As annoying as it can be, I suppose the greatest compliment given to any retired athlete is when the media and fans won't let him stay retired.
Michael Jordan got that treatment in 1993, again in '98 and again in 2003. Even after video leaked of 48-year-old MJ dropping in a mundane dunk a couple weeks ago, a ripple of speculation surfaced about another possible Jordan comeback.
Brett Favre got it too, even if he created most of the reasonable doubt on his own. Barry Sanders got it; about four to five years after he'd walked away from the NFL, you still had people predicting/hoping Barry would stage a comeback. Personally, even for years after I knew my favorite athlete of all time was comfortably and safely retired, I quietly hoped Mike Tyson would fight one more time.
Today, Randy Moss is getting that treatment. Watching the TV coverage and reading online reaction to the unexpected end of Moss' 13-year NFL career, it seems the first question everybody asks has been: Is he really done? (ESPN has brought in everybody from ex-teammates to the guy who washes Randy's car and picked their brain for a response to that one.)
I'm going to respect the man's decision and presume he is. Which, of course, brings the next question: Where does he rank historically?
I've been over this before, how our sports society is too quick to try placing everything in historical perspective. Anytime anybody from LeBron James to Le'Ron McClain does anything notable, we rush to slap a ranking on it. Is he the greatest player ever? Was that the greatest dunk ever? Was that the hardest block ever? Waiting and letting a moment marinate isn't how we do things anymore.
When it comes to Randy Moss, his place in history was decided years ago. He is probably the most talented wide receiver of all time, but all things considered, ranks somewhere between No. 2 and No. 10 overall. It is that distance between how great Moss was and how great he could have been—about as wide as the distance Moss routinely put between himself and the best defensive backs in the NFL—that will be his enduring legacy.
And in that respect, Moss reminds me a lot of Shaquille O'Neal.
For starters, Moss and Shaq were both built in a separate lab from the rest of us. Their blend of size, quickness, speed, athleticism and fluidity was something never before seen at their respective positions in their respective sports.
Before Shaq, we hadn't seen a 7'1", 300-something-pound center who could tear down the basket, toss pinpoint no-look passes and lose his defender with a crossover. Before Moss, we hadn't seen a 6'4", 200-pound receiver who outran track stars, caught bullets with one hand and didn't make cuts and jukes as much as he flowed across the field like water.
Moss and Shaq were both so talented, so unique, that they also left many observers with the unfortunate feeling that they didn't give their all to the game.
I heard Hall of Fame QB Steve Young say this morning that teammate Jerry Rice "got every ounce out of everything he had." It was meant as a contrast to Randy Moss. Young could have said the same about Cris Carter, Michael Irvin or Terrell Owens and sent the same message.
As far as NBA centers go, names like Bill Russell, Ben Wallace and Alonzo Mourning would fit the bill. Shaquille O'Neal, at least in the eyes of outsiders and even many peers, would be the antithesis.
Moss and Shaq were more in the mold of Babe Ruth, Usain Bolt and Tracy McGrady. Maybe they did work just as hard as the guy fighting for a roster spot—anyone who wasn't in the gym with them can't really argue either way—but they each made their craft look so easy that it seemed they were holding something back.
Another similarity? As much as Moss and Shaq could have been accused of being bad teammates—recall Moss' exits where he was regularly given away below market value, and Shaq's exit interviews where he burned bridges at almost every stop—they both made things incredibly easier for their teammates between the lines.
Guards who played with Shaq didn't have to make perfect entry passes or toss perfect alley-oops. Forwards could make defensive mistakes and have Shaq bail them out via blocked shots or simple intimidation.
Meanwhile, every quarterback who played with Moss, and even more QBs who wish they did, will tell you that Moss allowed them to make the highlight reel with some of their worst passes. His speed, long arms, sticky hands and ability to track the ball in flight made it almost impossible to overthrow him.
Moss and Shaq were also nomads. Neither goes into his retirement this year associated with one particular team. Moss became a superstar in Minnesota, served a forgettable bid in Oakland, was rejuvenated in New England, returned to Minnesota for a blink, and finished meekly in Tennessee. When he was a free agent, there wasn't any team he could have signed with that would be a surprise—no hometown team he favored, no championship he would chase just because.
Shaq was more of a ring-chaser later in his career, therefore limiting where he'd go, but he also bounced around: from Orlando to L.A. to Miami to Phoenix to Cleveland to Boston.
There are athletes like Derek Jeter, Dirk Nowitzki and Peyton Manning who define their franchises in part because we've never seen them anywhere else. There are others like Emmitt Smith (Cowboys), Patrick Ewing (Knicks) and Ken Griffey Jr. (Mariners) who will always be identified with one team even though they moved around.
Moss and Shaq weren't in either group. If you had to, maybe you would put Moss into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a Viking and sent Shaq to the Naismith Hall of Fame as a Laker, but in reality, they were hired guns.
Even in their greatest differences—personality, on-camera demeanor and adjustment to fame—Moss and Shaq shared a commonality. Shaq loved the spotlight while Moss hated it. Shaq loved to talk while Moss would gladly pass on interviews. Shaq wanted to be an entertainer while Moss just wanted to be an athlete. But as far apart as their styles were, Moss and Shaq were similar in that neither had a filter.
Moss may have been more surly with the media than Shaq the comedian, but he was just as opinionated and honest and didn't care if you agreed with him. For different reasons, when Moss and Shaq talked, you at least stopped to hear what they were going to say.
It has been less than a day since Moss retired, and less than a season since Shaq did the same. Right now they share a legacy as once-in-a-generation athletes who, while undeniably great, perhaps could have been better. They both did things you wish you could, said things you wish you would and did it all without breaking a sweat or breaking their natural character.
And if you're a true sports fan, you kind of wish they could have done it forever.