‘Illegal Procedure:’ Book excerpt details Maurice Clarett’s struggles leading up to NFL combine
This is an excerpt from Josh Luchs’ new book “Illegal Procedure: A Sports Agent Comes Clean on the Dirty Business of College Football.” Luchs was a sports agent from 1990-2008 before being suspended by the NFL Players Association. He wrote a cover story for Sports Illustrated in October 2010 shining a light on the secret payments and deal-making that exist in college football. This excerpt details his work with former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett leading up to the 2005 NFL combine.
I got a call one day in the fall of 2004 from my wife’s brother, who, like the rest of the family, worked in real estate. In his work he’d come across someone named Hai Waknine, an Israeli “businessman” (later referred to as a “mob figure,” “mobster” or “gang member” by the Los Angeles Times and various online news sources). My brother-in-law said, “Have you ever heard of a guy named Maurice Clarett?” and I started laughing because nobody who does what I do within 500 miles of a college football game hadn’t heard of Clarett.
After Ohio State won the 2002 national championship, Clarett attempted to declare his eligibility a year earlier than the NFL allows. His decision wasn’t so much trying to set a groundbreaking legal precedent as it was a practical one. He’d been suspended by Ohio State for the 2003 season for misconduct, so his choices were to sit out a whole season then play another year as an amateur, or go pro and get paid. It wasn’t a tough call.
Clarett won the first round in his legal battle for eligibility, but lost round two in a higher court. Once he lost, and his attorney Alan Milstein reported that he’d hired an agent, he forfeited all his remaining college eligibility.
At that point, he had no choice but to wait for the next draft, which was what he was doing. My brother-in-law said that Hai Waknine was taking care of Clarett – who was living at Waknine’s house – and they were looking for help in representation. Wow.
Clarett was not exactly an ethics major, but he was the kind of high-profile player that could really put us on the map. It was a chance to start recruiting big-ticket prospects again. So my brother-in-law made a call and patched me in to Hai Waknine, and other than him being a little scattered, the opportunity seemed legitimate. I started thinking I could end up representing this kid. I told Steve Feldman, the agent I was working with. Even though we’d only been together a few months, Steve trusted me and said he was all in. I put together a portfolio on Clarett.
Even though we were going to meet with Hai first before we could get an audience with Maurice, I took a page from Gary Wichard, the agent I’d previously worked with. I came prepared in case Hai wanted to see what we’d do, in case we did meet with Maurice. Gary was always prepared. He had “preparation” written at the top of every day of his pocket calendar book. He preached never, ever going anywhere unless and until you’re ready for whatever eventualities may come. I made preparation my mantra like he had.
We arrived at Waknine’s house, or rather compound, in Marina del Rey, right on the water. As we drove up, helicopters hovered. I just figured they were checking traffic, but later I realized they were checking Hai. We rang the bell and an enormous guy opened the door, big enough to play defensive lineman, with a big gun in his belt bulging out of his sports jacket. He showed us to this expansive sofa facing a wall of glass overlooking the ocean. After a few minutes, Hai Waknine entered – a heavyset, dark- skinned, balding Israeli with a tic, sort of a mild case of Tourette’s. He sat on the sofa flanked by gorgeous European models, crossed his legs, and revealed an ankle bracelet. The kind that notifies the Feds if you leave town.
He gave us a tour, as nice as could be, and told us to try his special espresso. I don’t drink coffee, but I know enough to drink it when a guy with an ankle bracelet tells me to.
He told us Maurice was working out. I told Hai about Steve and his credentials. Hai told me he’d met Maurice through his relationship with Fizz and Boog, two rappers of the group B2K, and now had a contract giving him a big piece of Maurice in exchange for providing him trainers, lending him a new BMW, and giving him a video-game console for “Madden Football” and a roof over his head – with a stunning ocean view. Hai had control over who would be Maurice’s agent, along with everything else in Maurice’s life, and set us up for a face-to-face meeting.
