Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Note: This is part two of a three part series detailing my personal, complicated feelings about Randy Moss. I love him for the player he was, but hate him for what could have been. Hit it here for Part I. 

 

First came infatuation. Then love. Then hate.

That was my emotional roller coaster with Randy Moss. It never stayed at hate. It mostly boiled down to apathy during his Oakland years, admiration with his time with the Patriots, a mixed bag when the returned in 2010 (which we’ll get to in Part 3), and relatively neutral feelings since then.

It’s akin to the feels you have about an ex-lover. You linger on memories of the great times, but then you get bitter when you remember how they screwed the whole thing up. And exes generally return to your life at least once, so the comparison fits Moss to a T.

But Part II is all about the love, so let’s have some fun hitting on the high notes of my relationship with the 2nd best receiving in Vikings franchise history. Specifically that equal parts magic and tragic 1998 season.

***

The entire summer leading up the 8th grade and the ’98 season, I talked off anyone’s ear I could about how Randy Moss was going to win the Vikings a Super Bowl. I suspect that’s why Grandpa made me mow extra lawns around the neighborhood that summer, to get me to shut up about yet another “offensive toy” when he had wanted a defensive lineman. But in fairness, Grandpa always wanted a defensive lineman, not matter what the year. That’s what having the Purple People Eaters as your benchmark does to draft preferences.

The benefit of mowing all of those extra “stop bugging me about that darn rookie and go cut grass” jobs was that I had a nice bankroll to buy myself a Randy Moss jersey as soon as they hit the stores. I wasn’t that big of a jersey guy back in the day (still am not), but I had the standard issue Cris Carter jersey with the numbers almost worn off from wearing 300 days out of the year, just like every Minnesota boy back then. The Moss jersey was going to be the crown jewel of my worldly possessions as a teenager though. I even asked Dad if it would be covered under the home owners insurance. Not a joke.

Now jersey buying back in ’98 wasn’t like it was today. You can’t just go on the internet and order whatever you want as easily as you damn kids can today and stores actually had seasons instead carrying every sport year round. On top of late 90s logistics, the fact that everyone and their mother (literally) was snatching up every Moss jersey they could as soon as JC Penney or Foot Locker or wherever got them in stock. I’d love to get statistics on how many Moss jerseys there were in the state at the time. I’d wager it would’ve been something ridiculous like 100 jerseys per 1000 Minnesotans. It actually wasn’t until the Saturday morning before Week 1 that I was finally able to don my long awaited silken, deep purple robe fit for a Roman Emperor.

I got my 84 jersey out for the first time.

Now I’m not ashamed to admit that I didn’t take that Starter jersey off for 5 months straight. Anytime I wasn’t showering or at practice, I was rocking the 84. I was that kid in school. I even wore it under my Sunday best at church since my parents thought sports gear wasn’t appropriate in the house of the Lord. Even though our pastor made numerous Vikings references in his sermons throughout his time there, but whatevs.

Jersey in tow, I was ready for my man from Marshall’s NFL debut. He had already been the talk of Mankato and done big things in the preseason (all while wearing #18, by the way), but the league wasn’t ready for what was about to happen. Heck, Vikings fans weren’t even prepared for the hot fire Moss was about to lay down. Everyone knew he was going to be good, but no one knew he would light the league on fire, leave it for dead, and then drop a tactical nuke for good measure.

***

Former Vikings defensive coordinator Tony Dungy and his Buccaneers rolled into town Week 1 for an old fashioned NFC Central clash. They already had that famed Tampa defense in place (which Jon Gruden vultured a Super Bowl with) and had high expectations for that season after going 10-6 with a playoff win in 1997.

I remember watching the game on the 32” RCA tube TV in my Grandparent’s basement. We’d ordered pizza from The Creamery (best pizza in Minnesota, I’ll fight you on that), but I was literally too nervous to eat. As odd as it sounds for a 13-year old boy to be turning down pizza, I was so excited that my favorite team and favorite player were about to merge in the regular season, that my digestion system shut down.

The Dome was rocking, as it would for all 10 home games that year. Brad Johnson was under center, while some Philadelphia Eagle washout/granite guy backed him up. The first drive was Robert Smith heavy, but Moss did pick up his first NFL catch for 11 yards. Carter caught a touchdown on the 2nd drive, because that was all he did, but I was starting to worry.

Maybe Randy Moss was a bust? Maybe all of the teams who passed on him knew that he would be held down by better competition? I mean if this was a Marshall game, he’d have five catches for 200 yards and two scores by now. But then I remembered we have to give a guy more than a quarter to sink or swim in the NFL. Even though many wrote off Teddy in a similar time span.

1st and 10 from the Tampa 48. Vikings up 7-0 with about two minutes left in the first quarter.

