The garage door is jammed half open, the rollers off their track, and sunlight is beating down on the rear grill of the black Lamborghini and the neon purple bed of the Chevy Avalanche. ¬†Oakland Raiders wideout Randy Moss, wearing a jordan 23 T-shirt, knee-length blue shorts and Nike sandals, pushes the bottom of the door, which is stuck at shoulder height. "Man," he shouts, "who f----- up my garage door?" ¬†He glares at me. I shake my head. I'm innocent. "You see?" he says, as if he's proved his point. "You see? That's why I don't let nobody into my house. They are always f------ s--- up." He hits the electronic opener one more time. Nothing. He gives the door a stiff jerk. "Goddammit!" The SI photo crew has been coming and going all morning, shooting Moss in and around his Boca Raton, Fla., home, and although he repeatedly admonished them to keep the screen doors closed, to remove their shoes, not to "mud up" the house--see?--something got messed up. It has been Moss's experience that if he keeps his house spotless, his routine unsullied, if he keeps to himself, then there "ain't going to be no misunderstandings." That's also why he lives alone. When Randy meets the world, he has noticed, those interactions have tended to be messy. He gives the garage door another hard jolt, rattling its panels, and then tries the opener again. There is the satisfying clicking and whirring of the motor engaging and then the door lifting. He nods his head. Back on track.
In this era of supersized housing, Moss's primary residence could be taken as a philosophical statement. This is only one of four houses he owns, but this is the one he calls home. It would be a humble abode for a moderately successful dentist; for an NFL superstar with a $75 million contract, it is downright Gandhian. The three-bedroom tan stucco structure, about 1,700 square feet in a tract housing development built around a golf course and inhabited primarily by retirees, is at the end of a narrow lane on which Moss's Hummer and BMW, not to mention the Lamborghini, stand out amid the more utilitarian means of transportation deployed by his neighbors.
His living room is shrouded by shadows, blinds drawn. There is a drum set under a white tarp--Moss says he hasn't played in four years--and a brown leather sofa; ceramic figures of a panther, a giraffe, a tiger and a cheetah stalk the mantel. It has the feel of a playroom long abandoned by a boy now grown up. The rest of the house is similarly underappointed. "I like to keep my surroundings low-key," says Moss. "I don't need much around me. I'm easy, don't need a lot of racket."
But why does the highest-paid receiver in football live in such simple surroundings, amid retirees in checked pants steering golf carts past his cul de sac on their way to the 1st tee? "This community had three things going for it," he says. "One, it's gated. Two, I can fish. And three, old people don't bother me and I don't bother them. If there are too many kids or families around, they're going to be on me. The only thing the old people worry about is my vehicle's stereo system, but that's why I don't play it too loud. Old people, they sleep all day, as long as I don't wake 'em up."
In the den he takes off his shirt and reclines over a giant exercise ball, trying to stretch out his back. This off-season he has embarked on the most aggressive workout program of his career because he is determined to prove to the rest of the NFL that Raiders owner Al Davis, who on March 2 traded linebacker Napoleon Harris and two draft picks for Moss, stole the best receiver in football from the Minnesota Vikings. "I think, with the years he had and the numbers he put up, he couldn't believe he was given away for a player that he never heard of," says Danté diTrapano, his longtime agent.
If anyone else lived in this little house, with the dark, underfurnished rooms and the sports cars gathering dust in the garage, you would assume him to be a lonely misanthrope, a Mr. Havisham who has forsaken the Midlands for the Florida sun. Yet for Moss, this house is part of an almost ascetic world view: He can't tolerate distractions, rarely has guests and professes to be ruthlessly self-sufficient. "I don't have any friends," he says. "I can't really have any friends. It's sad, really. It's lonely. But that's how I am. That's why I say that I don't really care what people think or say about me, because I'm my own man. Nobody helps me, comes and pays my bills when it's time [for them] to be paid, and nobody wakes me up in the morning or works out for me. My thing is, unless you've been in my shoes, don't say nothing to me; and if you don't care for me, then, oh well."
What you think about Randy Moss, he insists, says more about you than it does about him. Moss's antics, in particular his mock mooning of Packers backers after a clutch touchdown reception in a wild-card playoff win in Green Bay in January, have made Moss the favorite target of those who find in excessive end-zone celebrations the seeds of the demise of Western civilization. Some, including Fox announcer Joe Buck and studio host James Brown, expressed such despair over Moss's pantomime that it was as if the Hindenburg had risen over Lambeau Field only to go down in flames all over again. But there are also those, like my 77-year-old father, who found in Moss's celebration an act that typifies the bold iconoclasm that Moss, and a few other athletes of his generation, have come to represent. My father called me immediately after that game and said, "Did you see that? That was great." When I asked why, he gave an explanation that the keepers of NFL orthodoxy--from commissioner Paul Tagliabue to sports radio hosts nationwide--never seemed to consider: "It was funny."
