Maurice Clarett prepping for one more comeback, but not in the NFL

"There's no tipping point where you become what you are. Character development starts when you're growing up. Your socioeconomic background contributes. The attitude that gets you through some communities doesn't work in corporate America. It's not an excuse, but it does help explain."
– Maurice Clarett, March 29, 2013

These days, Maurice Clarett speaks in paragraphs – long, unfurling stretches of dialogue that cover multiple topics, then end as quickly as if he were dropping the ball to the turf after scoring a touchdown. Only one question trips him up: Imagine it's 2003 and you have a chance to talk to this Clarett kid who's just led his team to a national championship. What do you tell him?

"Oh, man," Clarett says, then pauses for a moment. "I don't know. I don't know that there's anything I could tell him. It's all a process, how you get to where you are."

And where Clarett is right now is training for a comeback, only this time it's not in the NFL, but … in rugby.

To understand how this came to be – how one of college football's most dynamic players of the last decade never played a down in the NFL – you have to know whole story.

When you're a running back, you've got three options: hit the gap, hit the tackler, or hit the ground.

Maurice Clarett has done all three. Once, for a brief moment, the best running back in the country, Clarett fell so hard and so fast that he virtually erased himself from the sports landscape. A National Championship, battles with both his alma mater and the NFL, a training-camp flameout, a spiral of drugs and crime that ended in a four-year prison sentence, Clarett completed the full arc of the fallen icon by the time he was 25.

Now 29, he's living in Youngstown, Ohio, and trying to atone for nearly two decades' worth of crimes, transgressions, and oversights. He's tried this before; he's said the right things before. But this time around, as month after month of good behavior piles up, he's picking up both praise and supporters as he tries to rebuild a once-promising life.

"In due time," Clarett wrote in 2010, "everyone and everything gets exposed."

He could have been speaking of himself.

January 3, 2003. The Miami Hurricanes arrived in Tempe, Ariz., for the Fiesta Bowl riding a 34-game winning streak. Buoyed by future NFL players like Andre Johnson, Willis McGahee and Jonathan Vilma, the Hurricanes were a heavy favorite over Ohio State. Although undefeated, the Buckeyes under second-year coach Jim Tressel seemed untested, a potential-over-performance dynamic embodied in Clarett, their troubled-but-skilled freshman running back. Clarett was astonishingly talented, possessing a potent combination of speed, power and grace, but he was also astonishingly arrogant, openly feuding with university officials and pouting when plays didn't go his way.

Still, on this night, he was a difference-maker, both on offense and on defense, when he stripped Miami's Sean Taylor, who'd intercepted an Ohio State pass. The Buckeyes hung with the Hurricanes and even led by 10 points for a time in the third quarter. Following a controversial first-overtime penalty against Miami that literally cost the Hurricanes the national championship, Clarett scored the decisive touchdown on a vintage 10-yard run: broken tackle, sideways turn at the line, dive forward, score.

Maurice Clarett was the deciding factor in one of the most amazing games in college football history. He was 19 years old, and it would be the last meaningful game of football he'd ever play.

In the months after the national championship, trouble stuck to Clarett in a way no defender could. While at Ohio State, his name surfaced in connection with an academic fraud scandal. He was suspended from the team in 2003 for lying to investigators in connection with 14 violations of ethical conduct and two violations of preferential treatment because he was an athlete. He'd filed a false police report concerning items allegedly stolen from a vehicle in his possession. He tried to enter the 2004 draft via court order, circumventing the NFL's usual rule mandating draftees wait three years after their high school graduation.

At workouts in advance of the 2004 draft, Clarett was clearly out of shape and ill-prepared; a court order making him eligible for that draft was overturned in a judgment written by future Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor. So Clarett turned his eyes to 2005.

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The 2005 combine provided Clarett with the forum to unveil one of football's all-time great quotes: "It's a humbling thing, being humble." But it was what he said at another point in that press conference that resonates:

"I just had to take a look at myself from outside myself," Clarett said. "When I looked at myself, sometimes I kind of looked like a joke. I guess it was part of growing up and becoming who I am today. I did some things I shouldn't have done. I might have said some things to the media I shouldn't have said. I take responsibility for all of those things and I'm just ready to move forward."

It sounded so good, until 18 months later, when it sounded so hollow.

Mike Shanahan and the Denver Broncos stunned the football world when they used a third-round pick on Clarett in 2005. But he lasted barely four months, not even seeing a single preseason snap before getting cut. In Denver, he did little to endear himself to his teammates or the media; several players believed he exaggerated the severity of his injuries during the few weeks he was in training camp.

Clarett made the unfortunate decision to pass up more than $400,000 in signing bonus money from Denver in return for a performance-based contract; his four-year incentive-laden deal rendered him toxic to other teams.

Out of football, out of options, he spiraled downward. "I was popping pills and getting paranoid," he would tell a later coach. "I was robbing everyone I knew." In January 2006, he allegedly robbed a Columbus couple at gunpoint; the man pressed charges. After trying to persuade the victims to drop the case, Clarett made the worst decision in a lifetime of them.

As he would later tell it, he got into his car wearing Kevlar armor, packing three handguns and a loaded assault rifle. Swigging Grey Goose vodka, he missed the turn off the freeway that would have taken him to the man's house. Getting off at the next exit, he made an illegal U-turn. A cop spotted him, pulled him over and Maced him into submission.

Clarett had taken the hardest hit of his life. And this time, he wouldn't be getting up for a long, long time.

September 18, 2006. Clarett pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and carrying a concealed weapon. He was sent to prison for a minimum of three and a half years. Had he stayed at Ohio State a full four years, he almost surely would have played his second game in the NFL the day before.

