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Moon beams year after year

His mark has been left on the game. It's just that you won't find it written in an NFL record book, or watch it unfold on any Super Bowl highlight film. Warren Moon's football career is not defined by a moment of glory, but rather a lifetime of grace.

He is the rare athlete whose legacy has been forged largely in human terms. His on-field gifts and achievements are celebrated, but not nearly as much as his humanity. Moon's quiet sense of dignity, his ability to rise above turmoil and his willingness to give to those around him are the lasting impressions.

Like another longtime Texas pitcher of his era, Moon has had the kind of career that just rolled along, slowly sneaking up on people. Sustained excellence, often overlooked.

And now, rather suddenly, the first-year Minnesota quarterback is an elder statesman. And maybe the most beloved and respected figure in the game.

"It would be nice to win a Super Bowl," Vikings receiver Cris Carter said. "Because after all he's meant to this league, he deserves it."

A month shy of 38, Moon's rise to revered status has been an interesting odyssey. He spent the first six years of his professional career proving himself in the hinterlands of the CFL. For the next decade, he led a team known for its gimmick offense, playoff collapses and penchant for controversy.

This spring, for the first time in his 17 years of pro ball, he was traded, from Houston to Minnesota. The deal was a shock to his system, but Moon has handled the new challenge with his trademark equanimity. And produced his trademark winning results.

Entering Sunday's game at Tampa Bay the Vikings stand 5-2, alone in first in the NFC Central. Minnesota's Moon-led offense is ranked second in the NFC and sixth in the NFL. After a slow start in the Vikings' first two games (one touchdown, four interceptions), Moon has steadied himself, completing 64 percent of his passes for 1,874 yards (third in the NFC).

Despite a touchdown/interception ratio that isn't top-heavy (7-to-10), Moon has produced when it matters. Last week, for the 18th time in his NFL career, he led his team to victory after trailing in the fourth quarter (a 13-10 win over Green Bay), giving him a 14-2 record in his past 16 regular-season starts.

"I think the change has been good for me," Moon said this week. "It kind of rejuvenated me. A lot of things happened down in Houston last year. It was a very difficult year for me to get through. It's been a good move for me thus far because everything is positive. We're winning, and I'm playing pretty decent. It's a refreshing atmosphere."

Having cast its quarterbacking future with the younger Cody Carlson, Houston this spring decided its Moon phase had ended. So much for his six straight trips to the Pro Bowl. So much for the Oilers' NFL-high seven consecutive playoff trips. Houston made up its mind to mess with success.

So, with one eye on the salary cap and the other on his birth certificate, the Oilers shopped the man who has completed more passes (1,466) for more yards (17,259) than any other quarterback in the 1990s, and whose CFL/NFL totals make him the most prolific passer in professional football history (56,787 yards, 347 touchdowns).

Moon's pride was hurt. But his perspective was not lost.

"It's not something that you would want as a player to happen the way it happened," he said, alluding to his learning of the trade through a TV report. "But when you do sit back and look at it, you understand it a little bit more. I'm a player that's getting up in age. They're an organization that's looking down the road with a younger football team, along with trying to free up some money because of free agency.

"So I got caught in it, and my feelings were hurt because you feel like as a player you're owed a little bit of loyalty from an organization that you've tried to be loyal to for a long time. But it comes right down to it's a business decision and we get caught up in business decisions sometimes as players. So we just have to stand up and be a man and take our medicine, and that's what I've done."

Classic Moon. Eloquent and well-reasoned. No bitterness.

Not that everyone agrees with his assessment.

"That organization didn't deserve a player like Warren," said Packers defensive end Sean Jones, who also left Houston this spring. "They made him a scapegoat for all the stupidity down there. It was more than unfair _ it was ridiculous."

After first wooing Miami free agent Scott Mitchell, who signed with Detroit, Minnesota joined the Moon race. The Lions are 3-4, tied for third in the NFC Central. Houston is 1-6 and in disarray.

Already a playoff team, the Vikings see Moon as the man who could take them where they haven't been in 18 Januarys _ the Super Bowl. Moon is just 3-6 in the post-season and never has played in a conference final, but he largely escaped blame each year when the Oilers' playoff hopes went down in flames.

Super Bowl success or not, Moon already has won. His has been a triumph of perseverance over those who doubted the potential of a black quarterback in the NFL.

"When I came into this league I wanted to try and establish respect for myself and respect for my game," said Moon, who signed with Edmonton of the CFL after leading Washington to a 1978 Rose Bowl win. "Because coming out of college a lot of people weren't sure if I could play this game.

"It's a great feeling for me to know where I've come from to where I am now. And I have nothing to be ashamed about once I leave this league, in how people view me not only as a football player but the way I am off the field as well."