Good to go
NFL rules say he's too young, but freshman RB Maurice Clarett is ready
This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 16, 2002, issue. Subscribe today!
SO WE'RE sitting in a film room at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. Ohio State's team meeting starts in about an hour, and Maurice Clarett, only four months removed from his high school graduation ceremony, leans back in a black swivel chair and pops chocolate-covered almonds into his mouth. He loves candy. Says it keeps his sugar level up. And I say to him: "No true freshman has ever won the Heisman Trophy ... "
The story behind the story
A member of the Ohio State sports information department was supposed to meet me at the school's football complex the morning of my interview with Maurice Clarett. Instead he was a no-show. But Clarett wasn't. He arrived on time, took me through the Buckeyes locker room and found us an unused meeting room where we could talk. And the more he talked, the more it became apparent that Clarett was fearless. You have to remember that at the time, Clarett was as much an Ohio star as his then-buddy LeBron James (he had the King's number on his cellphone). Even then, he understood that he had a finite number of carries left in his football career. And he understood the impact of his comments regarding the possibility of becoming the first football one-and-done. Maybe that's why, just before he began discussing the topic, he turned around to see if any Ohio State coaches were within listening distance.
In retrospect, I'm convinced Clarett would never have answered any of those questions had OSU's sports information rep shown up for our scheduled interview. Clarett took a lot of heat for those comments, and we took some heat for a photo that accompanied the story. Clarett was a polarizing figure at Ohio State, but no one doubts that without him, the Buckeyes would not have won the national championship that year. He was a brilliant college football player ... and a troubled soul. But more than a decade later, I still root for him. Just as I did in 2002. -- Gene Wojciechowski
And he starts smiling.
"... And no one has ever challenged the NFL rule prohibiting a true freshman, sophomore or junior from entering the draft."
And he starts laughing.
I try to regroup.
"I'm not saying you'd do it. I'm not saying you're going to do it. I'm not saying you've even thought about it. But there are only certain kinds of people who could do it. Do you know what I'm getting at?"
He laughs again, but louder.
"Do you think you're one of those people who could maybe do something like that?"
He nudges the almond bag to the side, reaches for his blue Nokia and pokes at the keypad. Then he shows me the name and number on the call list. LEBRON. As in LeBron James. As in the guy who is expected to make the jump from Ohio schoolboy hoops legend to the NBA's No. 1 pick next June, and do it with adidas and Nike tugging at each foot. As in tight buddies. "A cool cat," says Clarett.
Clarett punches in the speed dial. "Whussup? This is Clarett," he says to James. He talks for a couple of minutes, places the phone on the table and laughs again. Does that answer your lame-o question?
OF COURSE Maurice Clarett is thinking about the NFL. Wouldn't you, if you were him -- and heard your mama scream as bullets from a drive-by tore through your house in the Youngstown, Ohio, ghetto? Or if you saw your next-door neighbor stagger toward your front yard and bleed to death on the grass? Or if your absolute best friend from the neighborhood just got 19 years for trying to cap someone? Taking on the NFL's legal department one day doesn't seem like such a big deal.
It helps that Clarett's rushing and scoring stats are off-the-charts filthy, that he might, just might, be mentally and physically tough enough to pull it off, that there are those in the business who think Clarett v. NFL would be as lopsided a victory as Bugs v. Fudd.
That said, he's made only six starts but already has 847 rushing yards, a 15.0 scoring average and the respect of an undefeated Buckeyes team that features 20 senior and junior starters. Clarett is the kind of true freshman who gains 140 hard yards against Northwestern's eight-in-the-box defense and scores twice, but still calls it a ("horrible" performance, and issues an emotional postgame apology to his teammates because he fumbled three times. "He has a lot of balls to step up and do something like that," says Matt Wilhelm, OSU's senior middle linebacker.