In prison, Clarett turned to the written word. He claims to have read over 150 books, ranging from philosophy to practical financial advice. He created a blog, "The Mind of Maurice Clarett," an attempt to both craft a new public image and sort through the contradictions inherent in his life by dictating his thoughts over the phone to his girlfriend. A sample:

"A splash of class with a body full of attitude. Some say I'm arrogant and rude at times and others say I'm kind, humble, and thoughtful. My daughter says she loves me and some people I've never met say they hate me. Not through their mouth, though, only through body language and computer screens. I would like to call present-day Maurice ambitious and straight forward, driven and serious, loving and respectful."

He was released in April 2010. Later that year, he scored a contract with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League. It wasn't marquee football; it wasn't within two states of marquee football. As he'd put it later, he made more money playing at Ohio State than he did in the UFL. Still, it gave him a foothold, a year to regain some competitive balance. And, according to his 2011 coach Joe Moglia, Clarett did everything he could to prove he was a changed man.

"He moved his family from Youngstown [Ohio] to Omaha, Nebraska," Moglia says. "He'd had bad judgment, but he worked very hard to change his life for himself and his family."

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Clarett only carried the ball a handful of times in his two seasons as a Nighthawk; his body simply wasn't in football shape. With younger and more viable options available, no team in the UFL wanted Clarett in 2012.

Still, he'd learned much during his time in Omaha, including a fateful three-hour meeting with Warren Buffett. The legendary investor talked with Clarett about discipline, focus and clear-eyed analysis, both of investments and of one's own life. So far, the lessons have stuck.

But investments don't scratch the competitive itch.

Earlier this year, right out of the Twitter-colored baby blue, someone contacted Clarett via a tweet suggesting he give rugby a shot. Clarett recalled a contact with Paul Holmes, a Columbus-based coach and former rugby player, who'd reached out to Clarett immediately after his release from prison two years earlier. Clarett got in touch with Holmes, who now runs the Tiger Rugby Academy, and inquired about playing.

Playing rugby with a traveling club – that's where Maurice Clarett's story is right now, and it might just be the best thing that's happened to him in a long time.

Tiger Rugby is a traveling club, a team that trains in Columbus but plays against some of the best squads in the world. It's high-level training, the kind of work that could lead to a berth on the U.S. Olympic squad in 2016. The club's motto is, "It's not how good you are, it's how good you want to be," and that's exactly the kind of performance-based motivation that Clarett craves.

But why rugby?

In part because it's there, and in part because Clarett might be uniquely positioned to impact the sport. Imagine football without downs or pads and you're getting a sense of what rugby is like. Rugby sevens, where only seven men to a side cover an entire field in the space of two seven-minute halves, is an intense, exhausting whirl of motion. Players can run more than two miles in the course of a single game.

"There's so much movement, it's so aggressive," Clarett says. "You've got to think about offense, defense, you've got to make sure nobody beats you around the edge. … It's got a basketball component in that way. It's humbling."

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At one of the earliest practices, Clarett realized what he was up against when he spotted an older player who clearly didn't possess the physical gifts of many of his opponents. But with a knowledge of the game, an understanding of which angles to play, the older player absolutely smoked his competition. For a guy who made his name running over the best in the country, the idea of running around trouble intrigued Clarett. He still has next-level physical instincts, if not necessarily the gifts to implement them.

"Physically, he's strong, he's fast, he's tough, he has an impressive skill set," Moglia says. "I think he has a great chance to contribute."

"His conditioning is not where it needs to be for rugby, but he gets the game," adds Holmes. "He grasps it more than most, faster than most who come over from other sports. He's spent a lot of time watching on YouTube. For now, it's just a matter of getting playing time and getting exposure."

Tiger Rugby is a rigorous, all-day commitment. Workouts begin at 10 a.m., with field work, passing, kicking, and footwork coming around midday. The teams break into specializations later, and then watch tape and work on plays as a group. Holmes is taking Clarett's participation seriously, and won't put him into competition before he's ready. Holmes anticipates Clarett's first serious on-field action should come in late May.

"I'm like a kid again," Clarett says. "It's fun for me to compete again, to have conversations with guys about competing again."

Ten years after his last moment in the spotlight, Clarett is trying to mend fences, even at Ohio State. His scandal there is neither the most recent nor the worst – at Ohio State or in college football as a whole. And the passage of time has turned open wounds into scars with stories; he was invited to join the rest of the 2002 team on the field this past November as Ohio State beat Michigan.

"All that you go through is necessary to make you who you are," he says. "Mike Tyson has all these stories that help more people to learn from what you've done wrong."

Moglia says a man is someone who stands on his own two feet and lives with the consequences of what he's done. "What Maurice has gone through has changed him," he says. "He wants to build a new life for himself, for his family. He's better educated, more knowledgeable, more devout. … He's paid the price he needed to pay."

No, Maurice Clarett isn't finished trying to come back. The odds against him are long, and, having burned so many bridges, the list of people willing to give him a shot is short.

He's 29 – a fresher 29 than he'd be with four years of football experience, but still 29, trying to hang in a field where 29 is middle-aged. Still, what choice does he have?

"Please remember that weak minds produce weak thoughts and weak thoughts produce weak action," he wrote in 2010. "Weak actions produce weak lives and weak lives cause a lot of heartache, headaches, stress, depression, and anxiety."

Yes, he's talked this kind of talk before. Still, the slate's wiped clean. The score's even. He's got the ball in his hands again. And it's up to Maurice Clarett to make the next move.

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