by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

THE BALL was snapped, a starter’s pistol for Randy Moss. He bolted downfield and, for several seconds, was shadowed by cornerback Terry Fair. Then Moss, like an Olympic sprinter in overdrive, pulled away, leaving Fair a quarter-step, half-step, then a full step behind….

Nearly three years ago, Fair and Moss were side by side on another stage. A stage of hopefuls. It was draft day in April 1998. Like other college stars, Fair, out of Tennessee, and Moss, out of Marshall, waited by telephones to hear about their future.

Normally, the best player gets the first call. It didn’t happen that year. Moss, gifted with exceptional talent, was weighed down by rumors about his
“difficult” reputation and concerns over the level of competition he had faced.

So instead of getting the first call, or the second, he watched player after player drafted ahead of him. The third guy picked. The fifth guy picked. The seventh. The ninth.

Few people argued that Moss’ talent warranted picking him No. 1. But nobody did. He was a slumping stock. As the numbers fell into the teens, Moss kept quiet, but seethed inside. Surely he wouldn’t fall into the …20s?

Pick No. 20 came up. The Lions’ pick. They could have taken him. He was there. All that talent. But like other teams, the Lions believed what they’d heard, wanted to play it safe, and they justified it by saying “receiver is not where we need the most help. We have receivers.”

So they chose Fair, a defensive back, because they needed help at that position. And Moss? He was chosen the very next pick, by the Vikings, a team that needed another receiver even less than the Lions.

And now, Sunday, here was Moss, burning past Fair, leaving him behind like last year’s calendar, turning in the end zone to catch a perfectly thrown ball by Daunte Culpepper that Fair tried for and Corwin Brown tried for but both missed and Moss caught for a 50-yard score, putting the Vikings ahead for good.

Moss jumped up and struck a muscleman pose. The Detroit defensive backs were on the ground, looking dizzy.

Well. At least one thing is consistent.

The Lions still need help at that position.

You can never have enough playmakers

Moss grows. The Lions didn’t play badly in Sunday’s 31-24 loss. They just didn’t stop Moss on three big plays. Unfortunately, all of them were touchdowns.

The first: Moss in motion across the backfield. One Detroit defensive back, Marquis Walker, points and yells at Fair to switch, switch! Fair looks confused. He reads something else, lets Moss get behind him, then stops, leaving Moss to be covered by safety Kurt Schulz, which is like leaving Marion Jones to be covered by Marion Ross.

Sixty-one-yard bomb. Touchdown, Vikings.

Second score: Vikings on the Lions’ 17. This time Bryant Westbrook turns his back on Moss shooting to the corner of the end zone (why would anyone turn his back on Moss?), leaving the speedster to Brown. Moss goes high, over Brown, and pulls a pass out of the air with both hands.

Touchdown, Vikings.

Afterward, I asked the defensive backs about Moss.

“I was going for an interception, I just missed,” Fair said.

“He’s a good player, but we’re all men here,” Westbrook said.

“Hey, the dude’s got talent, man,” Brown said.

Of the three, I’d rank Brown’s No. 1 for honesty.

And accuracy. The dude’s got talent. He makes plays. That was enough for Dennis Green to draft him, even though he already had great receivers like Cris Carter and Jake Reed on the roster. Moss delivered, became an All-Pro, could become All-World. You know what? The Vikings found room for him. Same as they did with Culpepper, whom Green drafted even though he had Jeff George and Randall Cunningham.

Green knows this much: Playmakers are golden. You can never have enough of them.

The Lions learned this lesson three times Sunday.

He’s difficult to handle afterward, too

But I am sympathetic. Those of us dealing with Moss in the media have the same problems as his defenders. After the game — you would think Moss would be happy, right? — he approached a crowd of reporters around his locker who had already been waiting 15 minutes. He scowled.

“I’m gonna be a LONG while,” he snapped. “So unless y’all want to watch a man get dressed…. “

He then disappeared for 10 minutes.

When he came back, the crowd was still there.

“Back off!” he yelled. “Y’all want to watch a man get dressed? Y’all have tendencies like that? Do you?”

Everyone backed away. He began to dress. No one said a word.

Moss spun around, sweating, and yelled, “Y’all making me hot!”

I thought he said he didn’t have those tendencies.

He then disappeared, sending in a lackey to fetch his clothes so he could dress in the trainer’s room.

Twenty minutes later he emerged, acting as if the media were lucky he granted his presence. When someone asked him to respond to criticism from a network TV analyst, Moss said, “I’m a man. I was raised better than that.”

Could have fooled me.

But then, that’s the privilege of NFL talent. Whether with reporters or defensive backs, Moss takes what he wants, and leaves you behind. You can draft that, use it to win, and put up with it, or you can play it safe, take what you need, and have your guys on the ground looking up at somebody’s touchdown.

Now. Go back to April 1998.

What pick do you make?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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