Says Moss, "The Green Bay thing was fun, like being caught up in the moment. When happiness and joy hit you, it's hard to hold it in."
While the act was spontaneous, Moss concedes that it was rooted in revenge. "I told myself I was going to get Green Bay fans back for their little antics when I was hurt." Moss is referring to a performance by the University of Wisconsin marching band at the Vikings-Packers game on Nov. 14, 2004. Taunting Moss, who was on the sideline in street clothes because of a pulled hamstring, the band appeared with their tubas bearing cloth covers on which were printed letters that spelled out: where you at moss?
Still, Moss's faux moon was the latest in a string of incidents, some serious and others trivial, that have given detractors reason to overlook his Hall of Fame--caliber numbers. He already ranks eighth in career touchdown catches (90), and after two more of his typical seasons he will be in the top 10 of virtually every other significant receiving category. His status as that most prized of NFL receivers, one with the speed to blow by defensive backs and the size and strength to go up and get almost any ball thrown his way, is unquestioned. Ever since Moss came into the league in 1998 as the 21st pick in the draft, scouts and general managers have sought "Randy Moss types" when evaluating wideouts; entering this year's draft, Michigan's Braylon Edwards touted himself as such and became the No. 3 pick. Why then, when the Vikings were shopping Moss in February, were the Raiders and the New York Jets the only teams to show serious interest?
His litany of scrapes, arrests and controversies--encounters between Moss and the world--is longer than one of his up routes. As a senior in high school, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery and received a 30-day sentence, costing him a scholarship to Notre Dame. Then there was a failed 1996 drug test for marijuana (required as a term of his probation), which put him in violation of his probation; he was sentenced to six months in a West Virginia jail. (Moss was released after serving 80 days.) Because of the sentence, he had to leave Florida State, where he had redshirted as freshman. He enrolled at Marshall in the fall of '96. In November of that year, according to police reports, Moss threw "steaming hot water" on his girlfriend, Libby Offutt, the mother of his four children. Both were charged with domestic battery, but those charges were later dismissed.
He played at Marshall for two years; by the time he left, he had helped the program make a successful jump from Division I-AA to I-A. "Randy was great with us," says coach Bob Pruett, whose Marshall teams went 15--0 and then 10--3 during the Moss years. "He's the guy who brought the attention. He was the Heisman Trophy candidate. He was the competitor who gave us the edge and helped us get better players. He got it started for Marshall football." Moss's talent and potential were so great that SI, in '99, asked if Moss would "turn out to be the NFL's Michael Jordan?"
Instead he has turned out to be the NFL's Allen Iverson, down to the game-breaking ability, controversies, tattoos and cornrows. Yet with the exception of a 2002 traffic incident, in which witnesses quoted in the police report said he "nudged" a female traffic cop a few yards down a Minneapolis street with his car--Moss dismisses it as a "terrible misunderstanding. I still, to this day, don't know what she wanted me to do"--most of the bad headlines he has generated as a pro have stemmed from inflammatory comments and thoughtless actions. Among the latter: squirting water at a field judge during a playoff game, verbally abusing a representative for one of the team's corporate sponsors and leaving the field two seconds before the end of a loss in the regular-season finale in January.
For those inclined to view Moss as the poster boy for what's wrong with the NFL, his 2001 statement--"I play when I want to play"--was the ultimate self-damning tautology. That comment was taken out of context from his response to a question about whether teammate Cris Carter got him fired up before games. Moss, despite prodding from Vikings owner Red McCombs, who had just given his star wideout a $75 million contract that included an $18 million signing bonus, refused to recant. That controversy began Moss's gradual slide out of favor in Minnesota. However, such off-the-field distractions, his defenders will remind you, have not come at the expense of on-the-field production. "Moss was never a negative as far as football goes," Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper said after Moss's trade to Oakland. "It was the off-the-field stuff that was negative."
Raiders coach Norv Turner discounts Moss's notoriety, saying, "Everything about him here--in terms of the locker room, the relationships with players--has been extremely positive."
