Wednesday, November 10, 2004 Updated: May 30, 1:20 PM ET
Maurice Clarett tells his side
By Tom Friend ESPN The Magazine
Editors Note: This story originally appeared in the November 22, 2004 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
He left on a Greyhound bus last May, without a goodbye, without anyone even flipping him the bird. He left unceremoniously, in the middle of the week, with one suitcase, one jacket and one championship he doubted was worth its weight in paper. He left behind the car dealerships, where he says the head coach got him SUVs. He left behind the library, where he says tutors got him bogus A's. He left behind the two-story homes, where he says he got paid for watching paint dry.
He left behind the stucco mansions, where he says boosters slipped him cash for playing Sega with their kids. And he left behind the horseshoe stadium, where he says one man in particular "sold me out".
He never told his mother he was fleeing Columbus, fleeing Ohio, fleeing the racist hate mail she'd already handed over to the FBI. He was too depressed to tell her, but too persona non grata to stay.
He sat alone on that bus for four days. Sat there clearing his mind. Sat there until he saw the Pacific Ocean. He pressed his head against the window and stretched his legs across two seats, and replayed all of his thoughts: the NFL won't let me in. They hate me. They think I don't work hard. They think I'm poison. They don't know the half of it. They don't know the lie.
He got to Hollywood and liked that he could actually walk the streets and not hear: There goes Maurice Clarett. He slept on a buddy's floor, and laid off the carbs, and hoped by this autumn, his second season away from football, his name wouldn't still be synonymous with scandal. But no chance. His associates called several NFL GMs this October and asked them, "What's your perception of Clarett?" And the consensus was the same: immature. Risky. No work ethic. Fourth round.
It angered him, because he thought his college coach, Jim Tressel, the coach he claims he protected in an NCAA investigation, would have set those GMs straight. Would have told them how Clarett used to close down the weight room, how he once returned from knee surgery like it was the flu, how they never would've beaten Miami without him.
"I thought he'd give me the NFL," Maurice Clarett says. "I thought he'd say, 'You took from me and you didn't tell on me, so here's the NFL.' He could have painted me as the first pick in the draft, as the world's greatest everything. He wound up selling me out."
Maurice Clarett is speaking to clear his name with the NFL.
Now, Clarett is a football pariah, denounced by his own school, a school he carried to a national championship almost two years ago. According to one NFL GM, Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger disparaged Clarett's character to league officials last spring, leading some teams to take Clarett off their draft board. "The AD just didn't like Clarett, for whatever reason," the GM says.
But few know why Clarett kept answering "I don't know" to the NCAA's questions. The NCAA kept asking where he got his cash, cars and trinkets, and Clarett claims he kept saying "I don't know" or "I just magically got them" or "I don't remember." Geiger was furious with him for that, and the NCAA ran him out for that. But Clarett says he lied to save his coach's hide, lied because he thought his coach would convince Geiger to keep him eligible, lied because he didn't want to implicate the men in Columbus with deep pockets.
"He's ineligible because he declined to tell the truth 17 times during an investigation," Geiger says, while refusing to comment on Clarett's specific allegations. "If you want to give him credibility when he's been unable to tell the truth under any circumstance since I've been around him, I'm not going to respond."
But, says Clarett, "what would've become of Ohio State if I said everything? Half the team would've been suspended, and it would've been worse for everybody. I was like, why don't I just take it?"
He thought Tressel would return the favor and protect him, but instead he was suspended indefinitely. Then, he says, he was stripped of teachers, tutors and perks. He calls it an institutional "blackball." That's why he sits in front of a tape recorder now, 14 months later, so he can tell the NFL GMs that there's another side to this story. That's why he's making claims about free rides, free cash, free grades and an Ohio State system that he says lined his pockets and then methodically tore him down.
"Ohio State created me," Maurice Clarett says right off the top. "They created what they suspended."
TO HEAR him talk, his college classes were a sham. Maurice Clarett graduated from high school a semester early and arrived at Ohio State in January 2002. Before long, he says, his grades were literally guaranteed. He describes a system that kept him and other players eligible and was overseen by the football program. He says his "grades were messed up" early on, that he wasn't supposed to be eligible for spring practice or the opening of training camp, but that his coaches simply fixed the problem. "As soon as they'd seen me struggle, they switched academic advisers for me," Clarett says. "He turned me on to a tutor, and then we were cool.
