around on one play—but he refused to be baited. "If I take a swing," says Carter of such situations, "I'm a competitor. If Randy does...."