It remains a curiosity of Moss's career that when he could have won back fans, coaches, teammates and sponsors with the tiniest gesture of contrition, he has remained recalcitrant and dismissive. "I don't bend down and kiss nobody's ass," Moss says. "I think that people want me to change, be more of a yes-sir, no-sir type of guy. What you see is what you get. That's how I live."
moss rises each day at 8 a.m., skips breakfast, dresses in sweats and then leaves for Fort Lauderdale, where trainer Tim Martin puts him through workouts that last up to three hours. Depending on the day of the week, they will be in the gym, on a practice field or pulling a training sled up and down the beach. After lunch Moss puts in three more hours lifting weights. The regimen may be too intense--he is already feeling the strain on his back from pulling the sled. "Nobody knows how hard I work," says Moss, who impressed the Raiders with his conditioning and skills during a three-day minicamp two weeks ago. "I want it to show on game day. It feels different this season, physically and emotionally. It's like I feel rejuvenated. Man, I hope my teammates are working as hard as me because I want to win more than ever."
Moss is seated on the sofa next to me. As I type what he says on my notebook computer, he reads over my shoulder, squinting to make out the words. His mistrust of the media would seem to be confirmed by my typing every other sentence or ignoring certain statements altogether.
"Let's do that part again," he says.
"Which part?" I ask.
"That part, that part there, what you wrote." He doesn't say it, but he worries that I am misquoting him.
"Don't worry about it," I assure him. "I'm taping the whole conversation. I just type as a backup."
He looks skeptical. Moss meets the world again, and while he is wary of a negative write-up, he remains, resolutely, Randy.
Spend time with Moss, though, and gradually that fierce, frowning warrior of Sunday afternoon sideline shots recedes, replaced by a gregarious and charming gentleman. He is funny, quick to laugh and the sort of thoughtful talker who takes his time; his diction and argot--the "yups," the "gollys," and the "baby dolls" he uses when addressing females--are those of a small-town boy from Rand, W.Va., who has grown into kingfish. He still keeps in touch with a small circle of old buddies from West Virginia: Donnie Jones, Sam Singleton and his agent, diTrapano. "I don't need no new people," he says with a shrug. And what does a country boy need the press for? "The media's always wanting interviews, wanting to sit down and talk to me, and I tell them, time and time again, I don't need you. I'm already established. I already have money."
Although he's reluctant to admit it, Moss knows that in many of his messy interactions with the world, the damage has been self-inflicted and the outcry stoked by his stubborn refusal to explain or appease. "Part of Randy's popularity was based upon the negativity of the things he'd done in the past," says diTrapano. Now the negative outweighs the positive. In 1998 Moss items made up 25% of sales at a sports-memorabilia store in the Mall of America; his image has since eroded to the point where he hasn't been able to get a sneaker contract since he was dropped by Nike in June 2004. He could use some good ink, and despite his disdain for the media, he knows it.
Back at his house, he slides off the exercise ball and lies on his back on the floor. He is barely visible, the starkly angled cheeks, the prominent chin, the wide, deep-set eyes and the cornrows are silhouetted against a freeze-frame of Madden NFL on the TV. (The score: Raiders 34, Jets 31.) When Moss drawls, his voice is rich and deep, and because his back is against the floorboards, it seems to make the room vibrate.
"We call it the Struggle," Moss says. He means growing up hard, which explains in part why he's still hard on the press, the fans, his teammates, himself. His mama, Maxine, worked two, sometimes three jobs to support her three children. "Grass stains on your old jeans," he says. "Tennis shoes not even the right kind. The only shopping I ever knew about was for groceries." The Struggle is also meant to encompass his time in jail, his disputes with teammates, coaches, media, fans, the world. The Struggle, then, includes the hardship of "being on point all the time, for practice, film, team meetings, for games, when you're hurt, when you're sick. You have to be on point all the time."
He is pleased that his children--Sydney, 11, Thaddeus, 7, Montigo, 3, and Senali, 1--are growing up with their mom in a five-bedroom house in Charlotte without knowing the Struggle. (The other houses are located in St. Albans, W.Va.--where his mother lives--and Minneapolis.) Moss says he flies to Charlotte to see the kids frequently during the off-season and as often as he can during the season. ("He's a great dad," says Offutt, "when he's around.") Moss worries his kids will become soft. "They're going to be set for life," he says, "but I don't want them thinking that. I don't want them to think that money is the answer to everything."
That's why he has taught himself not to show his feelings, not to admit he is vulnerable. It's a by-product of the Struggle. "You don't show people your pain. Why? I don't know. I just don't." But doesn't that contribute to the impression that Moss is indifferent, that he doesn't give a second thought to even his most vociferous critics? "Nothing hurts Randy Moss?" he says. "Oh, s---. I care. People don't think that I hurt? Well, they got another think coming, because I do hurt."