"The tutor is a professor at the school. I'd sit there with a notepad, and I'd be playing or talking on the phone, and he'd just outline everything in the book, and say, 'This is what you write for your paper.' He'd take a notepad and say, 'Write this, write that.'
"And they'd tell you like, the old test from winter '02 is going to be the test for January '03. Or the fall of '01 is going to be the next test. They tell you how the tests rotate."
As Clarett moved into his debut season in the fall of 2002, about to be the first true freshman running back to start a season opener at Ohio State, he realized everything was aligned to prevent his academic failure. If it wasn't tutors doing "research" for him, it was academic advisers registering him in courses friendly to the football program.
"My classes were all independent study," he says. "So I'd show up in like the eighth week of the quarter and do something for the last two weeks, and I'd be fine. A lot of times, during classes, I'd be in the weight room lifting. The coaches would be like, 'You get your class done?' I'd be like, 'I'll get it done the last two weeks.'"
Clarett says his adviser mapped out his course schedule, put him in easy classes and told him which teachers were on his side. For example, he says he almost never attended one African-American and African studies class, and when he did, it wasn't difficult to cheat. "It was probably like a 40-person class, and 30 of them were football players," he says.
A former member of OSU's academic support staff, who requested anonymity, confirms Clarett's initial grades were "in bad shape," and that Clarett was given a tutor who "only had a few weeks to get him ready for exams" and keep him eligible. "We helped Maurice with, 'How can I survive, how can I get a good grade on a test,'" the former staffer says. "We understand the system. But that doesn't mean we did his work. Players like to brag that people are helping them out. It's a sign of status."
Clarett wasn't na´ve. He had suspected before he arrived in Columbus that he'd have privileges. "Any kid from Ohio will know," he says. "It's kind of a tradition. If you play good at Ohio State, you get taken care of." But living it was another experience. The favors, he says, began his first day on campus, in January 2002. There were no unoccupied dorm rooms that day, he says, and a staff member told him to stay in a hotel. "I ain't got no money," Clarett said. He says the staff member simply put it on a credit card.
That summer, Clarett says, the staff began finding him phantom jobs to put money in his pocket. He says it was the responsibility of running backs coach Dick Tressel, Jim's brother and then associate director of football operations, to find jobs for guys on the team. "If you're a walk-on, you're going to get a real job," Clarett explains. "But if you're a player, you go water some flowers for like four hours, and they pay you like a couple hundred. Sometimes you don't show up and you still get paid.
"That was my introduction to 'here comes all the free money.' I did show up at first. But I was like, this is boring, I ain't doing this. I used to go watch 'em hang drywall or something. I'd just hang out, go to McDonald's, come back, watch, leave, be gone. I made a couple grand."
By the fall, he says, the staff was "aligning" him with boosters who'd give him money for food, or for the shopping mall. He says coaches would tell him, go eat here and say hello to this person, or go to this school and talk, or go to this event and speak. Do this and when you leave, someone is going to set you straight.
"They got a little thing where you read books every Friday for kids. And you'll magically meet somebody there. Mr. Such-and-Such will be there. And then you meet Mr. Such-and-Such, and Mr. Such-and-Such becomes your friend for a while."
And how much cash would Mr. Such-and-Such pass along?
"Depends how you played that week," Clarett says.
After a 175-yard game? "It was in the thousands," says Clarett, who had 175 yards in the 2002 season opener against Texas Tech. "That was cool."
How would the cash change hands? "It'd get filtered down," Clarett says. "Me and a player would go into a coach's office. And the coach would be like, 'You met my friend Such-and-Such? He's a good friend of the program. You should check him out sometime.' You go over to his house, you meet him for dinner. You go play with their kids, meet their kids. The boosters know you're in college and need help. They're like, 'You got any money in your pocket?' They make sure you're straight."
Clarett lived 15 minutes from campus, so he also needed a car. He says he took that request right to the head coach. "My transmission blew in my car, a Cadillac. So I'm like, 'Coach Tressel, I can't get back and forth to campus.' This is probably after practice, 6 o'clock, 5 o'clock one night. He gets on the phone and says, this is where I get my car from. He called the man from McDaniel Automotive. He's like, 'I got a player here, Maurice Clarett. He needs a car. Do you have a car out there he can use?'
