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Original Issue

Home Free Even after signing a deal making him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, the Vikings' voluble tackle John Randle won't let himself forget his humble past

Last Friday, three days after signing the richest contract for a
defensive player in the 78-year history of the NFL, dutiful
Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle John Randle navigated his new
black sport utility vehicle along back roads in south central
Texas. He was on his way to spruce up his grandparents' grave
site in the farmlands 15 miles outside College Station. Halfway
to the cemetery, Randle stopped in the town of Mumford--as he
sometimes does, just to remind himself how far he has come--to
take a peek at the house where he and his two brothers were
raised by a single mother who made $23 a week working as a maid.

Randle pulled up in front of the type of place America wishes
didn't exist and pretends doesn't: a shoe box with a
corrugated-metal roof, a rectangular wooden box of maybe 400
square feet. A couple of gnarled bushes partially obstructed the
view of a rickety porch.

Four people lived here during Randle's childhood. "Here it is,"
he said, sheepishly. "Where it all began."

You can't be proud of a place like this. You can only be proud
of surviving it. Randle walked around the outside of the shack,
which is set on cinder blocks. Mockingbirds sang in the
71[degree] sunshine. A dog barked. Randle pointed to a
chinaberry tree he had planted years ago, near where the
outhouse once stood. "It'd get so windy," he said, "and in the
winter the wind would blow through the cracks in the house and
under the house, and we'd put eight or nine blankets around us
and still be cold." He pointed to a rusty nail that hung on the
back wall of the house. On it the boys would hang a bucket of
water and then take sponge baths, in all kinds of weather.

The house was padlocked by the woman who now owns it and lives
in a trailer next door. But a neighbor drove by, recognized
Randle and said she could unlock the front door if he wanted to
look inside. He did. "I haven't been inside since the day we
left, before my senior year in high school, in 1985," he said.
The place looked like a long-abandoned attic. Three small rooms,
beat-up paneling, a crude sink in back. "Wow," Randle said,
"they fixed the place up." He was serious.

When he stepped back outside, he blinked away emotion but
couldn't stop shaking his head. "Unbelievable," he said. "Man.
Man! Can't believe it."

Randle walked across the yard to his shiny truck. He looked
back. "It was home," he said sadly. "It was all I knew."

Randle could be living much higher than he does; he has a
$200,000 house, with a swimming pool and pro-style weight room,
in a leafy College Station subdivision. "But I don't need
anything more," he says. "I've got a 24-hour grocery store
nearby. I've got a Wal-Mart. I've got a Target. I've got a
Whataburger. This is all I need."

Poverty could have swallowed him, the way it swallows so many
others. But Randle, a Tasmanian devil of a player with a mouth
that never stops running, wouldn't let it. Last week, as a flood
of money from the NFL's new TV contracts washed into the
free-agent market (chart, above), he signed a five-year, $32.5
million contract with the Vikings, an unprecedented $20 million
of which was guaranteed. It's a contract befitting a man who
since the start of the 1991 season has had more sacks--84
1/2--than any other NFL player.

Randle didn't touch a football until the ninth grade, when he
belatedly began to try to follow in his brother Ervin's
footsteps. Ervin played linebacker for Baylor and then for the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs for eight
seasons. But low SAT scores landed John at Trinity Valley
Community College in Athens, Texas, for two years. He moved on
to Division II Texas A&I and earned Little All-America honors as
a senior, but NFL teams thought so little of him that he wasn't
among the 331 players selected in the league's 1990 draft. The
lack of interest was easy to understand, because 6'1", 270-pound
defensive linemen were becoming passe in the NFL. Randle was a
pesky inside pass rusher, but no team could picture him at end,
where 6'5" players like Bruce Smith were the prototype, or at
tackle, where 6'3", 315-pound Cortez Kennedy was the most
coveted defensive lineman in that year's draft. A week after the
draft, Randle got a one-hour workout with the Atlanta Falcons.
He believed the Falcons offered him the best opportunity in the
NFL because they played a smallish defensive line, but though
Randle thought the session went well, an assistant coach--Randle
doesn't recall his name--told him, "You're out of shape. You
need to come back when you get in shape."

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 9 1/2
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?"

No response.

"C'mon, man, I'm just trying to be friendly. Talk to me, A.T.!"
Again, no response as the two lined up across from each other.
"Hey, nice job coming back from that knee injury. You were real
emotional, weren't you?"