He pauses. "I'm sitting here with a sad look on my face," he says. "But I don't ever want to let the world see that. That's not my way."
Getting shipped out of Minnesota still rankles Moss, who believes that if the Vikings had spent more money, particularly to shore up the defense, they could have won a Super Bowl. The hardest part of being traded--the part that hurts--has been the sundering of his friendship with Culpepper. "Once you grow to love a person, a breakup is kind of hard," Moss says. "I thought Culpepper was [my friend], but now that everything's happened, it seems to me I lost a friend. I used to go over to Daunte's all the time. I'd call him up after practice and ask him what he was doing. He'd say, 'You know we're doing it big. Come on over.' I thought I had a friend in Daunte, but obviously I didn't."
Particularly painful were comments about Moss that Culpepper made at the Pro Bowl, before Moss was traded. "You almost get to thinking that maybe enough is enough," Culpepper said of having Moss as a teammate. "I tried to smooth things over for the last five years. I'm done with it. No more."
Moss refuses to let the bitter parting from Minnesota taint memories of his seven years there. "How can I be mad at [the Vikings]?" he says. "I'm sitting here with more money than I thought I would ever have. I live a good life, and my family lives a good life. I'm very thankful to Mr. McCombs and the Vikings and the state of Minnesota and for the chance to showcase my talents."
He goes quiet for a moment. There is the sound of traffic nearby. "But nothing really good came out of those seven years," he says, referring specifically to the team's failure to reach the Super Bowl. "So it's time for a change."
most of the retirees in Moss's development regard this finger of brown water as a hazard their shots have to carry off the 6th tee. Not Moss, who is standing on the grassy bank, one foot on a sewer grate, casting mold-green lures into the pond and reeling them back in. It's a striking sight, the 6'4", cornrowed superathlete with freak tattoos standing shirtless in this most unfreaky of neighborhoods. It is so arresting, in fact, that from time to time a person unfamiliar with the community's most famous home owner will call security. A guard will dutifully drive out in a golf cart to confirm that it is, indeed, Randy Moss. "Man," Moss says, laughing, "I fish when I want to fish."
Each time Moss casts, his sinewy musculature and pronounced tendons ripple. The simple motion of casting generates a smooth transfer of energy from chest to shoulder to forearm to wrist, each pronounced muscle group passing along the motion so that at the snap of his bony wrist, the lure flies in a nearly flat arc to a patch of reeds near the middle of the soup.
He catches plenty of bass and catfish in this pond. And while he is strictly a catch-and-release fisherman, he recalls the time nearly seven years ago when Carter, his former teammate, instead of releasing his catch, took a bucket of fish home for dinner. That was a fine afternoon.
I ask him to list the top five moments of his life. Number 1 is easy, the birth of his first child. He numbers the births of his other children in there somewhere, sort of squeezing the three of them into two spots. Then he reflects upon a few other fond memories--college, fishing trips--before nixing them. Surprisingly, the only football moment that makes the cut is the day he was drafted by the Vikings after 19 teams passed on him. He includes it because it motivated him to become an All-Pro. The recent trade is up there too, because this time, instead of 19 teams passing on him, it was 31; spurned by all but the Raiders.
"How many is that?" he asks.
"Four? Five?" I say. "I've lost count."
He reels the line back in, resets the hook and casts. After the worm hits the water, he turns the reel for a moment, pauses, then turns it some more.
"And right now," he says, smiling. "Right now is up there too. Definitely top five."
The world should get to know this Randy. And this Randy should meet the world. You two might really dig each other.
"The Green Bay thing was fun," says Moss, "like being caught up in the moment. When HAPPINESS AND JOY hit you, it's hard to hold it in."
"We call it the Struggle," Moss says. That's why HE'S HARD on the press, fans, his teammates, himself. "You have to be on point all the time."
It's a striking sight, Moss with his FREAK tattoos standing shirtless in this most unfreaky of neighborhoods. He laughs. "I fish when I want to fish."
Photograph by Jeffery A. Salter
JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES (LEFT)
A flip flip-off at Lambeau expedited Moss's trade to Oakland, where he has a new number and new motivation.
Moss thought Culpepper (11) had his back, but some snippy quotes from the quarterback changed his mind.
Training hard this off-season, Moss wants to shut up his critics by leading Oakland to the Super Bowl.
JEFFERY A. SALTER