Ask around recruiting circles, and the stories of “Randy Moss, high school football player” are legendary.
Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden once told Sports Illustrated that Moss was the only player he ever saw who had the same athletic gifts as Deion Sanders (and in a much larger body). Lou Holtz, who won a national championship at Notre Dame, called Moss one of the best high school football players he’d ever seen.
Yet ironically, when reflecting back on his time being recruited, Moss’ earliest memories of Holtz and Notre Dame were of disappointment.
“I remember my friend receiving a Notre Dame questionnaire,” Moss said recently about a recruiting process that took place nearly 20 years ago. “It’s got that gold helmet on it, and I’m thinking, ‘Where the hell is mine?’
“I think mine came the next day,” he said with a laugh.
From there, the recruiting chase was on, with just about every school in the country entering the race for not only the nation’s best wide receiver, but one of the most talented college football has seen.
“I remember when I got a letter from Hawaii,” Moss said smiling. “I was like, ‘I’m going on a recruiting trip to Hawaii!’”
Only after a teammate told Moss he’d have to give a verbal commitment to the school to get a free trip did he cross the Warriors off his list.
In the end, quite a few schools were crossed off by the person who was really calling the shots: Moss’ mother. She’d gone through the process a few years earlier with Moss’ older brother Eric (who later played at Ohio State) and wasn’t going to put up with the same never-ending parade of college coaches with Randy.
“My mom was very strict,” Moss said. “Each kid gets five visits. Well, she narrowed it down to three for me.”
Those three lucky suitors were Florida, Tennessee and Notre Dame, and Moss began to sort through them.
He took a trip to Gainesville, but at 17 years old was a bit out of his element coming from Rand, W. Va. “It was the first time I’d ever seen an alligator!” Moss said. “He was hanging out on the side of the road sun-bathing. We were driving right down a two-lane road, and I’m sitting there like, ‘Man, an alligator.’”
Ultimately, Moss said, Florida was just too far from home. So what about Tennessee?
There was no live alligator in Knoxville but instead an eager volunteer. Some kid named Peyton Manning drove back to campus during a weekend away just to host the visiting hot-shot recruit. “Peyton was in Virginia, and he came back to take me to a basketball game,” Moss said. “I don’t know how long the drive was, but I know it wasn’t 15 or 30 minutes.”
Moss never forgot that moment even though he also passed on Tennessee and wouldn’t reconnect with Manning until a few years later.
“We ended up in the same draft class, at the Heisman Trophy (ceremony) together,” Moss said. “That was shocking to me. It was like, ‘Man, you tried to recruit me, now we’re at the Heisman.’ It was pretty cool.”
Looking back, Moss’s final decision wasn’t really a decision at all. From the moment that first questionnaire arrived, Moss was intrigued by Notre Dame.
It might be hard for a younger generation of fans to imagine now, but Notre Dame was the “cool” school at the time and home to the coolest players, with guys like Rocket Ismail, Jerome Bettis and Tim Brown wearing those gold helmets.
Add in the fact the Irish were on TV every weekend, stressed academics more than other schools and were coached by an icon in Holtz, and it was a no-brainer to listen when Notre Dame called.
That was certainly the case for Moss. Even before Holtz ever made an appearance at Moss’ home in West Virginia, the receiver longed for playing in South Bend, Ind.
“I had a dream that Lou Holtz called me,” Moss recalled. “I woke up with a smile on my face from ear-to-ear. [But] I’m sitting there like, ‘Oh man, that was just a dream!’”
Less than a week later, Holtz did indeed make that call before arriving for an in-home visit shortly thereafter.
“He came up to my house in Rand, West Virginia,” Moss said. “That was a big deal. I remember my mom was like, ‘Don’t you go telling your friends’ [he’s coming].”
As history played out, Moss would never suit up for Notre Dame. Off-field issues spoiled opportunities at Notre Dame and Florida State, but Moss ultimately made good by becoming a record-setting receiver at Marshall, a first-round pick in the 1998 NFL Draft and a seven-time Pro Bowler.
Moss thinks back to his recruiting process and how things have changed since — he noted the national rise of schools like Oregon — and wonders how things might be different if he went through it today.
Ultimately, that young love for Notre Dame and his infatuation with the lore of the Fighting Irish, has never left Moss.
“If I could do it over again, Notre Dame would’ve probably still been there,” Moss said. “It’s an experience I’ll never forget. That was my team.”