Carter declined to comment on Moss but did say he's not surprised that he's being portrayed as the villain. "What did they say about Jerry Rice when he left San Francisco?" Carter says. "It's the same type of situation with me. That's what we do in sport—we sensationalize everything, and everyone who's gone is bad."
Perhaps it's not surprising that Moss's initial "I play when I want to play" statement came in response to this question from Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman: Does Cris Carter get you fired up? Though this is a case where an athlete might rightfully have claimed that his quote was deprived of its full context, Moss declined to do so two weeks later during a conference call with writers who cover the Tennessee Titans, saying, "Hell, no. That s—- is what I said." Says McCombs, "I had told him, 'You need to tell those guys you made a mistake.' But he's got so much of that street macho that he couldn't bring himself to do it."
Then Moss got nastier, saying that if fans hassled him, he'd "lose thought of being Randy Moss the football player and go to Randy Moss the street person." This came from a player who had already been fined $15,000 by the Vikings for verbally abusing sponsors aboard a team bus. (Last season the NFL also fined Moss a total of $25,000 for three taunting-related incidents.)
Suddenly Moss was being booed at home games, and the league had a public relations nightmare on its hands. "The NFL p.r. people have to be cringing," says Carolina Panthers tackle Todd Steussie, a former Vikings All-Pro. "When he said he plays when he wants to play, it had all kinds of bad implications. I'm not even going to say the word, but it starts with a g and ends with an i-n-g. I mean, are we talking Las Vegas?"
Moss swears his passion for football is sincere. "I'm one of the most competitive guys in the NFL," he says. "Believe me, nobody wants it more than me." Friends still tease him about the aftermath of his last high school game, a close loss in the state semifinals, when, he says, "I cried on my mom's shoulder, because I wanted to win it so bad." His list of NFL heroes might surprise you: Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Jerry Rice, all symbols of hard work and valor. Moss is proud that despite various injuries, including a chronically sore right ankle that has bothered him since he entered the league, he has never missed a game.
Sometimes Moss lets his guard down and his sensitivity seeps through. In August 2001, after Stringer collapsed and died of heat-related complications, the receiver's tearful, despondent reaction humanized him to many observers. Moss believes that the team's subsequent collapse on the field was predictable given the tragedy, and that critics, particularly in the media, seemed all too gleeful in the face of the Vikings' demise. "I'm talking about death," he says. "Write that down: D-E-A-T-H. You don't bounce back from that in days. It takes years."
Near the end of our second interview, the subject turns to the officials. "There's one ref that I want to kill, but I can't kill him until I retire," Moss says matter-of-factly. "He made a bad call that kept me from getting to the Super Bowl."
His words hang there before I decide to give him a do-over: "When you say you want to kill this guy, you don't really mean that, do you?"
"No," Moss says. "Not kill him literally."
Before the call ends, I revisit my original line of questioning about what misconceptions people might have about him. "I guess that I'm a bad guy, which I'm not," he says. "I know I have a reputation to protect, and it's not just me—I'm also representing a multimillion-dollar franchise and my family. So if sometimes I say things I regret, I've got to pay for it."