When we all got together, I showed Maurice our plan. Maurice made it clear that he wanted more than anything to play in the Senior Bowl. I’d already contacted Steve Hale, who runs it, and I knew they didn’t have a place for Maurice. It just wasn’t happening. Having tried to come out as a sophomore, Maurice was still technically in his junior year and the Senior Bowl had one overriding rule: like the name says, you have to be senior.
For the next meeting, I arranged for my old acquaintance Jack Hart, the director of the East-West Shrine Game, to fly out to L.A. and personally pitch Maurice on playing the Shrine. The Senior Bowl is more prestigious but playing in the Shrine would fill a hole in his story. If he could break off a run or two in practice, then pro scouts could see how good he still was, even though he hadn’t played football in two years. It would answer the question, “What has Maurice Clarett been doing for two years out of football?” If he played well, we could say he’d been working out, training, practicing. We could say he was ready, and even if he’d been playing Madden for six months straight, as long as he performed well, we’d be right. Jack shared my vision of taking Maurice around to Shriners hospitals, looking for P.R. opportunities, and rehabbing his image as a guy who cared about kids. We’d put his face on the Shrine Game ads on buses and billboards, give him his chance to be the star in the game, a win-win for everyone.
I prepped Jack, the Shriner, the best I could for what he was going to see – the guard with the guns, maybe helicopters, foreign models parading around in almost nothing, the alleged Israeli mobster (I called him a “real estate investor”), an oceanfront palace. We walked in, sat down, and waited until they ushered Maurice in as if he were royalty. Jack made his earnest pitch: the history of the game, the hospitals, the good work the Shriners do for kids, their role in the community, the photo ops, how well it reflects on the players, some of the high draft choices who’ve played.
Maurice listened and then asked what other big-name players were committed to being in the game. The answer was, so far, none. There were a lot of good prospects but it was too early to send out invites. Maurice asked Jack to give him the phone numbers of the players he wanted so Maurice could call them and convince them to play. Jack couldn’t do that, and said so. It would break every rule of confidentiality. He offered to show Maurice some of the names but not their personal contact information. This didn’t sit well with Maurice.
He’d been living with an Israeli Larry Flynt for months, absorbing the house culture, operating by the house rules. Maurice had seen that every Friday night, when the sun went down, no matter what they were doing, all work ended. Hai, his entourage and his family lit candles and said their evening prayers. So, at that moment, when the discussion wasn’t going his way, Maurice suddenly stood up and said, “This meeting is over. It’s Shabbat.” He walked out of the room.
Jack turned to me and said, “What’s he talking about?” I said, “I have no idea. Today is Wednesday.” I rode with Jack to the airport, apologizing, and he was very understanding.
After we had signed our other players and set them up in apartments in Long Beach, we got them started with our trainer, Chuckie Miller, out of his private gym, on the field at Long Beach City College and up and down the sand dunes at the beach. Chuckie had played for many years and had trained a lot of great players. Hai would often brag to us that Maurice’s training was so far superior to what anyone else was doing, saying that he’d run circles around the other guys at the combine. But when I heard about his regimen, there was one thing missing: running. Not to state the obvious, but Maurice was a running back. And we were never allowed to see him actually training. Except once when he was working with the U.S. Olympic sprinter Quincy Watts. Even then, even working with an Olympic sprinter, Maurice wouldn’t run; he just jogged around the track.
We wanted Maurice to work out with Chuckie Miller on the sand dunes, so Steve and I went to Hai’s house and got Maurice to follow us out to Long Beach. When we arrived at the dunes, Maurice was in his car on the cell phone and wouldn’t get off. Finally, he finished his conversation and said he doesn’t run on the sand. We told him, “It offers great resistance and strengthens all the muscles in your lower body. It helps with explosiveness. If you can run shuttle drills and three-cone combine drills in the sand, it’s much easier to do it on a flat surface when you get timed.”
