I got the feeling that Randy Moss wanted me to walk off his football field. The field at Victory Christian Center School, the high school team where Moss recently signed on as associate head coach and wide receivers coach, sits perched on a hill. My climb up the hill was so quiet that I thought I’d missed practice. Practice wasn’t over. Things were silent because Moss was the only person talking; his players were circled around him in rapt attention. I stepped onto the field unnoticed until Moss stopped and the entire Victory Christian Kings roster glanced over at me for a tense beat. That’s when Assistant Coach Malachi “Pauli” Paulding introduced himself and diffused the tension with his warm demeanor. We talked on the sidelines and the players turned their attention back to Moss.
“How’d you find out about us?”
“You guys are all over the news,” I told him. That’s half true. The story of Randy Moss, former NFL wide receiver, future Hall of Famer, taking a coaching job with his son’s football team was a national news story. But the team itself remains obscure. They hardly get local coverage in their local newspaper, the Charlotte Observer. National prep sports database MaxPreps, at the time of this writing, has no record of their first game of this season and an incorrect record of their third game1. Even the Victory Christian student body isn’t ready to commit. When I asked Coach Pauli if the bleachers would be filled tomorrow in anticipation of their first home game, he was cautiously optimistic.
“This wasn’t really a football school four years ago. It’s a basketball school. But attendance has gotten better every year.”
Coach Pauli headed back to midfield as practice drew to a close. The team huddled around Moss, who made his closing statements; it was hard to tell if he was calling out specific players or addressing the whole team or both.
When that running back is coming at you, what are you gonna do about it?
When that guard’s coming at you, what are you gonna do about it?
The team put their hands in a circle and Head Coach Dee Brown led them in a call and response:
“I will work. Too hard. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. Will win. Amen.”
The players broke toward the locker room. One player handed a Randy Moss action figure to his coach to sign. I talked with Coach Brown. His presence is both calming and authoritative, which is another way of saying he’s a coach. I asked him about Charlotte Christian, his opponent tomorrow.
“I know they’re ranked number five in the state and blah blah blah, but you’ve gotta play the game on Friday night.”
That was a coach’s answer. When I asked about how Moss’s son Thaddeus wound up on the team, I got a different kind of response:
“We don’t recruit. Moss was familiar with Charlotte and he was moving here. Thad had a friend on team. I’d say it’s just divine intervention. It was meant to be.”
Watching Randy Moss leap over a defender to catch a pass seemed like the most visceral thing you could do with a football.
That was a preacher’s answer. I wasn’t expecting it and yet, in the moment, it struck me as completely reasonable. How do you explain the presence of a guy who’s at one moment the emotional leader of your team and the next moment approached by one of his players to sign memorabilia? You take it on faith.
We walked to a cafeteria where a volunteer cook prepared a spread for the team. The post-practice meal is something Coach Brown instituted four years ago to help the team bond. “Even if we never win another game, I think they’ll be better men,” he told me.
The team filed into the cafeteria. Coach Brown prayed over the food—chicken fingers, fusilli pasta salad, and a vegetable plate. The coaches sat at their own table and the players orbited them in constant motion. One player asked Coach Brown if the Cowboys were playing that night. Another, a rail-thin receiver, compared himself to NBA forward Kevin Durant. The coaches’ table took the bait.
“If he’s Durant, then who does that make his twin?” Moss set up, before losing the thread of the joke. He was trying to draw a parallel between his player’s twin sister and Kevin Durant’s ex-fiancée, the WNBA guard Monica Wright. (They’re both tall). The team got it anyway.
The players and coaches shared an easy rapport. I’d called it a family dinner, but even that description is too antiseptic. It struck me that I’d never seen a young black coaching staff lead young black kids. Nor had I been in a space where young athletes and their coaches could say “nigga” without the fear of discipline or misunderstanding. Nor was I at a church lock-in; from the sports talk to the unfinished jokes, clearly I was in something like a barbershop.
Once the team meal was over, I headed to the library on Beatties Ford Road. On my way there I ran into Joshua Graham, who starts at center for Victory Christian. Or rather, he saw the guy who crashed his football practice and approached me to see what was up. I talked with Josh for a minute and he asked me a simple question that was difficult for me to answer: “Why’d you come to our practice?” I told him that I was writing about the team.
That’s half true. Here’s my deal: Two years ago, I lost my friend and mentor Yohance Balgar to throat cancer. We were both diehard Vikings fans, and when he died, following the team became a grief ritual. Watching them was hard to stomach, but I couldn’t stop thinking about them; walking to Josh’s practice I saw a big sign that reads “VCCS Kings” and I swore it read “Vikings.” A part of the reason why I went to his practice was to retrace the steps of my Vikings fandom.