"So the man gets on the phone with me and says, 'What kind of cars do you like?' I say, 'Got any trucks?' He says, 'Yeah, I got two trucks. I got an Expedition and I got a Tahoe here right now.' He's like, 'I'll be there tomorrow morning.' They drove down to give me the car."
Clarett says he kept the Tahoe for 11 days, then switched to the Expedition. NCAA Rule 126.96.36.199 states that an institutional employee or representative of the institution's athletic interests is not allowed to provide a student athlete with the use of an automobile. According to Clarett, that is exactly what his head coach did. "This is what Jim Tressel arranged," Clarett says.
He says as long as he was running the football well, Tressel was attentive, asking, "You cool? How's your living situation?" He says they talked three or four times a week, always behind closed doors. "We never talked in front of anybody else," Clarett says. "It was always, 'Come to my office.'"
As the season wore on, he says the car swapping escalated, and the dealerships had no qualms about accommodating him. "When you're hot in Columbus, you just go," Clarett says. "Somebody's going to recognize your face. You say, 'I need to use a car.' 'Okay, here you go.'"
He says he'd keep the cars "for weeks, until I got tired of 'em." His favorite was the Lexus SC 430 sports car, but he tried to borrow anything that was new at the time. "Put it like this," he says. "There's a dealership on Morse Road, The Car Store. They've got a used car lot. You just go to the dealership, and go and go and keep on going. That's the car dealership Coach Tressel introduced me to, that and McDaniel Automotive. Both places set me up. I wouldn't have known these places if it wasn't for Ohio State."
The perks made for a plush season. It didn't hurt that the Buckeyes were on their way to the national title game. The week they defeated archrival Michigan was Clarett's favorite week. He says coaches excused players from classes leading up to the game, and that after the 14-9 victory, boosters stopped by flashing their money clips.
"I couldn't have asked for more," Clarett says.
"I had the money I wanted, the car I wanted. I literally, literally had everything. My freshman year, being 19. If I wanted to call a girl, I could've called any girl I wanted, probably, in Ohio. If I wanted any car to drive, I could go to a dealership and get it. If I wanted some clothes, I had the money to put clothes on my back.
"And then, within a matter of months, everything got taken away. Every single thing. I'm talking from A to Z. I'd call people and they're, 'Uhhhh, I'm too busy right now.' The clubs that used to let me in? 'Uhhhh, not today.' The girls? 'Uhhh, I'm too busy right now.' Everybody became unavailable.
"I had nothing."
THE FALL was in stages, and was in part self-inflicted. Maurice Clarett knows he was wrong to have his hand out. And he also knows now he was wrong to assume Ohio State would always have his back, especially after he called them "liars" before the biggest game of his life. When he asked to attend the funeral of a childhood buddy in the week leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, he says he had initial approval to take a red-eye from Phoenix to Youngstown. But, he claims, Ohio State pulled the plug on the trip just hours before the flight. The school contended that Clarett hadn't filed the necessary paperwork to get permission to go. Clarett-who says he knocked on Tressel's door crying that night-told the media that Ohio State wasn't telling the truth.
"It was real big," he says. " 'Clarett calls Ohio State a bunch of liars.' "
Ohio State went on to win the national title, and Clarett scored the winning touchdown. But as far as Clarett is concerned, the minute he called out his school was the minute he was sent to an island. The boosters were the first to abandon him. "They didn't help me out," he says, "because I ran my mouth."
But he was still "switching cars like crazy." On the night of April 16, 2003, he borrowed a luxury vehicle from The Car Store, a loaded black 2001 Monte Carlo, just purchased at auction. He drove it to practice the next morning, and while he was working out he learned it had been burglarized. He says he called Tressel, asking him what to do, and says Tressel advised him to phone campus police. Records show he called them from a phone in the football office.
He met a campus policeman at the car. When he was asked what was missing, Clarett says he told him assorted TVs, radios and CDs, plus his wallet and some clothes. The cop asked how much the TVs and radios were worth, and Clarett says he could only guess because it was a borrowed car, a car he'd had for only 12 hours. He says the cop also asked how many CDs were in the car, and Clarett guessed there were two cases containing up to 300. The cop, agreeing with his guess and assuming each CD cost $15, added it all up.
So the unsigned police report listed the following stolen items: cash ($800), various audio components ($5,000), clothing ($300), two CD cases with a total of 300 CDs (estimated $4,500) and a black leather bi-fold. Total: $10,150.