Randy goes long, gets behind the defense, and Johnson lays it in between two defenders for the first touchdown of my man’s career. The Dome went nuts, my family erupted in cheers and high fives, but I was detached. In my impatient, immature mind, it was more a feeling of “About damn time. It only took three drives.” And then of course I blamed Johnson for not finding him earlier, Brian Billick for not installing his own “Randy Ratio” from day one, and Denny Green… Well… Because everyone blamed everything on Denny. Unjustifiably.

Moss went on to add another touchdown in the 2nd quarter as the Vikings rolled to a 31-7 win over the only team that would end up beating them in the regular season that year, a 27-24 loss at The Sombrero in Week 8. The Freak ended his first game with four catches for 95 yards and two touchdowns on five targets. All of it recorded in the first half, but Dungy started quadruple covering him later on. Not really, but it seemed like it.

***

There was a buzz around the ’98 Vikings and specifically the rookie wide receiver who couldn’t be covered or overthrown.

Growing up near the border, there was a significant number of Packer fans in town. And in school (where the kids have no filter) and the bars (where the kids have no filter), the Cheddar Heads were insufferable the past few years. They were coming off their Super Bowl win in ’96 and appearance in ’97, on top of going 3-1 against the Vikes those two seasons. It was nice to be able to bring some ammo to the Border Battle for a change.

We all remember that first clash. Week 5, Monday Night Football, Vikings coming into Lambeau 4-0, Packers at 3-0. The soon to be record setting ’98 Vikings offense was rolling with the reincarnated Randall Cunningham under center after a Week 2 injury to Johnson, Buckeye Robert Smith was chewing up yards behind the Five Thoroughbreds up front, Carter and Jake Reed were more than holding their own as the other two legs of the Three Deep tripod, and our man Randy “The Man From Rand” Moss had become a phenomenon and early leader for Rookie of the Year honors by putting up 17 catches, 273 yards, and four scores through his first four NFL starts. We were 0-fer in our last four games at Lambeau, but had a posse ready to seek justice for those wrongs. Raylan Givens style.

The Freak claimed the real estate behind the Packers secondary like eminent domain, grabbing five for 190 yards and two touchdowns. Including a 52-yard bomb from Granite Man in the 2nd quarter to give the Vikings the lead they would never relinquish. The Vikings smashed that Wisconsin team 37-24 on the national stage and even forced future Viking quarterback Brett Favre to the sidelines in favor of something-called-Doug Pederson after the game was out of reach at 37-10. Pederson actually lead the Packers on two garbage time touchdown drives, making the final score look much better than it actually was.

Moss had already had his coming out party for Vikings fans Week 1. But the Lambeau game – on Monday Night Football – thrust him into the national spotlight in a big way. The bright, searing national spotlight that he never seemed to fully get comfortable with and possibly fostered the Dark Side of the Moon we would eventually see.

***

Even the most negative of Vikings fans had to admit something was up with this team.

Perfect on the season, 5-0 after kicking the tail of your most bitter rival/two-time defending NFC champion, and proud owners of an offensive weapon who seemingly had the cheat codes for wide receiver.

It was the most excited I’d ever seen my Grandpa about a team. He generally regarded Minnesota sports with pessimism (he’d call it realism). Forged from “close, but no cigar” disappointment with the Vikings of the 60s and 70s, the wasteland that was Golden Gopher football at the time, and the inconsistency (despite two World Series wins in five years) and penny pinching of the Twins. (Note: As I type this, I realize not much has changed. I get it, Grandpa.) But he was very bullish on that ’98 squad, as close to a Rube as I would ever seen him.

My Father had always been a big Cris Carter guy – even though all he did was catch touchdowns – but he was starting to come over to the Moss side as well. He’d had his misgivings when the Vikings took more offense instead of shoring up the defense in the draft. He remarked at the time, “Denny can score all the points he wants, but if we can’t stop no one, we ain’t gonna win ****.”

Randy Moss redefined what “cool” was for the youth of Minnesota during his time in purple (the first time). You’d be hard pressed to find a high school, middle school, or youth football player who didn’t hang their gloves from their facemask in warmups, just like Moss. Or begging their parents for any and every piece of merchandise that bore Mr. Moss’ name or number.

On top of that, the turf of Metrodome – aka green Menards carpet on top of cement – actually helped cultivate Moss’ coolness. Standard football cleats don’t do it for sneaker heads, they’re generally boring and standard issue. But on turf, a player could rock basketball shoes and Moss wore Jordans. Jordan XIs, black and white Team Jordans, and eventually his own Jordan shoes called the Super Freak. As a teenage kid already susceptible to materialism and great marketing, this was the perfect storm. I went all in on chores and good behavior to ensure that a pair of black and white Jordan XIs were chilling underneath the Christmas tree for me that year.

Randy Moss was cool as hell and I wanted to be like him. I even changed positions from running back to wide receiver freshman year to try and emulate him. I wasn’t very good at either, full disclosure, but it’s the thought that counts right? Man love in full effect.