He just said, “No.” We thought: We’re in for trouble at the combine.
In February, Steve and I told our concerns to Hai and David Kenner (whose whole rap history mesmerized Maurice), hoping they could influence Maurice. I wasn’t just a little worried; I was going berserk over what could happen at the combine in Indianapolis. We reiterated that Maurice had to show up at the combine at the same weight or less than what he’d been a year earlier, because he sure looked too heavy.
Maurice also had to nail the interview process and give the answers the NFL people wanted to hear to every question, showing that he’d matured. We told Hai and David that he had to do better on the Wonderlic test than last time. It seemed as if they were listening, especially Hai, who, after all, was paying the bills on everything.
He knew Maurice was his investment, boom or bust. We started working with Maurice right away on the interview and the Wonderlic, but his weight was not looking good. He refused to get on a scale. We got to the combine, checked into the hotel, and still didn’t know what he weighed. Maurice was set to be officially weighed the next morning, then run through the whole process. This was the first time the combine was televised, and Steve set up a live interview with Rich Eisen and Terrell Davis on the NFL Network to be held after Maurice’s combine performance.
That night Maurice was dressed in layers and layers of clothing, and he worked on the treadmill and elliptical machine at the hotel for hours, pouring sweat, trying to lose water weight before the weigh-in, like a boxer. The next morning, Maurice weighed in a couple of pounds lighter than he had the year before, and the buzz was great.
“Wow, Maurice is in shape.” Nobody knew how he got there. And he managed to do well with the bench press, lifting 225 pounds 20 times. Then came the press conferences. We had prepped him very well and he’s a good speaker. This was the new Maurice Clarett, new attitude, new maturity, a new man, just what the teams want to hear. So far, it was going great.
Next was the Cybex test, a part of the physical that we had told him not to take. In fact, I’ve told lots of players not to take it. For the Cybex, they strap one leg down and have you do leg extensions until your leg is completely exhausted, so the next few days you have dead legs when it comes time to run the 40-yard dash. If they really pressed a player to do it, we always told them to do it after the 40, which pisses off the people running things, but there’s not much they can do and they’ll never actually reschedule it. Amazingly, Maurice did what we said and skipped the Cybex.
Instead, we worked on more prep for the Wonderlic. The next day it was time for the 40-yard dash and the other field work. Gil Brandt, an NFL legend who runs the combine and happened to be supportive of Maurice, broke precedent and let me and Steve into the media green room with all the writers to watch the monitor while Maurice ran. Most of the beat writers had no idea his agents were floating among them, so they were openly rooting against Maurice.
He got ready to run and it was as if everything was in slow motion. Not because that’s how I imagined it, or because it was important to me – this was because Maurice was literally running in slow motion. No burst, no explosion, just flat. He finished the 40 in 4.7-plus seconds, a good two-tenths of a second slower than the 4.5 he needed. Disaster.
There was laughter and howling in the media room, pretty cold delight. Now Maurice was supposed to run routes and running back drills. The only thing he could do worse than his 40 time would be to just quit. And that’s exactly what he did. He walked off the field. He knew he was [expletive], so he walked.
But instead of going to his hotel room, he went into his interview with Davis and Eisen to discuss one of the most anticipated – but worst – combine performances in NFL history. Somehow he stumbled through it. When they asked him why he’d walked off, he said he just wasn’t feeling it and, besides, he was going to work out at Ohio State’s pro day the next week and scouts could see him there. That sounded like a reasonable answer but it opened up a can of worms. First, we couldn’t get him fixed up in a week. Second, we had no idea if Ohio State, having thrown him out of school and then read about him ripping Jim Tressel apart in ESPN The Magazine, would let him work out there.
We just tried to hustle him out of the hotel and out of town, past the fans yelling at him with stuff like, “I can drink a 40 faster than you can run one” – and him just staring at the ground.
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