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The many faces of Randy Moss

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

MINNEAPOLIS -- There is Randy Moss the playmaker and Randy Moss the play skipper.

Randy Moss the gracious and Randy Moss the petty.

Randy Moss the player's player and Randy Moss the coach's scourge.

The many faces of Randy Moss include the fiery leader whose stirring halftime speeches have spurred his teams to victory, and the pouting malcontent who has bailed on his teammates before a game was even over.

They also include the generous spirit who brings needy children to amusement parks and makes their faces light up with a game ball, and the childish bully who berated a caterer for serving a spread "I wouldn't feed to my (expletive) dog."

Moss may well be the greatest receiver of his generation and yet he's always been one of the most polarizing players around -- an uncompromising, inscrutable individual in a game that depends on fitting into a team's system. It's the basic reason he is playing for his third club in just over a month, and the Tennessee Titans were the only one of the league's 32 franchises to put in a claim for him when he hit the waiver wire last week.

"I don't know if anybody can totally pin down who Randy Moss is," said Tim DiPiero, one of Moss' first agents.

It's hard to find a teammate who doesn't speak highly of Moss, despite his long history of taking plays off and boorish behavior on the field and in the locker room. It's also difficult to find a coach who wouldn't love to have a receiver with Moss' unprecedented combination of size (6-foot-4), speed (a 4.4. 40-yard dash), hands and intelligence -- which is why he keeps getting second chances.

"He's got a great heart for people who don't have what he's got," DiPiero said. "But he has his moments that seem to get him off track and into some problems."

His abrupt departure from Minnesota last week shocked the Vikings players, especially second-year receiver Percy Harvin, who had quickly formed a bond with Moss.

Star running back Adrian Peterson called Moss "a great teammate" and "cooler than an ocean breeze" despite watching him give up on several plays in the previous game against New England, question the coaching staff in a postgame rant and embarrass the organization by criticizing the food offered by a local restaurant.

"I think that all great athletes are a little different," said former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, who recruited Moss when he was a high school star in West Virginia. "But a great athlete, you have to teach them a lot of things, how to take coaching, how to accept his role, how to compete, things like that."

Moss grew up with his mom and three siblings in Rand, W.Va., near Charleston.

When Moss was 6, he met Sam Singleton, who would become his youth football and baseball league coach and mentor. Singleton bought cleats for Moss, drove him to and from practice and became a member of Moss' exclusive inner circle.

"He's a knucklehead," Singleton said, laughing. "I had a lot of kids. He was just one of the kids. It was a community thing."

He also was a two-time state player of the year in basketball and the top prep football player in 1994.

"He is the greatest athlete I have ever seen on film in high school, bar none," Holtz said. "Nobody like him."

But in a small state, he was under a microscope. And when he made a misstep, it was magnified.

Notre Dame revoked a scholarship offer after Moss was charged with attacking another student at DuPont High. Moss then turned to Florida State but he never played a down. Moss violated his probation by smoking marijuana and landed in a Charleston jail in 1996.

While Moss was locked up, DiPiero received a phone call in one of the jail offices from Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden, who delivered the news that Moss wouldn't be welcomed back to school.

"Oh gosh, it was a low time," DiPiero said. "That was really hard for him."

Rather than sit out a year, Moss walked on at then I-AA Marshall and scored 54 touchdowns in two seasons.

"You can't talk to any player that's ever played with him or been on a team with him that didn't like Randy," Marshall coach Bob Pruett said. "Randy was the Pied Piper. People followed him. He's very likable."

It's been in the same in the NFL, where has built a reputation as virtually unstoppable -- when he wants to be. He has amassed Hall of Fame caliber numbers through 13 seasons in the league, but will always be remembered for his "I play when I want to play" comment in his first stint with the Vikings.

He has been traded three times and cut once, with his talent always proving just a little too much for the next team to resist.

"Randy's problem is Randy does not have a great deal of respect for male authorities," former Vikings receiver and Moss mentor Cris Carter said on ESPN radio. "If you're wishy-washy, if you're not a man's man, if you don't shoot it to him straight, Randy Moss is going to give you problems. He is sure enough going to give you problems."

He became such a problem in his second tour with the Vikings that Brad Childress decided to cut him after just four games -- despite giving up a third-round pick to get him from the Patriots in October.

Childress declined to get into details of his decision, calling it "a programatic non-fit."

"I hate that it happened," said Moss' college quarterback, Chad Pennington, whose Dolphins play Moss' Titans on Sunday. "I'm sure he hates that it happened. I just hope he's able to turn things around these last eight games and play really well, except for Sunday."

Moss was his typical unreadable self at his first news conference with the Titans on Wednesday, saying both that he regretted how things went in Minnesota and growing combative with a reporter who asked what they can expect from him effort-wise in Tennessee.

"What do you expect from me effort-wise?" Moss twice barked at the reporter, who said he didn't know what to expect.

"I don't know what to expect neither, next question," Moss said.

Moss is staunchly defended back home in West Virginia, where they tell stories of him breaking down after helping children in need and showing up unannounced to do autograph signings to help raise money for local charities at their events.

"Randy's always lived in a fish bowl," DiPiero said. "He always doesn't come across as real open. He lets his guard down when he's around kids. But around adults that he doesn't know, he's very cautious.

"When you get to know him, he's funny. That's why his teammates like him so much, because he's a character. He's funny. He gets people pumped up. He's competitive. And he's hilarious."

Childress isn't laughing. His unilateral decision to cut Moss drew the ire of some players and put him in a precarious position with team ownership as the Vikings (3-5) try to salvage their season.

Moss, on the other hand, has been welcomed warmly by coach Jeff Fisher and the Titans, in yet another fresh start in a career that may be running out of them.

"You never know what the future holds," the 33-year-old Moss said. "Right now I'm a Tennessee Titan. I'm here to do whatever coach Fisher wants me to do."