April 18, 1998, draft day, was a date that re-energized a proud franchise, awakened its slumbering fan base and birthed one of the most electrifying careers in the 99-year history of the NFL. This story is how a Vikings playoff team that didn’t need a receiver and was picking 21st landed one of the greatest ever.
Or, perhaps, the greatest, eh SuperFreak?
“I’m the best receiver that’s ever played,” Randy Moss told the Star Tribune last fall. “Hands down. All day. There shouldn’t even be a discussion.”
Saturday night, Moss’ journey reaches a grand finale that will enshrine the once poor, often troubled kid from little Rand, W.Va., into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in his first year of eligibility.
But first, let’s return to April 18, 1998 …
Brian Billick, offensive coordinator: “[Coach] Denny Green poked his head in my office before the draft. He says, ‘I think we’re going to get Randy.’ My first thought? What are you smoking, Denny? There was no way.”
But there was. Three years earlier, Moss made the first of multiple mistakes that ultimately outweighed his talent.
He was a senior at DuPont High School. A place rife with racial tension. A place where Moss, a multisport superstar, often clashed with white students along a hallway dubbed “Redneck Alley.”
That spring, Moss’ friend, Rayeshawn Smith, saw his name and a violent racial epithet scrawled on a desk. Outraged and suspecting white student Ernest Roy Johnson, Smith challenged Johnson to a fight and asked Moss to watch his back.
When Johnson hit the floor during the fight, Moss kicked him twice. Johnson was hospitalized with a lacerated spleen and a concussion.
Moss pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor battery. He was expelled and lost his scholarship to Notre Dame. He spent three days in jail.
He went to Florida State but tested positive for marijuana, got dismissed and spent more time in jail.
That fall, at Marshall, as he was tying Jerry Rice’s Division I-AA record of 28 touchdown receptions, Moss and the mother of his child, Libby Offutt, were arrested and charged with domestic battery. Charges were dropped, but NFL teams added it to their list of reasons to look the other way on April 18, 1998. Except one …
Jeff Diamond, then-Vikings GM: “We had an inside track on Randy because Conrad Cardano, one of our scouts, had coached with Bob Pruett, the Marshall coach. He got a really good read from Bob that there were no more problems.”
Marie Green, Denny’s wife: “I think Denny always identified with Randy and where Randy came from. Dennis came from kind of a rough neighborhood. With one or two small mistakes, he felt he could have ended up in a similar situation.”
Red McCombs, Vikings owner: “I remember thinking, ‘How bad can this guy be off the field?’ Because you looked at the film and he was a player you could not stop.”
Moss: “A lot of the things I had to learn, I had to learn on my own. My mother [Maxine Moss] raised me and my older sister [Latisia] and brother [Eric]. It was poverty, struggling, survival. Wondering, ‘What am I going to eat?’ I would not change it for the world. But there are a lot of things a young man needs a father for that a woman can’t teach you. My father [Randy Pratt], I knew him, but he wasn’t around.”
When Moss fell out of the top five, he assumed Dallas would catch him at No. 8. He says owner Jerry Jones promised him he would. Even said he’d send a limo to pick him up.
But the Cowboys selected Greg Ellis, linebacker, North Carolina. Moss was deflated. Maxine was angry. And a buzz swept through Winter Park …
Marie Green: “I was in Denny’s office that day as he was going to and from the war room. It might have been after the Dallas pick when he let loose with quite a few expletives, as Denny could do at times. He said, ‘I can’t believe it! We’re going to get bleeping Randy Moss!’ ”
Diamond: “We needed defense that year. And we had our eye on Tebucky Jones, who went No. 22. But as Randy is falling, we got Cris Carter on the phone. That was the clincher for me. We said, ‘Cris, will you be willing to mentor Randy?’ Cris said, ‘Absolutely, yes.’ Tennessee took the first receiver, Kevin Dyson at 16. And I thought, ‘Wow, Denny might be right.’ ”
Cris Carter, Vikings WR: “He was definitely the most talented receiver I’ve ever seen. His raw talent is what saved him and kept him from blowing his opportunity.”
Diamond: “Randy was one of my tougher contract negotiations. We wanted to be protected. There was some very tight language that if anything happened off the field and he got suspended, there would be some give-back on the signing bonus. As it turned out, we got the language we needed in the contract. I remember that day, when Randy signed the contract, he said, ‘You don’t have to worry about all that stuff you put in the contract. We’re going to be fine.’ And he was. He had some issues, but never got suspended.”
