Tuesday, November 2, 2010

On Randy Moss

Randy Moss is the greatest football player I've ever seen in person. Back in 1997, I lived in Northeast Ohio, and a friend and I drove over to Kent State to watch Moss and Chad Pennington when they both played for Marshall. I'd never seen anything like it--Moss could break open whenever he wanted; he leapt over people, ran past them, and then ran around them. It was the closest thing I'd ever seen to a video game come to life.*

In retrospect, it seems absurd that Moss slipped to 21st in the NFL draft. Here was the extent of his moral transgressions up to then: A high-school fight that appeared to have been sparked by racist taunts, and a positive test for marijuana. I'm not sure why either of those things were enough to scare people away. My guess it was something more than that. My guess is that teams were scared away from Randy Moss because as with a lot of truly transcendent athletic talents, he's a pretty complicated figure.

I don't know Randy Moss. I've never spoken to him, and I've only heard him speak at length a few times, so everything that follows is pure dime-store speculation. But I find him fascinating, and not just because he may be (along with LeBron James) the greatest pure athlete of his generation. I find him fascinating because he seems to have an incredibly twisted relationship with authority. His whole existence is a John Mellencamp song; much of the time, he seems to be at war with his own psyche, which is what makes those past couple of press conferences so fascinating--there is nothing more intriguing than watching a man conduct a public disagreement with himself.

In 2002, Moss allegedly bumped a police officer with his car because he wanted to make a turn he couldn't make. In retrospect, that seems like a fitting metaphor. He was never consumed by vanity like Terrell Owens; he was never a self-promotional goofball like Chad Johnson. He didn't seem particularly violent, even after charges of domestic violence emerged. Moss has always seemed more interested in testing people, in pushing boundaries with the people in charge: Coaches, executives, media members. Maybe what he wants to see is how much they push back. Clearly, that's what he was doing with Brad Childress, who might have handled the whole problem with a single conversation, but who might have lost Moss's respect before Moss even landed in that locker room, given the way he's subjugated himself to his own quarterback.

And this, of course, is what's so extraordinary about Moss's time in New England, because Bill Belichick is a man who manages to earn his players' respect while at the same time making them fully aware that they are simply cogs in a much larger machine. But I think New England worked for Randy Moss because he is not simply guided by his own hubris. I think New England worked for Randy Moss because, while he may have been such a great athlete for such a long time that he has no concept of ordinary reality, he does understand that most of the people who guide his fate do see him as a cog in a machine. And maybe there's a certain peace in knowing that, rather than having it smoothed over, rather than having authority figures either subjugate themselves to him or overreact to relatively minor transgressions. Maybe the irony in this is that all Randy Moss needs to be happy is to feel he's being treated like an adult.

*At least until I watched Oregon's offense this season.

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