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Thursday, September 2, 2010
Maurice Clarett's misguided return

By Jemele Hill
ESPN.com

Picture me being free. Picture me being successful. Picture me smiling. Picture me thinking. Picture me having fun and traveling with my family. Picture me giving back. Picture me graduating. Picture me living with humility. Picture me living with character.
-- Maurice Clarett, June 9, 2009

But here's the one visual Clarett didn't write about while blogging from prison: Picture him in football pads playing for the UFL's Omaha Nighthawks.

Maurice Clarett
Maurice Clarett began practice with the Omaha Nighthawks this week, but hasn't played a regular-season game since 2002.

If you read Clarett's thought-provoking blog, The Mind of Maurice Clarett, football seemed like it was far from his thoughts.

Some of that is to be expected since Clarett, once a big-time college football star at Ohio State, started writing it as he was serving 3½ years in prison on robbery and concealed weapons charges after he held up two people outside a Columbus bar.

But on Wednesday, Clarett returned to the practice field, proving that football fever still remains in his system even though it's been since 2002 that his prominence in the game was at its highest when he was the driving force behind Ohio State's national championship.

Before Clarett's troubles annihilated his playing days, there wasn't any doubt that football was where Clarett belonged.

Not anymore.

I don't have any inside information about the kind of player Clarett is right now. He's 26, weighs 220 pounds (10 pounds less than he weighed at Ohio State), and reportedly is in good shape. He hasn't played in a regular-season game of any kind since he was a Buckeye. In 2005, he was drafted by Denver in the third round after an ill-advised attempt to sue the NFL to gain earlier eligibility for the draft, but his brief stint with the Broncos amounted to nothing. A groin injury kept him from playing in the preseason and he was cut before the regular season began.

Who knows what that all means, or if it indicates that Clarett will once again blossom into a football superstar.

Clarett might not fully realize it yet, but an alternate path is developing for him. He has the potential to become a far more important and meaningful individual than he ever was as a football player. He speaks now with the force of someone who knows what it's like to collapse, and with the wisdom of someone who has learned how to rebound.

Maurice Clarett
In April, Clarett was released from prison and moved to a smaller detention facility. He needed special dispensation to travel to Omaha for the UFL.

"I feel good about what I'm doing," Clarett told reporters in Omaha after Wednesday's practice. "I feel good about footwork, and I feel good about everything. But like I said, this is a day-by-day process. I'm just learning everything over again as if I was a kid."

Only, he's not a kid. He's a grown man who took such a phenomenal tumble that his life experience has become his most valuable commodity.

Last April, Clarett wrote this on his blog:

I am not disinterested in playing sports. I am disinterested in keeping up with them. The circumstances in my life have drastically changed. I have found a new passion in learning how to think more effective and efficiently. I enjoy educating myself. It improves the quality of my existence. Education helps me to appreciate comprehend and understand all of life's events at a higher level of consciousness. Education improves my awareness level. It brings me and my family security, both physically and financially. Education will allow me to be the check writer and not the royalty receiver. Education has staying power.

No disrespect, but that doesn't sound like a football player or most professional athletes. Football might be the biggest sport in the country, but it's a narrow world. It's a world that can suck the essence and ability from its players, and often gives little in return. Football already mangled Clarett once. Why give this unforgiving game another opportunity?

I wish Clarett could hear how he sounds, because maybe then he'd understand that his words are meant to impact people's lives on a much deeper level than just scoring touchdowns can do -- especially the lives of young people who have struggled to navigate their own paths.

Maurice Clarett
He was the toast of college football as an Ohio State freshman in 2002.

Maybe he can do that by playing football, but the game -- especially with a first-year UFL team -- seems like an improper world for Clarett now. I'd like to see him making speeches at schools across the country. I'd like to see him working with the NCAA to mentor college athletes, many of whom are intoxicated with their success and unaware of the pitfalls, as Clarett once was. I'd like the NFL to bring Clarett in to speak at their annual rookie symposium, so he can give his personal testimony about how fleeting stardom can be. I'd like to see Tony Dungy hire Clarett and use him in the prison ministry that has become Dungy's pet project.

And perhaps most significantly, I'd like to see Clarett return to Ohio State's campus to be a student again. He has already been granted re-entry into the university to pursue his degree, but that could be a full-time pursuit.

Without football, that is.

You could argue that Clarett could do those things while he plays the game. But it makes a stronger statement if he leaves football altogether.

Everything happens for a reason, and the reasons usually are far more selfless than we intend. Clarett should keep in mind as he transitions back into society that by losing everything, he's gained something substantially larger than football.

If that lesson gets lost, Clarett should revisit that blog post from last April.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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