MINNEAPOLIS — The New York Giants are football pros, not moralists. For a week they've been staring at film of the Minnesota Vikings' Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper, bracing for Sunday's National Football Conference playoff finals at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Moss and Culpepper could wreck their plans of reaching the Super Bowl, so the Giants aren't interested in morality plays.
But Moss and Culpepper in the same lineup will offer an absorbing morality play to the football public this weekend.
Add a third party in the drama, Viking coach Dennis Green, and you have the properties that lift this game beyond the football field and into the theater of vindication, both personal and professional.
Daunte Culpepper is the 23-year-old quarterback who was born in prison, now a huge and powerful young man with a maturity, will, and football gifts that have propelled him into the forefront of pro quarterbacks in just one year.
Randy Moss entered pro football three years ago with a reputation as some kind of loose-cannon sociopath. He'd been on the police blotter for disturbances that made him a football nomad in colleges from Notre Dame to Florida State and finally Marshall.
Two-thirds of the NFL draft-day oracles rejected him. The Vikings said this guy can play, and he's not going to be a bum. In three years Moss has terrorized defenses in pro football with his gymnastic leaping power, his speed, and his effortless abilities to control a football game with just three or four touches of the ball.
Moss, Culpepper pay off for coach
Moss plays with an easy arrogance that infuriates some folks, but draws this comment from TV analyst John Madden: "He's just the best player in football today." Apart from spasms of brat conduct on the field and sulking withdrawals when he's not getting the ball, Moss has presented no behavioral off-field problems for the Vikings.
Although he has been less than adored by the Viking public in his nine years as coach, Green is the man who took a chance and now has brought both the kid born behind bars and the draft-day pariah to the very threshold of a Super Bowl. It's something the Vikings have never won. Their ledger: four visits, four losses. They lost unanimously in the Super Bowl under Bud Grant, a folk hero in Minnesota.
And now here comes Green, who just three years ago wrote a silly book threatening to sue his way onto the Vikings' board of directors. The Vikings' public was appalled and prepared for Green's rapid disappearance as head coach.
But the former Stanford assistant and Northwestern head coach wins football games wherever he goes. Green's teams play for him, and he is hard-rock uncompromising in the conviction that he knows football players better than the fans or critics on draft day. They jeered his choice of Culpepper in the first round of the college draft two years ago when he already had veteran quarterbacks on the roster. Green cut Jeff George loose before the 2000 season and said: "Culpepper's going to be terrific. He's a winner. You'll see that."
If he was wrong, Red McCombs, the Vikings' twitchy owner, wasn't going to waste much time on compassion. But after one year of nonplaying apprenticeship behind George, Culpepper has hit the NFL like a seismic wave with his arm, his powerhouse running, his presence, and his confidence.
So how big are Culpepper and Moss (along with, of course, clutch receiver Cris Carter and shifty running back Robert Smith) in the Vikings' schemes Sunday?
Here was a scene last weekend in the Vikings playoff game with New Orleans:
Moss slashes crossfield, looking for the pass, an ominous sight for any defensive back. But this one looked innocent. It was the Vikings' third offensive play. Culpepper's pass travels only 10 yards. Moss catches it at midfield - and the rest of the game is a formality.
It was over because the spectacle of Moss flying toward the end zone with his long, bolting strides - known as "taking it to the house" in the players' gleeful jockspeak - broke the Saints and left them intimidated and unhinged the rest of the afternoon. Moss does that to Vikings opponents.
Yet the focus for millions of the uncommitted watchers on Sunday may be the face of Culpepper. It's hard to conceive of a more appealing figure in professional sports this year. His mother was serving time for armed robbery at his birth. He was adopted by a woman who knew the family, Emma Culpepper, who was 62 at the time. Her foster son's gratitude to her has been unflagging, and his generosity, including his purchase of a new house for her, has been public and real.
A run-into-walls, big-play passion
Culpepper's understanding of the struggles of his biological mother in Florida also expresses a broad humanity not always found in the self-indulgent culture of today's athlete. He has accepted the counsel of the veteran Carter, a kind of "den father" to him. But while he is respectful, he's not docile. On the field, he has startled the NFL with 33 touchdown passes, his selection to play in the Pro Bowl, and his run-into-walls ferocity when he turns his 265-pound body upfield. "Daunte's had a bad ankle," Green said. "But he competes. He knows he has to play, hurt or not. He's our guy, and he's a good one." And he won't be easy to ignore Sunday afternoon.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society