GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Those big brown eyes give it away. If you compare images of the two, it’s not difficult to see the resemblance.
Sydney Moss is so used to the questions by now that they hardly faze the 18-year-old University of Florida freshman basketball player. She smiles with those cheerful eyes and politely answers questions about her famous father in her soft Southern accent.
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It’s been this way since the first time a reporter asked to interview her. To the best of her recollection, it was sometime over the summer before her freshman year of high school.
She was at an AAU tournament, and after a game, someone approached her and asked for an interview.
Soon, headlines like these began to appear:
“Randy Moss’ daughter raises eyebrows on basketball court”
“Daughter of Randy Moss named Miss Basketball in Kentucky”
“Randy Moss’ daughter accepts basketball scholarship at Florida”
Randy Moss, the future Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver preparing to play in the Super Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers, was not with her the day Sydney remembers doing her first interview.
Frank Offutt was.
Unlike Sydney’s father, Frank Montgomery Offutt is not a household name. He was born in Williamson, W.Va., and later graduated from Williamson High School. He is a member of the school’s athletic hall of fame, a fine baseball player in his day.
Offutt went on to attend West Virginia and played on the Mountaineers’ freshman baseball team. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and then remained close to home, putting together a long and successful engineering career in the Kanawha Valley chemical industry and raising three daughters with Sissy Offutt, his wife of 47 years.
Those three daughters bore Offutt nine grandchildren. Sydney is the oldest.
“He was just as much her dad as he was mine,” said Libby Offutt, Sydney’s mom. “She was something special to him.”
Once a promising swimmer, Libby was in high school when she got pregnant with Sydney. Her relationship with Moss, considered one of the finest athletes ever produced by the Mountain State, made headlines for some of the wrong reasons.
Frank was always a constant in what at times could be an unstable existence for Libby and Sydney, the oldest of her five children.
She and Sydney lived with her parents until Sydney was 4. As Sydney developed into a promising athlete like her father, Frank was most often the one cheering from the bleachers or asking Sydney about her batting stance in softball.
By the time Sydney was a senior and one of the most decorated girls basketball players in the country last year at Boone County (Ky.) High, Frank’s health was deteriorating fast.
Still, he made the six-hour round-trip drive from his home in St. Albans, W.Va., to wherever in northern Kentucky Sydney was playing.
He loved to watch Sydney play and talk about her games to anyone who would listen.
“My grandpa didn’t miss one,” Sydney said.
“I think she kept him going,” Libby added.
When it was time for Sydney to make her official visit to Florida, Frank made the trip, too.
He wanted to see where Sydney was going off to college and meet those who would be taking her in. His long battle with the rare pure autonomic failure — a condition that leads to a sudden fall in blood pressure when a person assumes a standing position according to the National Institutes of Health — was not going to stop him.
Frank had other health issues by late spring of 2012, but when Sydney scored 41 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in her final high school game, he was there, as usual. Randy Moss was in attendance, as well.
“I was just trying to lead my team to a state championship,” Sydney said of the loss in Kentucky’s Sweet 16.
When the Gators opened their season in early November, Frank made sure to learn how to hook up his computer to the family’s big-screen TV to watch the games via live stream.
But seven games into the season, and two games after Sydney’s 15-point, 10-rebound performance in a victory over North Carolina State, 73-year-old Frank Offutt passed away on Nov. 28.
Sydney was in class when her aunt called, crying on the other end of the phone.
Sydney flew to West Virginia to attend the funeral and to spend time with her family. As she looked at her grandfather in the casket with a Mountaineers tie on, she placed a Gators pin on him as a final goodbye.
Libby saw the kind of raw emotion from Sydney that you would expect under the circumstances. But the kind of emotion she had rarely seen from her daughter.
“I’ve probably only seen her cry twice in my life,” Libby said. “She cried at the funeral.”
Sydney was on an airplane headed for Ann Arbor, Mich., the following morning. She didn’t want to miss the Gators’ game at Michigan. Moss played 25 minutes in the 59-53 loss to the Wolverines, scoring 11 points and adding five rebounds.
She then returned to West Virginia for a couple of days to spend time with her family before coming back to school. Before he died, Frank wrote notes to all his grandchildren and asked his wife not to share them until he passed.
“He told Sydney that he’ll be watching,” Libby said.
The loss of her grandfather is still so fresh that it can be difficult for Sydney to talk about. She said she’s at peace knowing that he got to see her play for the Gators after being such an important father figure to her growing up.
