HUNTINGTON – A scout for the Carolina Panthers sat next to me in the press box at Army’s Michie Stadium on Sept. 6, 1997, the day America discovered Randy Moss.
The fleet Marshall University sophomore wide receiver caught a pass, his first of the day, from Chad Pennington three yards behind the line of scrimmage, weaved past would-be tacklers and famously hurdled defensive back Jamar Mullen before stiff-arming another defender and racing into the end zone, to the fascination of college football fans and pro scouts everywhere.
The Panthers scout sat literally slack-jawed as he watched the play unfold. As Moss and teammates celebrated, the scout smiled and closed his notebook. He had seen all he needed to see.
Carolina didn’t select Moss with the 14th pick in the 1998 NFL Draft. Maybe the powers that be didn’t believe the unbelievable, even though they saw it on film as did the rest of the nation that was mesmerized by the 6-foot-4, 215-pound package of blurring speed, Velcro hands and unworldly athleticism. The Panthers picked Nebraska defensive tackle Jason Peter, who played all of three seasons. The next six teams, too, passed on Moss, whose off-field reputation understandably troubled some scouting departments, but not that of the Minnesota Vikings, who were giddy to get the Thundering Herd star at No. 21.
Of the players selected before Moss, none is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Peyton Manning and Charles Woodson will be, but Moss is the first to make it to Canton.
That’s not surprising. Moss was the first in nearly everything he attempted. He was considered the best player on a DuPont High School basketball team that featured future NBA star Jason Williams. Some Major League Baseball scouts said Moss would have been a first-round draft pick as a center fielder. Moss won Southern Conference track championships after showing up to run the day of, without having been on a track all year.
Moss performed what appeared to be superhuman feats on Saturdays, an “88” rather than an “S” on his chest. He made the astonishing appear routine – because for him it was. The astounding plays Moss made during games he performed every day in practice as his teammates, also some of the better players in the nation, marveled.
Marshall coach Bobby Pruett called Moss the best player in the country. Although Woodson won the Heisman Trophy and Moss finished fourth behind Manning and Ryan Leaf, Pruett might well have been right.
Not everyone was convinced Moss was as good as Pruett claimed, at least until after they had played or coached against him. On Sept. 27, 1997, Ball State attempted all day to single cover Moss with standout cornerback Raphael Ball, a fine player in his own right and a future Miami Dolphin. Moss scored five touchdowns and a two-point conversion in the Herd’s 42-16 victory. He finished with 13 catches for 205 yards.
“Nobody in America is able to cover Randy Moss,” Cardinals coach Bill Lynch said after the game.
A believer had been made.
In the 1997 Motor City Bowl, Ole Miss tried a strategy similar to Ball State’s. The Rebels lined up cornerback Malikia Griffin, a Southeastern Conference track champion in sprints, in single coverage on Moss on Marshall’s first play. Moss blew by Griffin as though he were a left tackle and caught an 80-yard touchdown pass from Pennington. Unlike Ball State, Ole Miss adjusted its scheme. Moss still caught six passes for 173 yards.
Even without the football, Moss was a big-play maker. The week after the Army game, Marshall played at Kent State in the Herd’s first game since returning to the Mid-American Conference. The Golden Flashes crowd was fired up for the MAC newcomer and roared when the Herd bobbled the opening kickoff and started from its own 7-yard line. On the first play, Pennington faked a slip screen to Moss. Having seen the Army video, Kent State’s defense bit wholeheartedly on the pump. Pennington then lofted a touchdown pass to Lavorn Colclough, who was more than 10 yards behind any defensive back. All the air went out of the Golden Flashes fans and Marshall rolled to a 42-17 triumph.
As spectacularly dazzling as Moss was on the field, off it he was the guy next door. Moss rarely gave interviews, but when he did, nothing was off-limits. In a nearly 90-minute one-on-one session in 1996, Moss candidly and respectfully answered any question I asked.
Yes, he had done some young-and-dumb things off the field, costing him scholarships at Notre Dame and Florida State. That’s how Moss arrived in Huntington. Marshall was a NCAA Division I-AA superpower then, and players could transfer from I-A without sitting out a season. Pruett brought in Moss and former Florida quarterback Eric Kresser at the same time, making the Herd literally unbeatable.
In that interview, Moss’ intelligence showed. His comprehension now is evident to those who watch him analyze football for ESPN. Moss just took a while to line up the various and considerable God-given talents he received.
At Marshall, he stayed out of trouble. That’s not to say he was perfect. Moss was in the car at a traffic stop during which a teammate was arrested for possession of marijuana. He wasn’t, however, the villain the rumor mill made him out to be as weekly gossip of arrests and dismissals from the team proved false time and again.
During the flight back from the 1997 Heisman Trophy presentation in New York, Moss and I were seated across the aisle from one another on the leg from Pittsburgh to Huntington. With no recorder taping, no pen or notebook out, we talked in a fashion similar to how neighbors chat across a fence.
I learned that Moss grew up a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. He grinned upon learning I liked the Oakland Raiders. Other than that, we didn’t discuss much football. We talked about family, mostly. There was no big-timing it. Moss was as interested in my story as I was his. He listened as much as he spoke. The hour-long flight passed quickly.
Moss could be, as The Herald-Dispatch late columnist Ernie Salvatore would say, “an enigma wrapped in a mystery.” Moss attracted massive attention, but didn’t crave any of it, good nor bad. He has done many charitable works through the years, rarely showcasing any of them, preferring to keep his good deeds private.
Moss was an out-of-this-world talent with a down-to-earth persona. Marshall was as good for him as he was for the Herd. With that, Marshall fans can take pride in Moss’ well-deserved induction into the Hall of Fame.
Tim Stephens is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch who was the Marshall University football beat writer in the 1996 and 1997 seasons when Randy Moss was playing for the Thundering Herd.