Taylor looked at Randle and was about to acknowledge him when
the ball was snapped. Randle burst through the line and nailed
Favre as he was throwing the ball away. Favre yelled at Taylor,
telling him not to fall for that ploy again. Randle got up and
leveled a singsong scream at Taylor, a la Tom Hanks in A League
of Their Own, "A.T.! There's no crying in football!" Randle had
3 1/2 sacks that day as the Vikings rolled to a 30-21 win.

All players watch tapes of their opponent the week before a
game, but Randle also watches video of his previous four games.
He studies his own tendencies, tries to determine how his foe
will counter and then makes adjustments. "Against Indianapolis
last season, I'm playing a rookie, Adam Meadows," he says. "I
did a lot of moves he'd never seen. Then when he was ready for
me to speed-rush around him, I powered him into the backfield."

Randle's two sacks against the Colts, in the season finale, gave
him 15 1/2 for the year and his first NFL sack title. But why, he
was asked, did he need to work so hard the week before the game
against a rookie who had been struggling mightily?

"I take no one lightly," he says. "I will never look back at a
game and think I could have done more. These are the best
players in the world. It's an honor to be out there. You have to
treat the game with respect."

That's why the Denver Broncos, the Miami Dolphins and the
Philadelphia Eagles tried to pry Randle from Minnesota this
winter in the first days of free agency. Because he was
designated a transition player, the Vikings had the right to
match any offer. But because Minnesota had been loath to hand
out big signing bonuses, other teams hoped they could lure
Randle if they structured an offer with a lot of cash up front.
When Randle visited Miami, the Vikings' offer was on the table;
it included a $10 million bonus, of which $7 million was to be
paid in 1999. The Dolphins offered an $11.5 million bonus that
would be paid immediately. During his visit to Miami, Randle
dined with Dolphins defensive line coach Cary Godette and end
Daniel Stubbs, who asked if he would like to see the areas where
most of the players lived or the Miami nightlife. "I don't care
about any of that stuff," Randle replied. He excused himself
after dinner to watch wrestling on the TV in his hotel room. "To
be honest with you," he says, "I don't care if I play in Alaska
or the middle of a desert. Just give me 10 teammates and a
chance to get to the Super Bowl, and I'll be happy."

The day after Randle's trip to Miami, Minnesota offered to pay
$1 million more of the bonus up front and guaranteed more of the
money in the later years of the contract. That was good enough
for Randle and his agent, Gary Uberstine. The deal was signed in
an airport hotel in Houston, and Randle celebrated that night
back home with a McDonald's burger and a De Niro movie. Alone.

He knows he will be a marked man on the field because of the
money he's making. But when asked to name the first thing he'll
do with his loot, he answers quickly, "Not change."

"In my life," the 30-year-old Randle says, "I've chopped cotton,
picked watermelons, built fences, worked on an assembly line,
worked in an oil field, built scaffolding. You know what? Those
jobs are harder than football. So I'll never take it easy in
football. I remember how I grew up."

COLOR PHOTO: WILL VAN OVERBEEK RAGS TO RICHES Randle still visits the shanty that he, his mom and two brothers once called home. [John Randle]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [John Randle tackling Steve Young]

COLOR PHOTO: OTTO GRUELE/ALLSPORT TALK SHOW Mouthy Randle often finds his way into the enemy backfield after getting into the heads of offensive linemen. [John Randle]


In addition to enriching John Randle (93), Dana Stubblefield and
Bryce Paup, NFL owners padded the bank accounts of a lot of good
but not star players during the early stages of free agency.
Through Monday these members of the free-agent class of '98 had
signed deals making them first or second at their positions in
average annual salary.


Randle, Vikings DT $6.5 million 1 5
Stubblefield, Redskins DT $6.0 million 2 3
Willie McGinest, Patriots DE $5.0 million 1 1
Doug Evans, Panthers CB $4.5 million 2 0
John Jackson, Chargers T $4.43 million 1 0
Todd Steussie, Vikings T $4.40 million 2 1
Paup, Jaguars LB $4.3 million 2 4
Yancey Thigpen, Oilers WR $4.2 million 1 2
Kevin Donnalley, Dolphins G $3.8 million 1 0
Kevin Mawae, Jets C $3.4 million 1 0
Brian Mitchell, Redskins KR $1.68 million 2 1
Craig Hentrich, Oilers P $1.1 million 1 0

"John is the toughest player I play," says Favre. "On artificial
turf he's unblockable."