“It’s been kind of hard,” she said. “He’s in a better place. He was suffering. I kind of try not to think about it too much. He’s actually watching me play now instead of listening to it on the radio or watching it on GatorVision.”
In her short time on campus the easygoing Moss has fit in nicely with her new teammates. Like most freshmen, she remains a work in progress on the court.
Her statistics entering Thursday (10.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 26.1 minutes per game) are modest compared to her numbers in high school. Moss led the Lady Rebels of Boone County to a 30-4 record as a senior, averaging 22.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game.
Still, Florida coach Amanda Butler can see Moss’ enormous natural ability every time she dribbles up the court leading a fast break.
“She’s a catalyst; there is no question,” Butler said. “Sydney is very gifted and can make plays, especially in transition, that there is no one else on our team who can make those plays. In transition, I’ve never coached anyone like her.”
One day after the Gators’ 52-44 home loss to South Carolina on Sunday, Moss was in the gym with assistant coaches David Lowery and Murriel Page working on her post moves. With senior forward Jennifer George hampered by a nagging shoulder injury, Moss is playing inside more than the Gators planned.
She is shooting only 37.7 percent, a mark Butler understands can improve considerably if Moss can finish some of the baskets she has missed in traffic.
“Sydney has got a whole lot of ‘better’ ahead of her,” Butler said. “The thing that she is still learning is that her offensive confidence is really what impacts her whole entire game. It impacts every part. That’s something she has got to get better at.”
How much her grandfather’s death has weighed down her game is difficult for those closest to her to decipher. They know there is no way that it could not affect her, but how much remains a mystery.
Much like her father, Sydney isn’t one to share too much emotionally.
“Sydney is a really tough kid, and she is really introverted,” Butler said. “She has dealt with a lot of it inwardly. I think she has handled it with just a tremendous amount of strength.
“She is a very smart kid. So there wasn’t just the sadness part of losing someone she cared for and respected and loved so much, but she really understood what the loss meant to her family.”
Libby hasn’t seen Sydney much of late because she is hundreds of miles away with her four other children, but she talks to her daughter regularly. She said Butler’s assessment is spot on.
Sydney has always been that way.
“It’s hard to read her,” Libby said. “You have to figure her out.”
While Sydney is only 19 games into her college career, her father is nearing the end of his NFL career and has a chance to win his first Super Bowl ring on Feb. 3 at New Orleans when San Francisco faces Baltimore.
Sydney used to follow his career more closely when she was younger, but as she got older and began to develop her own identity, the distance grew.
Asked to characterize her relationship with her father, Sydney said: “It’s kind of like on and off. We’ll be cool one day and then not cool the next day.”
Randy Moss made it to a few of Sydney’s games her senior season when he was out of the NFL. A senior at DuPont (W.Va.) High when Sydney was born, Moss has been in the public spotlight for more than half his life.
His life has been one of great success and well-documented turbulence.
He’ll turn 36 next month. With his playing days near the finish line, maybe there will be more time for Sydney and his other children in retirement. Only time will tell.
As for Sydney, she said it was around her sophomore year of high school when she began to focus on making a name for herself rather than live under the large umbrella of her father’s name.
She began to blossom and hopes she can be an inspiration in her own right.
“Whenever you are younger, you look up to these kids. And now knowing I’m a college player, maybe some kids are looking up to me like I looked up to Candace Parker and other players like that,” she said. “A lot of people don’t get this chance.”
In Butler’s view Sydney’s drive to create her own identity is part of what makes her such a special player.
There are two roads athletes born of famous athletes can take, and Sydney appears headed down the right one.
“She’s not let that get underneath her skin, that sometimes people approach her as Randy Moss’ daughter instead of Sydney Moss,” Butler said. “She has a quiet little chip on her shoulder because she does want to make her own name. She wants to be her own person. I think she handles it all very, very well.”
In that way, Sydney is much like her grandfather. When Libby and Randy’s relationship caused a stir in their rural West Virginia community in the early 1990s, Frank was always the dignified voice of reason.
Libby didn’t always want to hear what he had to say, but as she got older and learned more about life, she realized how her dad was trying to help make things better.
Now that he’s gone, she appreciates what Frank Offutt left behind. Part of him remains alive in Sydney as she navigates this new phase of her life and basketball career.
That’s as good a legacy as any for a man to leave behind.
“Sydney is just tough,” Libby said. “She has been through a lot. She is a survivor. That was pretty much her dad. My dad was there always. I look back now and realize he was a really incredible man. He had a lot of good values, morals and things that he taught us.”