Keep this up, and Clarett might become the first freshman to need a speech at the Heisman ceremony. Ohio State already has six of the statuettes sitting in the Hayes Center lobby, but there's room for another one next to Eddie George's, or near Archie Griffin's pair. Clarett is so hot that he can innocently sign a miniature Buckeyes helmet near the stadium gates after a game and find it on eBay an hour later selling for triple digits. Former OSU coach John Cooper, who still lives in Columbus, says he was in a grocery store the other day and saw an entire rack of No.13 knockoff Clarett jerseys for sale. Everybody is making coin off Clarett, except Clarett. That's partly why he's considering all his options.
"Do I think about it?" he says about challenging the NFL's rule. "It's got to go through your head, man. It's got to go through your head. I'm not saying it's something I will do. I'm not saying it's something I won't do"
Still, Clarett is curious enough that his mother, Michelle, chief deputy clerk for the Municipal Court of Youngstown, is researching the process, gathering information and considering the pros and cons of challenging the NFL. A deliberate, thoughtful woman, she says no decision will be made until all the facts are assembled. "Whatever his decision, I support him 100 percent," she says.
Her son can recite the latest contract figures for, say, Donovan McNabb, down to length of deal and the last decimal on the signing bonus. He has calculated the number of hits his own six-foot, 230-pound body will likely absorb during the course of a college season. The rough formula: at least 20-25 carries multiplied by 13 games (260-325), plus secondary hits (100), plus bottom-of-the-pile knee and ankle twists (minimum 20), plus blocking (minimum 75), plus pass receptions (projected 20), plus hits taken during late summer, fall and spring practices (lots), plus hits taken during the spring game (some). Add those numbers, compare the result to McNabb's salary figures and, says Clarett, "You kind of reevaluate your situation."
Carve it into the brickwork outside The Horseshoe: At the very least, no way will Clarett run in 2005 without a paycheck. He knows it. OSU coach Jim Tressel knows it. "You can always come back to school," says Clarett. "I don't think there's a job in the world where you're gonna make $113 million in 12 years. I don't think there's one job coming out of college paying that." Okay, maybe one.
So wave goodbye to his senior season. But what about his sophomore and junior seasons? The NFL requires a player to be three years removed from high school before he is eligible for the draft. Might Clarett be the first One-and-Done college football player? "I'd be disappointed," says Tressel, though even he tells his juniors not to(become seniors if they'll be among the top 12 picks. And Griffin, an OSU associate athletic director, acknowledges that someone, somewhere, someday, will challenge the NFL rule. "I just hope it's not him," he says.
Advice is everywhere. George says he wasn't ready to leave after his freshman season, but that Herschel Walker, Marshall Faulk and Bo Jackson could have done it. And Clarett? "He's the total package," says George. "But he should focus on his season and then worry about these things." One NFL personnel director is less tactful. "Even juniors struggle when they come into the league," he says. "It's not even worth talking about it until he's been through a full year." None of this is a news flash to Clarett. "Hmmmm," he says, chuckling again. "Do I think it's possible? After the season I could tell you if it's possible. I have some kind of feeling, but I'm not real sure right now."
This is vintage Clarett. Guarded. Curious. Unconventional. He thinks older. "I don't think a lot of things I do people would expect," he says. "I'm stuck in the middle, 18 going on 99. I'm stuck between all those ages. Sometimes I feel like an old man with the thought process. At times I seem young when I'm playing on the football field."
Youngstown can do that to you -- at least, the Youngstown that Clarett knows and never wants to forget. He wears No.13 because it's "a bad number," because to Clarett it represents his life: "Against all odds, from the worst city you could possibly be from, the worst situation you could be in, the worst odds," he says.
Clarett's father left years ago. While his mom worked long days, Maurice stayed at his Grandma Mary's three-bedroom house with his two brothers and 11 cousins. Dinner was often beans and franks. Lunch was a couple of slices of bologna folded in two. "Basically kids raising kids," Clarett says. "That's when the streets are going to raise you."