Clarett thought the news of the break-in might go public, but it didn't. He never filed an insurance claim because the stolen items weren't his. When school ended in the spring, he simply moved on, leaving the team's practice facility to work with a personal trainer in Cleveland. He soon sensed Tressel and his staff were riled, thinking they'd lost control of their star.
"I didn't care," Clarett says. "I was like, the hell with them. I'm not saying it to be cocky, but people in town thought I had become bigger than Ohio State. The thing at the Fiesta Bowl had made everything real big, and they thought I needed to be brought down."
Soon he received an urgent phone call from the athletic department. The NCAA wanted to see him. They told him to bring an attorney.
MAYBE IT was all the buzzing around in that Lexus. Or maybe it was the costly break-in. But by the spring of 2003, the NCAA had serious problems with Maurice Clarett.
On May 5, the NCAA first contacted Ohio State about him, and on June 26, Clarett and the only attorney he knew-personal injury lawyer Scott Schiff-first met with investigators. They asked about the break-in. Tressel, according to reports, was vague about his knowledge of it.
Soon, the leaks started. On July 12 The New York Times reported that Clarett and other players had received preferential academic treatment, that Clarett had walked out of an exam and been allowed to take an oral retest. The school responded by saying it would investigate academic standards for athletes (they ultimately said they found no wrongdoing). Geiger said there had been no special treatment for Clarett or any other athletes at the school.
On July 29, news of the Monte Carlo break-in finally went public, and the next day Tressel and Geiger announced that Clarett couldn't rejoin the team until issues about his eligibility were settled. By Aug. 22 the punishment had become a "multigame" suspension. Then on Sept. 10, Geiger announced that Clarett was done for the year for violating NCAA Bylaws 10.1 (not giving forthright answers) and 12 (taking benefits).
After Geiger made his announcement, Clarett refused comment-he claims Ohio State asked him not to talk-but he now claims he violated Bylaw 10.1 to protect Tressel and violated Bylaw 12 because of Tressel.
He says during the investigation that the NCAA rifled through credit card statements and asked, "How are you affording $800 worth of clothes from Macy's?" He says he told them he "magically" got the cash from his mother. When the NCAA asked how he paid for his food and gasoline, he started with the "I don't knows."
The NCAA asked about the Chevy Tahoe, the one he'd kept for 11 days, and he played dumb. "They asked, 'How did you get the car?'" Clarett says. "I said, 'I looked up the dealer's number in the phone book.' So they go investigating and find out the number isn't even in the phone book. They said, 'Did you get this car through Coach Tressel?' I'm like, 'Nah.' They suspended me for that." They also suspended him for the break-in, claiming he'd lied about the cost of the stolen items. "I didn't lie, I guessed," he says.
But by then he had begun to see the hypocrisy of it all. He was also being suspended for his relationship with Bobby Dellimuti, a caterer and family friend from Youngstown who gave Clarett and his mother upward of $2,000 while he was still in high school. At first Clarett lied and told the NCAA that Dellimuti gave him nothing. But eventually he came clean about a $500 check and $1,000 worth of cell-phone bills Dellimuti had paid for him since the 11th grade. Because Clarett hadn't known Dellimuti before his recruitment by Ohio State, these gifts were a violation of NCAA rules. This confounded Clarett. He says Ohio State gave him much more money than that, but, in the end, these cell-phone bills were what was helping to derail his sophomore season.
Sitting in the room with Geiger and NCAA officials, Clarett says he nearly lost his cool: "I said, 'If you're suspending me for stuff I did back in high school, I was never eligible to play anyway. So the trophy should be taken back, right?'
"Geiger just said, 'No, no, no, no. That has nothing to do with it. Just answer the questions.'"
And that was the hang-up; Clarett wasn't answering questions. "I was trying to protect Coach Tressel, the boosters and everybody," he claims. "There were all kind of bills I had run up that boosters just gave me cash for. And I couldn't explain to the NCAA where I got it from.
"During the investigation, they started asking, 'Did anybody else get benefits?' And I'm sitting there thinking to myself, 'I'm going through four-hour interviews. If I tell on anyone, you're going to bring him in, and he's going to have four-hour interviews. It was more than 10 people. It was more than 20 people.
"The NCAA was, 'Are you sure you don't want to say anything about anybody else? And Mr. Geiger was like, 'Are you sure?' Inside, I'm like, 'Are you crazy?' The only thing that matters at Ohio State is football. Everybody knows what's going on, but everybody doesn't want to act like they know."
