"You've got two questions, homey, maybe one and a half," Randy Moss says as he sprints off the practice field, forcing me to scramble after him like a rookie cornerback he's just burned on a post pattern. Cue the Jeopardy! theme. Covering the distance from the indoor field to the locker room at the Minnesota Vikings' training facility takes about 30 seconds, and my head is spinning the whole time. What happened to the 30 minutes that coach Mike Tice had promised Moss would give me? Do I lob the star wideout a softball question, perhaps musing about the records he might set this season in the Vikings' revamped, Randy-centric offense? Do I go Ted Koppel and grill him on his infamous "I play when I want to play" comment—The one that made him the poster child last season for all that is wrong with professional sports? Or do I shoot for the Super Lotto Plus jackpot and try to compel the recalcitrant receiver to bare his soul and tap into his inner Kierkegaard?
Moss puts one foot on the bench in front of his locker and stares at me. "O.K.," he says, "shoot."
I come with this convoluted question-and-a-half: You're a guy who has said and done a lot of controversial things, and people have formed some strong opinions. Are they getting the right impression of you, and if they aren't, does that bother you?
"HAY-ell no," Moss booms in his West Virginia twang. "Why should I worry about what people think? I've got everything I need—everything I'll ever need. It's not my fault that people don't know me. Look, I'm going to speak my mind, no matter what the consequences are. The things I do speak might come out different in terms of language, but when I say something, I speak my mind." The interview lasts a half hour.
For all of the bedazzling deeds that have distinguished his four-year NFL career, Moss is instead marked by his words. Seven words, to be exact—I play when I want to play—a statement uttered in an interview last November, in the midst of Minnesota's 2-8 nosedive to finish the season, and repeated later in the year. Not since George Carlin blurted out his hilarious list of profanities unsuitable for television in the early 1970s have seven words caused such a stir.
"When I heard Randy's words, I was angry, hurt, sick to my stomach," says Vikings owner Red McCombs, who four months earlier had given Moss an eight-year, $75 million contract extension that included an $18 million signing bonus. "I knew he'd get tagged with it forever, because that's the way it works, and that's the way it should be. It will never go away, and Randy understands that. He's paid for it, and he'll pay for it the rest of his life."
Something had to give in Minnesota, and so much did. Longtime coach Dennis Green was forced out with a week left in the season, and a former Moss mentor, veteran wideout Cris Carter, was not resigned. Tice, a Vikings assistant for six seasons, has hitched his offense and his coaching fortunes to the 25-year-old Moss, who has seemingly changed for the better, improving his once spotty work habits and acting like a team leader. Unlike in past years, Moss spent much of his spring and summer in Minnesota, participating in the team's off-season workout program and showing leadership on the practice field and in the locker room. "Cris talked a lot in the huddle and on the sideline, and now I've seen Randy doing more of that," says Matt Birk, the Vikings' Pro Bowl center. "Ultimately, you have to lead by example, but I've seen him working a lot harder in training camp this year."
Meet the new Moss—same as the old Moss? Given that a year ago Birk and several others were making similar comments about Moss's newfound maturity, how do we know the Vikings won't get fooled again?
Moss's career has been marked by sporadic childish behavior, such as his squirting an official with a water bottle during Minnesota's 1999 divisional playoff loss to the St. Louis Rams and appearing to quit in the Vikings' 41-0 loss to the New York Giants in the 2000 NFC Championship Game. Those seven words he said last fall, however, transcended football. By flouting the integrity of the game and insulting the paying customer to boot, Moss became something other than quarterback Daunte Culpepper's favorite target. He was castigated as a blight to his team, his sport and his generation.
Carter scolded him publicly, as did luminaries around the league such as Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre. Minnesota state senator Dean Johnson wrote a letter to Vikings executive vice president Mike Kelly stating that Moss's behavior had made it "increasingly difficult for me to justify to my constituents... my support of your team and the construction of a new stadium."