Clarett keeping low-profile, readies for NFL

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 21, 2004

COLUMBUS - The last time Maurice Clarett touched a football when it counted, he helped end 34 years of frustration for Ohio State fans and began two years of isolation and disappointment for himself.

His 5-yard touchdown burst up the middle in the second overtime provided the Buckeyes with the final score in a 31-24 victory over top-ranked Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl and their first national championship since the 1968 season.

As Ohio State prepares for what could have been Clarett's junior season, he is a long way from Columbus and the glory of his freshman season.

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Clarett is living a low-profile life in Texas these days, working out and preparing to answer a lot of tough questions in next spring's NFL draft. He does not talk to reporters. Neither does his mother, Michelle, who still lives in the family home in Youngstown, Ohio.

''He needed to get away,'' said his cousin and childhood best friend, Vince Marrow. ''Now he seems like the kid who I knew when he was 14 years old.''

It's hard to believe Clarett is only 20. In just two years, he took the college game by storm, rattled the foundation of the dominant league in professional sports, then took his legal battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He does not talk to his college teammates because he has distanced himself from them and Ohio State.

''It's just depressing,'' Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger said. ''It's a story of missed opportunity and failure.''

''It's a tragedy,'' said Thom McDaniels, Clarett's football coach at Harding High School in Warren, Ohio. ''It could have been prevented. It didn't have to be this way for that boy. And that is sad.''

Clarett grew up in Youngstown, a place with a flourishing past that has fallen on hard times. Life wasn't easy; he once said he knew three people who were gunned down, including one who bled to death before his eyes. Selected as USA Today's national offensive player of the year as a senior in high school, he came to Ohio State and helped turn a good team into a great one, rushing for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns, despite missing all or parts of five games due to injuries.

Midway through the season, a magazine profile included a photo of him tossing aside his Ohio State jersey. He said in the article that he was considering jumping to the NFL after his freshman season.

That revelation was met by a flurry of hateful e-mails from Ohio State fans who felt betrayed.

In the days before Ohio State met Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, Clarett made headlines again when he called Ohio State officials liars for saying he had not filled out the proper paperwork to temporarily leave the team to attend a friend's funeral in Youngstown.

The national title game against the Hurricanes was his last shining moment as a Buckeye. Not only did he score the game's final touchdown, but he made its signature play, ripping the ball from a Miami defender's arms after an interception to drastically alter momentum. Then things went sour.

After a workout at Ohio State in the spring of 2003, Clarett filed a police report saying that a car he had borrowed from a local used-car dealer had been broken into and that he had lost thousands of dollars in CDs, cash and clothing. An investigation led to charges he exaggerated the value of the items, and he eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. At the same time, NCAA and Ohio State officials were looking into charges that he accepted improper benefits from a family friend and then lied about it to investigators. That led to Clarett's suspension from the team. He then began a legal challenge to the NFL rule that players must be out of high school three years before they are eligible to be drafted.

He won a lower federal court ruling, seemingly forcing his way into the 2004 draft, then lost a subsequent decision. The U.S. Supreme Court twice batted down appeals. Another appeal is awaiting a decision in the 2nd Circuit. Clarett's attorney, Alan Milstein, said Clarett fully supports the ongoing legal battle. If Clarett wins, he could walk away with millions in damages from the NFL. That is an NFL-sized if, however.

Clarett stayed away from the Buckeyes during his suspension from the team. He stopped going to class at Ohio State in January. There were rumors that he had torn up a knee, that he wasn't recovering from a chronic shoulder injury, that he might jump to the Canadian Football League for a year. None of it was true.

After so much time spent in the glare of flash bulbs, Clarett stepped back into the shadows. Those closest to him - or who used to be, at least - still have strong feelings about what went wrong for Clarett.

''His advisers didn't have a Plan B,'' an angry McDaniels said. ''They should have because there was no guarantee that the suit was going to be successful.

''Certainly some of the burden for what went wrong rests with Maurice, but I also think there are some adults around him who ill-advised him and who bear a ton of responsibility, too.''