In his new book, “100 Things Vikings Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die,” Star Tribune veteran sportswriter Mark Craig shares inside stories on his favorite players and moments in franchise history. With the Vikings set to play the 10-1 Cowboys at U.S. Bank Stadium on Thursday, here is a portion of a chapter highlighting the move that sparked a 15-1 season, resurrected interest in the franchise and made the Cowboys regret not using the eighth overall pick on a lanky receiver from Rand, W.Va. That self-proclaimed “SuperFreak” went to Dallas his rookie year and caught three passes for 163 yards and touchdowns of 51, 56 and 56 yards. (In fairness to the Cowboys, Craig also has a chapter on a certain lopsided trade involving a running back named Herschel Walker).
CHAPTER 3: Randy and Red resurrect a franchise
Coach Dennis Green walked down the hall and into offensive coordinator Brian Billick’s office at Winter Park. It was April 18, 1998 and the NFL draft was starting in less than an hour.
“I think we’re going to get Randy Moss,” Green told Billick.
For months, the Vikings had talked about selecting Moss. But every conversation ended with someone saying, “Yeah, but we’ll never get him, so let’s move on,” Billick said.
But this time, Green was hearing that concerns about Moss’ character would cause him to slide past 20 teams and into the Vikings’ lap at No. 21. Billick looked up and this was his first thought: “What are you smoking, Denny?” But Green was clear-headed and sober. Moss, the enigmatic superstar with the rebellious attitude and checkered legal past going back to high school in West Virginia, was considered too toxic for many NFL teams.
“Once we got Randy, that’s when the excitement and the magic around the Vikings began,” Billick said. “I don’t think I even paid that much attention to the rest of the draft that year.”
Like Billick, the fans knew the 6-4, 215-pound Moss was the deep threat the team needed to complete the puzzle on a team that had made the playoffs in five of Green’s first six seasons but had never made it past the divisional round. The Moss pick would be remembered as the spark that resurrected interest in the Vikings. For the next 14 years, the Vikings would sell out every game at the Metrodome.
“Growing up in St. Paul, I remember when the games weren’t selling out,” said center Matt Birk, a rookie backup in 1998. “But in 1998, it was like almost everything came together. Not only did we win, we were the sexy, exciting team. I think that appealed to more people. We got a lot of younger fans that year. The Metrodome became the hip place to be.”
The Vikings set the NFL scoring record of 556 points while going 15-1 that season. The way that season ended — with a 30-27 overtime loss to Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game — is the memory most associated with 1998. But the excitement generated that season was lasting and just plain fun. And it all started with a lanky kid from Rand, W.Va. who was so gifted and so incredibly fast for his size that his nickname, “SuperFreak,” was spot on.
Left tackle Todd Steussie remembers Moss turning heads in the huddle during a scrimmage against the Saints in training camp. Brad Johnson, who would get hurt and be replaced by Randall Cunningham early that season, was the starting quarterback at the time.
“Randy obviously had this incredible speed, and he was saying, ‘Trust me, Brad, you can’t overthrow me,’ “ Steussie s©aid. “He said, ‘I might not be there when you see me, but I’ll be there when the ball gets there.’ Sure enough, next play, boom, Randy goes the distance for a touchdown.”