Randy Moss, arms folded against his chest when his right hand wasn’t in his pocket nervously fiddling a packet of Skittles, stood on the dying grass at Victory Christian Center (Charlotte, N.C.) and shouted at his players with joyful enthusiasm.
“Did you see that?! He just read the quarterback. That’s what I need you to do!” Moss screamed at junior cornerback Jabari Rucker.
The Oct. 24 evening was every bit as surprising as the reason why Moss was there.
It wasn’t just because of Victory Christian’s 62-8 lead at halftime against Concord (N.C.) First Assembly Academy. Or senior wide receiver Zavier Jones’ 95-yard touchdown run on a reverse with 5:35 left in the fourth quarter. Or even that the Kings wrapped up their final home game with a 75-8 win, improving their record to 7-2.
Though the matchup almost seemed more like a scrimmage, one wouldn’t have suspected otherwise from the 14-year NFL veteran patrolling the sideline looking one step shy of slipping on a helmet and subbing himself into the game.
The question is, why would Moss — a USA TODAY High School All-American in 1994, selected No. 21 in the first round of the 1998 NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings, appearing in six Pro Bowls and setting the record for single-season touchdown receptions (23, in 2007) — be here, on a dead grass field belonging to a school of roughly 100 high schoolers among 350 students total?
“The pigskin,” Moss says. “The game that I grew up loving has always been good to me. I’ve always felt that if there was a way that I could give back, this is the way.”
‘Tough love’ approach
Two years removed from the NFL, this is a different Moss about to step onto the field for game day.
“The NFL is not in the equation,” he says. “I was a student of the game for so long, and now that I’ve retired, I’m a teacher.”
Victory Christian Center head coach Dee Brown, a former running back who played five seasons in the NFL, recalls a phone conversation over the summer during which Moss told him, “There’s nothing like Friday night!”
Moss often talked to his son, Thad, about his longing to coach at the high school level. So in June, Moss joined up with the 24-player roster as special teams coach, and later was appointed defensive coordinator. His son, a junior, also entered into the program at Victory Christian after moving to North Carolina over the summer.
“I was a student of the game for so long, and now that I’ve retired, I’m a teacher.” -Randy Moss
Sophomore right tackle and defensive end Timothy Baten tried to hide his smile when the elder Moss walked into the school’s weight room and introduced himself. Baten got serious, though, as Moss guided the team through knee extensions. The 350-pound tire flips would come later along with Gladiators, which senior running back Joshua Allen dreaded because it involved dragging a sled for 50 yards.
“We’ve done some crazy stuff,” Allen says of working with Moss. “The workouts are more intense this season. He’s not a soft coach. He’s very competitive even though he’s retired.”
Moss, who attends every practice, often arriving earlier than Brown, describes his coaching approach as tough love. “ ‘He’s evil,’ ” Moss says, and laughs, revealing what his players say about him.
These young players are in the presence of a legend, arguably the best wide receiver after Jerry Rice, whose single-season touchdown record Moss broke. Moss, who accumulated 15,292 career receiving yards, third most in NFL history, once self-proclaimed, “I really do think I’m the greatest receiver to ever play this game.”
And yet, the 6-4 Moss blends in like one of the players at Victory Christian, not just in the physical sense, as when he stands next to his 6-4 son or 6-6, 270-pound Baten. Moss talks their language, cracking jokes about Twitter. He has walked in their shoes; he knows what they might be thinking. But he carries a learned perspective that he wants to infuse in his players so they avoid making mistakes as he did during and after his days at Dupont High in Rand, W.Va.
Learn from my mistakes
It began his senior year in high school, when his Notre Dame scholarship was revoked after he was allegedly involved in a racially prompted fight. Trouble followed at Florida State, where, as a red-shirt freshman, Moss was kicked off the team after he tested positive for marijuana. He then enrolled at Marshall University, where he became a two-time All-American and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Despite his success at the next level, controversy also dogged Moss in the NFL.
“There are a lot more things that I could have accomplished if I had the guidance, proper work ethic and a little more structure in my life.”-Randy Moss
The lesson from his journey is ultimately why Moss is at Victory Christian. As much as he educates about the game, he’s equally concerned that he sets a good example for the players to follow — not the narrative based on his past.
“I didn’t skip school, but I didn’t apply myself,” Moss says. “A lot of things that I should have been learning back in high school I had to learn later on in life, and it was embarrassing for me.
“There are a lot more things that I could have accomplished if I had the guidance, proper work ethic and a little more structure in my life.”
His son says it has been an adjustment having his father as a coach, but he appreciates his no-nonsense investment in helping him and his teammates achieve to the best of their abilities.
“If I start slacking,” the younger Moss says, “he’ll be right on top of it. I can tell in his tone of voice that he’s not playing around.”
Moss was raised by a single parent who worked multiple jobs. He says he has always wanted to be there for his children because he grew up without a father. He has stepped into that figurative role with the players, too.
“I treat these boys just like they’re my own kids,” he says.
The players recognize that and respect Moss for it — he’s not just their coach. He’s their mentor.
“I’m trying to teach them that your athletic ability is there, but if you add something on top of that, the sky’s the limit,” Moss says.
Says Baten: “We see him as someone who is here to help us become better as football players and better as men.”
Inside Victory Christian’s old weight room turned pre-game man cave, some players sleep on the floor, Beats by Dre headphones glued to their ears, while others feverishly scroll through Instagram, one snapping a selfie wearing aviators, as they all bide their time before heading to the field.
Just walking in, Moss grabs their attention. He scribbles on a dry eraseboard his keys to the forthcoming game: “Play smart & fast;” “Communicate;” “Run/Hit/Tackle;” and last but not least, “Have Fun.”
He is all business as he makes the rounds and greets the players.
“I hope y’all been hydrating,” he tells them.
He asks how often they go to church before telling them a story about his mother showing up during his baseball game because he skipped attending. Chuckles ensued.
These players are far from star struck, in part because their head coach can pull from his experience playing for the Carolina Panthers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs from 2002-06.
“I call him ‘Mr. Situation,’ ” Brown says of Moss. “He’s going to put you in situations to make you feel like, ‘Do I know it? ‘Am I ready?’ He keeps me as a head coach and us as a staff sharp.”
Moss says he doesn’t know what his future holds, but for right now he is content being in this setting, spending his afternoons in the outskirts of downtown Charlotte, guiding players in a way he wished he could have experienced.
“As a coach here at Victory Christian, I want our guys to keep a clean slate. I want them to understand what life is really about,” Moss says. “They understand what we’re trying to do here. Hopefully this is something they can take with them when they leave.”