In grade school we’d crowd around and wait for a kid to throw a football at us. This was one of our favorite games to play at recess, just a group of kids jumping for a football, though only a few of us had the requisite vertical leap to swipe it. If I could explain why we preferred this game to actually playing a game of football I’d point to Randy Moss. Watching him leap over a defender to catch a pass seemed like the most visceral thing you could do with a football. Though our game favored great athletes, there was a fairness in the way those same athletic kids embarrassed each other—if you almost caught the ball, that meant you got Moss’d. For the kids who couldn’t jump or couldn’t catch (hey, that’s me), the game was a tip drill, and there was no shame in that. Moss became something I didn’t yet have the language to describe; not just a verb, but also a meme.
From the late ’90s to the early 2000s, the Vikings fielded Hall-of-Famer Cris Carter, Matt Birk (the second most distinguished tall redheaded Harvard alum, after Conan O’Brien), and quarterbacks Randall Cunningham and Daunte Culpepper. I don’t know why rappers haven’t rhymed Culpepper yet, but Cunningham has one of Jay Z’s best name flips on “Heart of the City”:
I told you in ’96 that I came to take this shit and I did
Handle my biz scramble like Randall with his
Cunningham, but the only thing running is numbers fam.
I was even on board with Culpepper’s fumbling problem. It was a bad habit, but it wasn’t without its charm. As a kid, fumbling evoked a fun kind of anxiety, a free-for-all that could swing the outcome of a game. The fumble pile was recognizable; it was a group of players doggedly competing for the ball, a few with a genuine chance at it and only one person that mattered. I knew the feeling.
When I was Josh’s age, I knew I that as soon as I had the agency to watch NFL pregame instead of going to church, I’d do it without hesitation. But when Coach Brown asked me if I was Christian, I paused and muttered “Um, yeah?” I recognize the parallels: the rituals, the feeling a part of something larger than myself. Obsessing over personnel, schedules, and stats was a path toward speaking in tongues, but there’s an intimacy I have with football that I never found in liturgy.
Once you’re conversant in this cipher it’s simple enough to only ever talk about your team and pretty annoying to other people. It was a language I shared with Hance, one where a text about tight end Kyle Rudolph wasn’t just about what he happened to be doing on the field, but where we’d drafted him from and who we could’ve drafted in his place and how Brett Favre was somehow implicated. A game of Madden could glitch and offer rare a glimpse of what we called the “Dreamcast spin move,” named after the NFL 2K video games that featured Moss on the cover. A text about Adrian Peterson didn’t need extra subtext because we were both in awe of his relentlessness.
The last meaningful Vikings game I watched with Hance was the 2009–10 NFC Championship Game. We played the Saints. The game was at once remarkable and unbearable for its officiating: missed unnecessary roughness calls that were revisited in the Bountygate scandal and an overtime period where almost half the plays were decided by the officials. It always hurts to watch your team lose in the playoffs, but bad officiating strips away the illusion of agency. The reason why people wear rally caps, the reason why some people watch at all, is because they believe the ritual can affect the outcome of the game. Losing is painful, but watching a team of officials pal around and decide whether or not you’ve lost is something worse: powerlessness.
The compelling aspect of nostalgia is the control we have over it. I don’t have to dwell on those Vikings teams that never the won the big game despite their talents; I can choose my own adventure. I re-watch the documentary about Daunte Culpepper’s “get your roll on” touchdown celebration because it’s entertaining—where else can you see Mary Tyler Moore lead a faux intervention?—but also to access a sense of ownership. The only difference between a Moss animated GIF and a Moss action figure is the signature.
On game day, I sat next to some Victory Christian alumni. The game had been postponed because of lightning and the bleachers were empty because the all-volunteer concession staff was serving chicken-filled grilled cheese sandwiches and popcorn from the cart. Instead of standing in line for food, I eavesdropped on the alums.
“He used to be a name, like they used to say, ‘You just got Moss’d.’ Now his son’s here, they’re gonna be like ‘You just got Him’d.’”
“You can hear him out there too, like, ‘Get down the field, kid.’”
“I know I’d rather watch him than a bunch of flunkies.”
On the visitor’s side of the field, the Charlotte Christian football players and their fans set up camp near the team school bus. After a good 30 minutes of waiting out the lightning, Charlotte Christian’s head coach emerged from the locker room. He called to one of his assistant coaches and made the umpire homerun signal with his hand.
“Let ’em know we’re going.”
The game announcer—whose alto voice registered somewhere between “Can You Dig It” and Kang and Kodos—told the crowd the game would resume in 10 minutes. The Charlotte Christian players sprinted off the school bus. On the other side of the field, Moss led the Kings through some stretching exercises.
As the fans filled the bleachers, Christian hip-hop blared from the speakers. The alums could not stop complaining about it. (“They have to do something about this.”). I hung onto every word; my favorite lyric was, “These haters can’t hold me / Cause my ghostwriter is holy.”
“You mean like tackle football?”
I’d once dislocated my right pinky and nearly gotten frostbite on my feet playing touch football. And yet, I’d let Hance convince me that tackle football (without pads) was in some way reasonable.
Hance was no taller than 5 feet 6, but he was one of those low-center-of-gravity, wrecking-ball running backs. I was average height and lanky, like an average, lanky cornerback. On our way, Hance asked me if I knew how to tackle. I didn’t.
