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What we learned from ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ on Randy Moss

Randy Moss is shown in Aug. 1995, when he was a redshirt freshman at Florida State. (Mark Foley/Associated Press)
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ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series rolled out a new episode Tuesday, one centered around a polarizing figure: Randy Moss. “Rand University” spent a lot of time on his upbringing in Rand, West Virginia, and his setbacks in trying to play college football. Here are a few things we learned (some of which people who have paid attention to the wide receiver’s history would know already):

It’s just a coincidence that ‘Rand University’ sounds like it refers to Moss’s first name

The term applies to the aimless, hard-knocks life many young men fall into in Rand, a tiny West Virginia town (population less than 2,000) where Moss grew up after being born in the big city of Charleston. Later in the documentary, we see Moss, in a telecast’s lineup introduction during a 49ers game, identify his alma mater as “Rand University.”

Moss played high school basketball with future NBA point guard Jason Williams

This happened at DuPont high school in Belle, W. Va., where Moss and his buddies from Rand went. Williams, from Belle, teamed up with Moss to lead DuPont to the 1994 state final. As it turned out, the player nicknamed “White Chocolate” played at Marshall before transferring to Florida, whereas Moss initially considered Florida, then, after a series of mishaps, wound up at Marshall.

I guess they were to football players in the 1990s what they were to women in the 1980s.

According to a childhood friend, Moss would ‘smoke a couple of blunts’ before games

This came from Sam Singleton Jr., identified in the documentary as one of Moss’ two close friends from Rand who played sports with him at DuPont. Singleton said their other friend, Bobbie Howard, “never did anything … didn’t smoke no weed, he didn’t cuss, he didn’t go out with white girls, none of that.” Later in the episode, we learn that one of the things that made Moss such a controversial figure in West Virginia, long before he was nationally known, was that he had fathered a child with a young white woman.

Moss videotaped an apology to his former Florida State teammates

The star wide receiver had first committed to play football at Notre Dame, along with his buddy Howard. However, Moss was arrested while still at DuPont for his involvement in a beating of a fellow student, who was alleged to have scrawled a racist comment on a desk. That ended his career at Notre Dame before it began, but Coach Lou Holtz helped Moss latch on with Bobby Bowden at Florida State. The condition in Tallahassee was that Moss had to sit out a season as a redshirt, during which he wowed teammates in practices. After his freshman year, Moss had to finish out his sentence for the beating in a work-release program, but he failed a drug test after smoking marijuana. Moss was sent back to jail in Charleston, and placed in solitary confinement for a week.

At a preliminary hearing, Moss said in court, “The lockdown was really somewhere that I could get away, and just think about what I’ve done. And just to see about, what do I really want to do with my life. Do I want to be a thug and stay in jail, or do I want to become a real gentleman and to live my life the real way.”

The violation of the terms of his probation meant that Moss couldn’t return to Florida State for his first season of college football. Moss taped a statement to his now-former teammates from prison, while wearing an orange jumpsuit.

“Well, to Coach Bowden and the rest of the coaching staff, I’d just like to say that I’m sorry. And to all the other guys, all the recruits that are coming, if you hear this tape, before thinking about doing drugs, Coach Bowden, he’s gonna talk to you and tell you what’s right and what’s wrong. And for my sake, please listen to him.”

Moss learned how to talk trash at Florida State

So at least something came of his redshirt season in Tallahassee.

Moss was almost given a long jail sentence, amid widespread disdain in West Virginia

The wide receiver was facing the possibility of more jail time for violating the terms of his probation. At the time (1996), the documentary asserts, many people’s opinions about African-American star athletes was informed, in part, by high-profile court cases involving the likes of O.J. Simpson and Michael Irvin. Perhaps even worse for Moss’s image was that he had blown off West Virginia University during his initial recruitment process, which didn’t sit well with quite a number of the state’s residents. The atmosphere around Moss was also racially charged, given his fathering of a child with a white woman.

An influential pastor was recruited to help rally support to Moss’ side, and he succeeded in swaying sympathy, at least in some parts of the African-American community. Ultimately, the wide receiver received a 60-day sentence, including time served, when he could have been slapped with a harsher penalty.

His coach at Marshall had previously helped recruit Moss to Florida

Bob Pruett was Steve Spurrier’s defensive coordinator at Florida in 1994 and 1995. That was one of three schools Moss had visited (along with Notre Dame and Tennessee) while being recruited out of high school. Thus, when Pruett got the job as Marshall’s head coach in 1996, he was perfectly positioned to bring Moss aboard. Not only was Marshall located in West Virginia, but as a Division I-AA (now known as FCS) school, the receiver would not have to sit out a season under transfer rules.

Moss’ quarterback at Marshall was Chad Pennington

(Note: Pennington appears in “Rand University,” but the following details were not, I just thought they were interesting.) Pennington, who was drafted 18th overall by the Jets in 2000 — the same draft that famously saw Tom Brady go 199th — certainly owed a chunk of his fine statistics at Marshall to Moss’ otherworldly talents, but he had already proven himself before the wide receiver arrived. Pennington led the Thundering Herd to the 1995 Division I-AA national championship game, defeating a Kurt Warner-led Northern Iowa team along the way.

Moss scored a sick touchdown against Army

Many people have seen this clip before, but it’s worth another look, if only for The Hurdle.

Moss wore sunglasses to the 1997 Heisman ceremony because he was ‘scared’

He says in the documentary that he told this to his mother, who, understandably, asked him about the odd move. According to “Rand University,” the donning of sunglasses spoke to Moss’ discomfort, at least at the time, in the national spotlight. “All I know is that the glasses gave me a comfort, to be able to sit up there beside Charles Woodson, Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf,” Moss said in the episode. He finished fourth in the voting.

There really needs to be a ’30 for 30′ on Ryan Leaf

From college superstar to a legitimate debate (at the time) over who was the better NFL prospect, him or Peyton Manning, to a series of knucklehead incidents and poor play, to a descent into drug abuse and criminal convictions — how in the world has this guy not gotten the ’30 for 30′ treatment?

Moss does a funny Dennis Green impersonation

The receiver was bitterly disappointed to not have been drafted by the Cowboys with the eighth overall pick in 1998. Then he tumbled down the draft board, until Dennis Green, then coach of the Vikings, called to tell Moss that he wouldn’t slide past Minnesota’s pick at No. 21. Here’s how Moss describes getting that call:

Solid. Now we just have to get Moss to do his version of Green’s classic “They are who we thought they were!!” rant.

The documentary touches on Moss’ accomplishments in the NFL, mostly skipping past infamous moments such as his “Straight cash, homey” comment or his mock-mooning of Packers fans. “Rand University” does mention that Moss made “controversial headlines” while in the pros, but its focus is really on what shaped Moss from childhood through his career at Marshall.

Corrections: An earlier version of this posted stated that Chad Pennington led Marshall to the 1995 1-AA national championship; the team lost in that game to Montana. Former Gator Eric Kresser quarterbacked Marshall to the 1996 1-AA title, while Pennington red-shirted that season. The post also said that the Northern Iowa team Marshall defeated in 1995 was quarterbacked by Kurt Warner; his last season at Northern Iowa was 1993.