By the time he was in junior high, Clarett had spent time in a juvenile detention center three times, the last one a 90-day sentence for breaking and entering. Joe College? His dream was to be Joe Drug Pusher, "because that's all that was successful."
With the help of his mother and his junior high football coach, Mike Butch, Clarett enrolled at Harding High, in Warren, Ohio. Every morning at 6:30, his mom drove him 40 minutes through farm country; every night she picked him up after work. Clarett was nearly unstoppable at Harding -- he rushed for 2,194 yards and 38 TDs as a senior and was named USA Today's national offensive player of the year. He kicked tail in the classroom, too. Clarett graduated a semester early, in time for OSU's winter quarter, and made Mom happy by attending Harding's diploma ceremony in June.
But Clarett never left Youngstown behind. He's already been to 10 funerals of friends from the neighborhood and still says a prayer in their memory. "I'm doing this for y'all," he tells himself. "I'm living my dream for y'all."
Eighteen going on 99.
"I think I've seen as much bullcrap as I'm going to see," he says. "I haven't seen it all, but I've seen enough. I've seen people killed. I remember the first time, we were playing football in the middle of the street -- I can remember this like it was the other day -- and there was some boy sitting on a blue Monte Carlo. And that dude's grandma was sitting up on the porch. He was from my neighborhood. We saw a person driving up the street -- we didn't think too much about it -- and then that dude on the car got shot like five times in the chest. He crawled in the bushes and died.
"Then the second one, I was sitting on the porch about 2, 3 in the morning, just playing around with my cousin and her daughter. My neighbor's friend, he's sitting on a car drinking beer, and this dude ran out from the backyard and shot him twice in the chest and once in the stomach. He crawled in our yard bleeding to death.
"You tell people about this and they don't take you that serious. Until you see the way it really is, you can't believe it. All of a sudden, picking up the linebacker don't seem like too much. I'll take a linebacker instead of getting shot around."
He loves Youngstown. Says he'll make his home there again. Columbus is a nice town, but, he says,"people down here, they don't love you, they love what you do." And what he does is gain yards, win games, live quietly with his girlfriend, stay humble, earn raves from his teammates, consider his options -- and always remember his past.
"I ain't backing down," he says. "People come out there looking at it like, 'We're playing against an 18-year-old freshman?' I tell them in a minute, 'I'm an 18-year-old son of a bitch. I'm out there as tough as hell, just like you. Regardless of age, I'm going to be out there smacking you in the mouth as many times as you smack me.
"I don't feel like there's anything anyone can do to me now that hasn't been done to me before," he says. "I've been hit in my mouth before. I've been in street fights with people. I've done fought people twice my size. I've done been jumped by people. I've been in a lot tougher situations than football. So the way I look at football is, 'All you gonna do is hit me?'"
Clarett wore the same school clothes for years. There were days when the electricity was cut off. HBO? Try UHF. That's why Clarett nearly gagged when a teammate complained that his parents "only" got him a 2000 Jeep, not a 2002. It's also why Clarett vows he'll never take his starting job for granted. "I'll work every day like I've never had it before," he says.
A Heisman would be nice, but Clarett isn't holding his breath. An informal survey of 16 Heisman voters, including winners George, Griffin and Walker, yielded unanimous results: They'd vote for a true freshman if he was the best player. Clarett isn't so sure. "There's a lot of politicking. I don't think it will happen, with all the BS." His prediction: "The way Miami is playing, I think Ken Dorsey has it locked up. Or Byron Leftwich." Still, he'd love to be a finalist. Take some photos. Show the people back in Youngstown. But only if he deserves an invitation. Otherwise, it means zilch.
"I'd like to win one," he says. "I want to have one to show Archie."
Archie would like that too. Archie would like anything except Clarett stiff-arming Ohio State for the NFL. But ask Clarett to come clean and all you get is another xenon-bright smile and a belly laugh.
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