I’m still working things out about fear. That’s one of the subtle sadnesses of losing a mentor so young; you’re untethered from wisdom you still desperately need.
“You’ll figure it out.”
I played up on the line of scrimmage at cornerback and spent most of game arguing with a wide receiver on the other side of the line. Because he was a 16-year-old wide receiver, he had no problem saying, “I go to Northeast2. I’m gonna start next year. I’m number 30.” Because he was a 16-year-old wide receiver, he had no problem saying, “You don’t even look like you play football. You’re a bitch. You’re a faggot.”
I thought, “Fuck this guy,” followed closely by the realization that, “Fuck, I might have to tackle this guy.”
I didn’t figure out how to tackle.
I don’t remember if we won the game, but I acquitted myself well enough. Hance respected my effort and his validation was worth more than stats. He was my brother from another island—he was born in Trinidad, my folks are from Haiti. I’d like to say that I went back to the football field with Hance every week, that I inherited his strong will and conquered my fear of getting tackled. But I didn’t go back to the field and I’m still working things out about my fear. That’s one of the subtle sadnesses of losing a mentor so young; you’re untethered from wisdom you still desperately need. You have to learn to tackle on game day.
Charlotte Christian’s game plan was simple but effective. Save for a few tricky triple-option plays, they ran the football between the tackles and sustained long drives. After stringing three of these drives together, they were poised to take their 20-6 lead into halftime. That’s when Randy Moss huddled the team. I couldn’t hear his speech—Christian hip-hop: nothing if not consistent—but the alums were taken with it. “He looks like the head coach out there,” one of them said. It was a bit of an oversell; up until that point Moss had hung out near the 30-yard line, taking in the game in silence while Coach Brown shouted orders. I couldn’t argue with the results, though. On the very next play, speedy running back Joshua Allen nearly returned the kickoff for a touchdown. Michael Holmes ran a fade route and Jordan Lane, the Kings’ quarterback and (somehow) punter, found him for a touchdown.
Then, for the first time, Charlotte Christian’s offense showed weakness. They lost a fumble deep in their own territory. There was just enough time left for the Kings to draw even. The fans caught the spirit, but the quarterback didn’t.
Though Victory Christian had two great red-zone targets in Michael Holmes and Thad Moss, Jordan Lane struggled on short and deep passes. He often looked to run, or maybe just escape, and stalled out drives with sacks. The Kings couldn’t knot up the score and trailed, 20-13, heading into the half.
In the second half, the creaks in their offense showed. They ran the option three times and fumbled twice. These were the kind of mistakes you could avoid with just a little more practice. These were not the kind of mistakes you could afford to make against one of the best teams in the state. Still, it was hard to be mad at them. Watching an NFL quarterback mess up is to feel enmity; watching a high school quarterback struggle is just to feel empty.
The alums in my section complained. “I don’t like losing to them. They’re like the opposite of us. We’re Victory Christian. They’re Charlotte Christian. We’re the Kings. They’re the Knights.” They commiserated over bad losses from their high school days. “It was never like this.” They left earlier in the fourth quarter.
I spaced out on the game and surveyed the holdouts at the stadium. A boy and two girls stood near my section’s exit. The boy was on the phone with his mother, who was on her to way to pick him up. We were both wearing RUN DMC-style T-shirts and his friends glanced over at me.
“He’s got your shirt on.”
“I know, but mine has a better message,” he said without losing focus on his phone call.
His shirt read: “God Over Money.” My shirt read: REP VS DEM, which says a little about our two-party government system but not much else. If the criteria for judging were boldness, his shirt wins in a landslide. He waved goodbye to his friends, missing out on the finale.
Charlotte Christian packed on 17 unanswered points after halftime, but Victory Christian chipped into the 37-13 deficit on its very last drive. Lane Johnson settled in and led Thad Moss out on a string. Moss launched himself at the ball and when he landed he was in the end zone and the game was over. It was the kind of play we had all come to see and the kind of drive that could serve as a blueprint going forward—throw the ball down the seam to Moss, throw the ball to Allen in open space; most of all: Throw the ball.
Unfortunately, only a handful of us were around to witness it. I couldn’t blame the fans that left; the lightning delay had stretched the game to four hours. We hadn’t signed up for an ironman match, though even that would’ve been only half as long. Charlotte Christian had won the game in the most rudimentary way possible: controlling the line of scrimmage. It didn’t make for exciting football, but it was effective.
Randy Moss knew that and I suspect that’s why he didn’t celebrate his son’s touchdown. There was work to be done. This loss hurt, but it also proved they could hang with one of the best teams in North Carolina. In their last four games, Victory Christian’s won by a margin of 46 points, albeit against lesser competition. They’re in it for the long run.
I walked to the bus stop nearest Victory Christian, on a road off of I-85 without sidewalks, and, I learned after the game, without streetlights. I shined the flash on my phone to signal my presence to passing cars. It was the thing I’d been doing all weekend, holding my torch at a Viking funeral.