In 2002, Moss spent a night in jail and was charged with two misdemeanors for marijuana possession and knocking a traffic officer to the ground with his car. He was fined. He also was fined for squirting a referee with a water bottle, and for pretending to moon fans at Lambeau Field. He also verbally abused corporate sponsors on a team bus and was fined and forced to attend anger management classes.
McCombs: “I would say we got lucky in that draft. Yeah, he was a pain … but he could deliver greatness.”
Matthew Hatchette, WR: “We had a drill called 40 and 5. The quarterback takes a five-step drop and throws the ball 40 yards down the field and 5 yards from the sideline. But Randy was so fast, 40 was too short.”
Randall Cunningham, QB: “Denny said, ‘Then throw it 45 and 5.’”
Hatchette: “Randall and Brad [Johnson] start throwing it 45 and 5. And they’re still underthrowing Randy. Randy goes, ‘Hey, that 45 and 5 … ain’t working.’”
Cunningham: “Randy was more like 50 and 5. It was like street ball back in the day. But we played street ball with structure.”
Moss: “I told them, ‘Throw that daggone ball as far as you can and I’ll go get it.’ I caught bombs in junior high, high school, college and the NFL. I can’t remember not scoring. I scored a touchdown when I was 6 years old. Belle Bulldogs versus the Cedar Grove Wildcats and [former NBA player] Jason Williams, who also went to DuPont. We won 6-0. First time I got my name in the newspaper. USA Today.”
Moss, now 41, played 14 seasons for five teams. His 156 career touchdowns rank second in NFL history. He caught 17 touchdowns when the Vikings scored a record 556 points while going 15-1 in 1998. Nine years later, he caught a record 23 touchdowns as the Patriots went 16-0 and upped the scoring record to 589 points.
Matt Birk, Vikings center and fellow ’98 rookie: “Growing up in St. Paul, I remember games not selling out. In 1998, not only did we win, we were the sexy, exciting team with Randy.”
Bill Belichick, Patriots coach: “He’s the greatest deep-ball receiver I think that’s ever played.”
Season ticket sales at the Metrodome increased 38.1 percent and sparked a 14-year streak of sellouts.
Of course, 1998 also is remembered for the 30-27 overtime loss to Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.
Moss: “Billick let Randall open up the offense just a little bit more. But one thing I didn’t figure out until I was older was when you start putting multiple receivers on the field, that means you’re exposing your edges. Maybe if we have a tight end in there at the end of the first half, Chuck Smith doesn’t strip Randall of that ball and Atlanta doesn’t score on the next play. We got outsmarted. We outsmarted ourselves that day.”
Cunningham: “I had Cris Carter wide open. It would have been a big gain and, who knows?”
Moss didn’t win either Super Bowl he played in for New England and San Francisco. But he will go down in history as one of the most dangerous playmakers on the big stage.
McCombs: “Jerry Jones and I were friends long before I bought the Vikings. Before that Thanksgiving game in ‘98, he put me up in a nice suite and says, ‘And just so you know, your boy Randy is not going to run wild on us. Matter of fact, I doubt he’ll even catch a significant pass.’ I told Randy that, and he said, ‘That don’t mean nothing to me. People have ganged up on me my whole life. You watch and see.’ ”
Three catches for 163 yards and three touchdowns over 50 yards. Vikings win 46-36.
Mike Zimmer, Cowboys DB coach and current Vikings head coach: “We saw the freaky speed and decided to have our scout team receivers start plays 2 yards offsides. We thought we had a good plan. Obviously, Randy was mad at everybody in Dallas for not drafting him. He wanted to show us in front of the whole country what a big mistake we made. Boy did he.”
McCombs: “John Madden awarded me with one of his turkey legs after the game. Never gave one to an owner before. I took a couple of bites and I’m walking away and there’s this one beautiful lady … hanging over the railing, yelling, ‘Red! Red! Give me a bite of your turkey!’ I was so happy, I said, ‘Honey, you can have a bite of anything I got!’ I threw the turkey leg to her. [Wife] Charlene wasn’t happy with me, but that was a great day for the Minnesota Vikings.”
Moss: “I didn’t say nothing that week. But everybody knew exactly what was going to happen to those Cowboys. Denny knew it, too. I owe Coach Green so much for drafting me. I just remember when I finally heard my name called, saying, ‘Thank you, Coach Green. Thank you, Minnesota Vikings.’ I’ve learned a lot of things in my life and had to take a lot of lumps for it. But this little country boy from Rand, West Virginia, made it. All the way to Canton, Ohio.”