In September, the Columbus City attorney began to prosecute Clarett for the police report. The attorney said Clarett had falsified it. Clarett maintained he'd guessed at it, but rather than go to trial he accepted a plea bargain and paid a $100 fine to put the ordeal behind him.
But he was being vilified in town, and by December, he says, he'd received hate mail and a death threat. He was sure it was all payback for his one big mistake: dissing Ohio State at the Fiesta Bowl. "They were thinking, 'How do we get him back?'" Clarett says. "They called me a liar. 'He lied about his police report. He lied during his investigation.'"
Clarett thought there was one person who could help. But he couldn't get that person on the phone. "I couldn't talk to Coach Tressel," Clarett says. "He was making himself unavailable.
"We had so many meetings before that Coach Tressel just saved me in. I think he knows in his heart he sold me out. He sold me out to keep his integrity. I don't know if it was the pressure from the athletic department saying, 'You got to sell him out.' But he sold me out.
"Coach Tressel, he made everything easy ... until he wanted to make it hard."
CLARETT BEGAN to believe that Ohio State was squeezing him. He was allowed on the sideline for the 2003 home games, then he wasn't. He could play on the scout team, then he couldn't. He had his tutors, then he didn't.
He says he went to Tressel in January 2004, asking for a scenario that could land him back on the field. Months before, Tressel and Geiger had said publicly that the door was open for a return if he paid back the Dellimuti money to charity, stayed eligible and showed "personal growth." But in January, he says, Tressel told him he wouldn't consider a reinstatement unless Clarett met two more conditions. He had to work out every day at 6 a.m. for the next two months. And he had to maintain a 3.5 GPA.
Clarett has never been a morning person, nor had he ever had to pay much attention to his GPA. "For me, it was either eligible or not eligible," he says. But he went to his academic adviser to ask what classes to take. He was surprised at the response: "Maurice, you have to sign up for your own schedule now."
He enrolled in another African-American and African studies class with the teacher he had before. But after a week, he says this professor barred him from the course, and Clarett claims she told him "somebody from a higher power" had instigated the move. "They blackballed me," Clarett says.
With no tutors or teachers in his hip pocket, he felt a 3.5 GPA was improbable if not impossible. And when he told Tressel the 6 a.m. workouts were too extreme, he says Tressel's response was, "If you make that decision, you have to make another decision." So Clarett quit school in February 2004 and applied for early entry into the NFL draft.
We all know the rest. A court ruling put him in the draft, another court ruling took him out, and when the Supreme Court wouldn't overturn the final ruling, Clarett was in limbo. No school, no NFL, no nothing.
His mother, Michelle, was despondent. She remembered the day Tressel sat in her home and promised to treat Maurice like his own son. What did she think of Tressel now? She doesn't know where to begin. "Is it betrayal? Is it disrespect? Is it dishonesty? Is it deceit? Is it a knife in my back?"
SO HE got on that Greyhound. By this time, so much more was in his head. A gun shot had been fired into his mother's home. Then, in February, ESPN reported that Dellimuti had made frequent calls to online offshore bookies, and Clarett was forced to answer questions about his friend's betting.
He likes that no one in Columbus knew where he was headed. And as the miles rolled by, he devised a plan. He needed NFL GMs to know that he hadn't been the nuisance at Ohio State that he was made out to be. And the best way to convince them of that was to open his mouth. "It wasn't like I stole something," he says. "Not like I was running from the law or dragging a girl down the stairs. But I have to clear myself up now, because it's affecting the minds of the GMs. I didn't say anything before, because I didn't think it'd be a problem."
So that's why he's sitting in front of a tape recorder. He says he wants to make it clear he didn't do it to get Ohio State in hot water, that he is "still a Buckeye at heart." But that said, he also thinks Ohio State "is going to try to ruin me now," that they will "bring in their high-powered lawyers and alumni" to discredit him, that they may badmouth him again to the NFL, that they may try to get his mother fired from her job as a county clerk.
He says that would hurt, but the story's out now. He's hoping to play in the East West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl this January, his first games in two years, and he also hopes to show off his reinvented body at the NFL combine in February. At last year's combine, his body fat was a flabby 16%, but this time he plans to pare it down to under 5%. "I'm working," Maurice Clarett says. "I'm up every morning at 6 a.m."
At that hour, he's all alone again.