News that Randy Moss was on a longship headed back to Viking territory rang out across the northland like a gjallarhorn this week. Moss has (possibly correctly) been described as petulant, cancerous, even abusive. He has also (definitely correctly) been described as totally awesome at catching footballs, and one of the greatest Vikings ever. Since his role in my world is almost entirely about the latter, my reaction, like most fans of the purple, was joy. My brother declared Wednesday one of the five greatest days of his life. My wife immediately changed her facebook profile photo to a picture of afro’d Moss taken during his last victory as a Viking, the playoff moon game against the Packers. (Her great quote, when reminded of Moss’s purported moral failings: he’s my wide receiver, not my pastor.)
I should admit: I had recently declared that I was beginning a lengthy rebuilding period of my Viking fandom. See, I overpaid for a ticket to their home opener against the Dolphins, and I spent those three hours in the upper deck of the Metrodome feeling miserable about the team. I left that game, a pathetic loss, determined to reset my priorities. The next week, when they played (and beat) the Lions, I protested by staying away from the TV. I mowed the lawn. I got my hair cut. I played with my kids. I enjoyed my little protest.
Then this week’s news broke. #84–hero of the ’98 glory-to-heartbreak season; the most thrilling Viking of all time– is back in Minnesota, where he belongs, and I’m declaring my fandom’s rebuilding period over prematurely. Moss is back; so is Jason.
During those seven years when Moss was here originally, he treated us to some of the most spectacular moments Minnesota sports fans have ever witnessed. He is one of very few athletes who adjusts the geometry of a playing field, whose talents are described by theoretical, not practical, physics, like he’s a quark, or Schrodinger’s cat. Throw a ball in Moss’s direction, and straight lines are bent, rigid shapes flex, time slows down. I recall a play against New Orleans late in Moss’s first stint here where Dante threw a deep ball that was clearly (1) way past his intended receiver, and (2) out the back of the end zone anyway. But while that ball sailed harmlessly out of the playing area here in this universe, down on the field a different physics was at work. Time both slowed and accelerated as #84 flattened himself across an event horizon, extended his long arms out and up while rapidly tapping his feet down and back at the same time as he propelled them up and forward. I tell you, a particle accelerator, the Hubble telescope, and some grad students with lab coats and unkempt beards could demonstrate that the back right corner of the end zone actually expanded in all dimensions — laterally, vertically, temporally — for both an instant and an eternity, and then collapsed back to this reality when the ref raised his hands. Touchdown. Huh? Moss caught that? Show me that again. Wow. So that’s how the universe began.
I know that Moss has been vilified for his petulant behavior. I’ve always thought this was overblown. My basic framework for following professional sports is to regard them as an ongoing compelling narrative, the way some people regard the Harry Potter books or Lost. The coaches and athletes are the characters in these narratives. In the narrative of pro football, Moss’s antics are not the work of a villain, like Shakespeare’s Iago. They are the work of a low character, like Shakespeare’s Bottom. Mooning the crowd. Bumping a traffic cop. Squirting a ref. Walking off the stage while the scene is still playing. These are things circus clowns do, not archenemies. But this circus clown also makes circus catches.
I don’t say this to justify him, but to say that Randy Moss is probably more complex than we realize, and perhaps less to blame for his teams’ failures than we make him out to be. Moss walking off the field late in a game against Washington is widely regarded like it’s tantamount to murder, but no one ever points out the fact that Mike Tice managed the clock in that game like it was a sundial made from a stick and he was Survivorman: imprecisely.
And Moss’s infamous “I play when I want to play” quote demands some context and some reflection, doesn’t it? Has anyone heard this quote, first hand? I’ve only seen it in print or heard it repeated by pundits. What was Moss’s tone? What was the nature of the question he was answering? How do we know exactly what he meant? The media always gives it a defiant, belligerent reading, as if it says “I am uncoachable; I don’t care about my team; no one can tell me what to do.” But couldn’t a skilled actor read that line as Moss’s reflective description of his internal will? Try this translation instead: “I play when I want to play” equals “my motivation to play comes from deep within me.” What’s wrong with that? Heck, read differently, “I play when I want to play” becomes a thoughtful riff on Ecclesiastes or the Byrds. There is a season for everything: a time to sow, a time to reap, a time for playing football.
I’m not naïve about professional athletes; he may very well be a jerk. And I’m not saying that reacquiring Moss is without risk. I actually fully expect this to end badly – after all, for the Vikes, it always does. But Randall Gene Moss (the man) playing the complicated and rich part of Randy Moss, 84, Superfreak, the Viking wide receiver, is like Brando playing Stanley Kowalski or Olivier playing Hamlet: the perfect man for a perfect role. I can’t wait to watch it again.