He's Pushing It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The TV cameras were rolling last month as Randy Moss walked through the lobby of the Hennepin County Adult Detention Center in Minneapolis. Several reporters waited outside in the drizzle, and, even through the thick glass windows, they could hear the Minnesota Viking receiver whistling a tune. He popped open an exit door and the throng was there to greet him.

"Randy, can you fill us in on what happened?" a reporter shouted.

"No. You'll hear about it later."

"What can you tell us?" asked another.

"What you already know."

More prodding. Moss grew increasingly agitated.

"You're going to hear my side later.... When I feel like talking, that's when later's going to be."

He said he was "treated bad" during his night in jail, that it was all a misunderstanding, that he was confused a day earlier when he allegedly used his 2002 Lexus to push a traffic-control agent a half-block when she tried to stop him from making an illegal turn. He didn't want to talk about the incident now, though, not three steps out of jail. A reporter persisted.

"Was it a wrong turn ..."

"What'd I just tell you, woman?" Moss snapped. "I'm not getting into that."

*

Whistling? Yes. Carefree? Hardly.

The pressure is building on Moss, and the 25-year-old receiver is at a troubling crossroads. He faces two misdemeanor charges for his traffic transgressions, and one count of drug possession after police found a small amount of marijuana in his car. Although the drug charge carries a maximum $200 fine, it could wind up costing Moss a lot more. He reportedly failed an NFL drug test last year, and a second such violation might lead to suspension.

His public image is in tatters, and his team isn't doing much better. The Vikings are 0-4 for the first time since 1967, and first-year Coach Mike Tice is desperately trying to halt the free fall, against the backdrop of published reports that the team is on the verge of being sold. Two Minnesota groups are the leading candidates; one is headed by Timberwolves' owner Glen Taylor.

Mercifully, this the Vikings' week off.

It was Tice who came up with the idea of the "Randy Ratio," having quarterback Daunte Culpepper throw to Moss at least 40% of the time. Instead of producing spectacular pass plays, the Culpepper-Moss pairing has been a spectacle, with the two screaming at each other on the sideline.

"The word is already out that I'm a demon," Moss said in a tearful interview with ESPN's Andrea Kremer, granted after his arrest. "Before that, I was just a bad guy. I'm just ... attitude, this and that. Now, I'm reckless and a demon. My head is already chopped off."

Often, it seems, Moss acts as if he had no head in the first place. Despite his tremendous physical ability and a record-breaking college career at Division I-AA Marshall, he fell to the 21st pick in the 1998 draft because of character questions.

He first ran afoul of the law in 1995, during his senior year at DuPont High in Rand, W.Va., when he pleaded guilty to two counts of battery and was sentenced to 30 days in jail for kicking another student. Sixty days were tacked onto Moss' sentence after he tested positive for marijuana during his first week in jail.

Not only did those convictions cost Moss scholarship offers to Notre Dame and Florida State, they scared off plenty of NFL scouts who saw him as enormously talented but far too much of a risk. The Vikings gave him a chance, and he made them look brilliant. As a rookie, he was the NFL's most dominant receiver, catching 69 passes for 1,313 yards with 17 touchdowns.

His numbers improved in 1999 and 2000 as he ascended to stardom and took his place among the greatest receivers in NFL history. There were embarrassing episodes--squirting a water bottle at an official; bickering with fellow receiver Cris Carter; berating Viking corporate sponsors who joined the team on a trip and demanding those benefactors move to the back of the airport bus--but nothing that team officials couldn't stomach.

Moss was seldom scolded, often rewarded. Before last season, the Vikings signed him to an eight-year deal worth $75 million. Months later, he drew the ire of many in the sports world--not only the NFL--when he said he truly plays only when he wants to play.

"That's an insult to all professional athletes," said Pat Croce, former owner of the Philadelphia 76ers. "It's an insult to all athletes. When you're getting paid to play, you don't have the determination of playing when you want to or not. That's your job. It's an insult to the fans, who want to pay to watch, whether it be on TV or in person. When someone says, 'I play when I want to play,' that insults our intelligence."

That said, Croce added that it's important that the Vikings stand by Moss, as they have. Croce steadfastly stood alongside All-Star guard Allen Iverson throughout all the player's legal problems.

"One of the things that Allen and I had was a relationship, and not owner-player," he said. "He felt like I was real, because when times were good--when he won a scoring title, or rookie of the year, or a big game--I was there. But I was also there for him in the bad times. I was responsible for suspending him in Boston. I was responsible for suspending him in Miami. But when he got thrown in jail, when he got in trouble for the gun and the pot in the car during his second year, I was the one who went to his hearing. He saw me in court."

Tice has been unwavering in his support of Moss and was criticized by many people when he opted not to suspend him after the traffic incident, even for one game.

Moss has another supporter in Michael Irvin, a former All-Pro receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. He thinks of Moss as a kindred spirit. They both rose to stardom from underprivileged backgrounds, both ran afoul of the law from time to time, both have known the harsh light of media scrutiny. Irvin even defends the I-play-when-I-want-to-play mentality.

"Everybody in the NFL takes a play off now and again," said Irvin, now a fixture on Fox's "Best Damn Sports Show Period."

"You've got a four-quarter game. If I know I'm not getting the ball on this play, why should I sprint down there? I've got to conserve my energy."

Irvin, who has embraced Christianity since his playing days, reached out to Moss with a supportive phone call after learning of his most recent troubles.

"I think this whole thing has been blown out of proportion," Irvin said, referring to Moss' traffic arrest. "I can imagine that lady telling Randy, 'You can't turn this way.' Randy hears that like it's somebody challenging him. All he knows is to try to beat a challenge.

"Then, when he's sitting there in jail he's thinking, 'Why did I do this? Oh, forget them all. I'm not bowing down, I'm not giving in. I'm OK. I made it this far.' "

A day after being released from jail, Moss stood at a lectern and gave a rambling, nine-minute address. He said his public image had been "shattered" by the arrest, and apologized to the Vikings, their fans, even fellow Nike pitchman Michael Jordan.

But Moss did not apologize to Amy E. Zaccardi, the traffic-control agent who wound up on his hood, then was slightly injured falling to the pavement.

"What we're really lacking here is a sense of maturity," said Dr. Martha Ewing, interim director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. "We're sending a very mixed message to kids. If you're not very good at sports, you've got to be good at interpersonal skills, have good character, good sportsmanship, because, boy, we value those things. If you're an elite player, to heck with it."

*

Moss snapped at the reporter, and the videotape kept rolling. At 6 feet 4, he was significantly taller than the throng. He gave a few more clipped answers and scanned the street for his ride.

Nearby, a fan shouted some words of support and offered him a ride. Moss gladly accepted, relieved to rid himself of the reporters. He lifted the collar of his windbreaker over his head and walked into the drizzle, proclaiming his newfound friend "a true citizen."

Moss didn't need the lift after all. Within moments, a black Mercedes-Benz with darkened windows arrived. Two well-dressed men got out--his legal team?--and offered him the front seat.

Practice had started and he was running late.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

LESS WAS MORE

The Vikings might have underestimated Cris Carter's value. Randy Moss caught 308 passes for 5,396 yards in 64 games in his first four seasons when teamed with Carter. This season, Moss has 27 receptions in four games but his yardage and touchdowns per game are lower than previous seasons.

*--* Category '98-'01 2002 Projected Catches/Game 4.8 6.75 6.75 Catches/Year 77 108 TDs/Game 0.8 0.5 0.5 Yards/Game 84.3 58.8 58.8 Yards/Year 1,349 940 Roy Jurgens

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