***

Even when the Vikings stubbed their toe against Tampa in the aforementioned Week 8 showdown at The Sombrero, spirits were still high in a fanbase that’s always looking for the banana peel. We chalked it up as a great defensive mind in Dungy having a heckua game plan for Moss 2.0, limiting him to two catches on two targets, 52 yards, and zero touchdowns. Nothing much you can do but let the season roll on.

In the Week 12 rematch with the Slack Attack, Moss goes off for eight catches, 153 yards, and a touchdown as the Vikes top Green Bay at the Dome 28-14. Through eleven games in his NFL career, Randy Moss had only gone over 100 yards receiving twice. Both against the Packers. (Not gonna lie, I audibly laughed out loud when I saw that stat while researching this article.)

Four days later, Moss cemented his rookie legacy on Thanksgiving in a revenge game of sorts. He was led to believe that the Cowboys would snag him at number eight in the 1998 draft as Moss plummeted amidst character concerns. The Cowboys instead took Tar Heel Greg Ellis at eight and the chip on Moss’ shoulder continue to grow like the number of turkey legs on John Madden’s turducken.

The Vikings took on the Cowboys in the late game that Thanksgiving, back when there was only two Turkey Day offerings from the NFL. What barbarism.

The Carlson family tradition was Thanksgiving dinner around noon, allowing for plenty of time the rest of the day for naps, piling leftovers onto sandwiches, and watching the Lions get their asses kicked – Thanksgiving traditions still hold true to this day. It synced up perfectly for the feast before the show.

Now in fairness to the Cowboys, they did hold Moss to only three catches on eight targets. Not a bad day’s work. The only problem is that those receptions went for 51, 56, and 56 yards respectively. All for touchdowns. He also caught a two-point conversion. Also poor Kevin Smith – the Cowboys cornerback wearing number 26 in the grainy Youtube clips. He was basically Fred Smoot, Chris Cook, and Robert Tate rolled into one that day trying to cover 84.

Three things will stick out to me about that game forever:
1) The smug grin Billick had to have had on his face after calling the flea flicker for the first Moss TD.
2) Cunningham’s “smile” as he scanned the over-matched Cowboys defense.
3) Moss taking that short hitch on the far sideline 56 yards to the house for his third score of the day. Embarrassing 3-4 defenders along the way. That was the first time I thought he had made his competition look as silly in the NFL as he did at Marshall. It wouldn’t be the last time though.

Equally as silly was Moss, Denny, and aloof then-owner Red McCombs each grabbing a Madden turkey leg and chowing down after the 46-36 shootout win. McCombs always seemed like the awkward dad trying to fit in at a One Direction concert.

***

You know how this story ends though, so I won’t rehash it to open up old, long since scarred over wounds.

Yes, the Vikings did win five straight games after Dallas – including the divisional playoff win over the Cardinals – by an average of 21.2 points, locking up the best record in franchise history (15-1) in the process. There was a lot to be proud of and that season should be looked back on as a happy memory but…

1998 was supposed to be our lighting in a bottle year. That one shining season where a team rises up, dominates, and steals a Lombardi that their fanbase can gloat about for the rest of their existence. The Jets had theirs in ’68. The Bears in ’85. The Rams in ’99. The Bucs in 2002. The ****** Saints in 2009.

1998 was ours. Until it wasn’t.

***

Randy Moss was brilliant throughout that ultimately disappointing ’98 season. As a rookie, he helped the Vikings set a then-NFL record for points scored in a season (556 points) by hauling in 69 receptions for 1313 yards and a league leading 17 touchdowns – an NFL rookie record which still stands to this day. He earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in addition to running away with the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award over the likes of Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf, and Kevin Dyson – the wide receiver drafted ahead of him. Even while being double (and triple) covered, Moss caught a touchdown in nine-consecutive games to end the ’98 season, including the two playoff games.

We fans could see the Randy Moss Road Map to Success ahead of us. He’d be in a Vikings jersey for life, leading the team to a few Super Bowl wins en route to smashing all of the receiving records, and then waltzing into the Hall of Fame and Ring of Honor as the greatest Viking to ever play the game. Easy, right?

There had been great Minnesota Vikings before him – The Mick, Tarkenton, Page, Marshall, Eller, Foreman, Carter – but Randy Moss was headed to a different stratosphere after one season. He was projecting into full on Haley’s Comet, once in a lifetime, game changing type phenomenon.

How could you not love this man? Both for what he already was and for what he could become.

There was a lot more love to come the next few seasons, but ultimately I would learn a life lesson: No matter how dominant a player is, he will always do something to disappoint you, piss you off, and leave you a little more jaded at the world of sports.

In direct proportion to how much you loved him.

 

 

Check back for the final installment of I Love Hate You, Randy Moss next Saturday, right here on Vikings Territory.

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