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Clarett in No Rush

After creating stir, freshman backs off from saying he'll challenge NFL draft rule

October 26, 2002|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — An innocent gesture has a way of turning into a symbolic metaphor, which has a way of morphing into a full-blown Buckeye crisis with some serious legs around here.

The current issue of ESPN the Magazine has a full-page picture of star freshman running back Maurice Clarett, tossing aside his Buckeye game jersey, making it look as if he is heading straight out of Columbus. "One & Done?" is the headline on the cover.

Pictures and headlines have a way of shaping an issue so much that the words of a story are sometimes an afterthought. Clarett's own words made it different, though. He said he was thinking about challenging the NFL's rule that requires a player to be three years removed from high school before becoming draft eligible.

Ohio State coaches and officials say they were misled, believing that the photographer just wanted a shot of Clarett taking off his jersey after practice.

And more than a week later, the issue was still percolating in Columbus. It overshadowed the loss of starting right tackle Shane Olivea, who had an emergency appendectomy Tuesday, and even edged into talk about the arrival of Joe Paterno and 18th-ranked Penn State (5-2) for today's Big Ten showdown at fourth-ranked Ohio State (8-0).

Writers were asked not to question Clarett about the magazine article during Tuesday's media session. Clarett, though, told ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit that has was planning on returning next year, and that he was asked a hypothetical question by the magazine writer, Gene Wojciechowski. The Heisman Trophy candidate also recently said the same thing to ABC Sports online.

One problem. No one bothered to ask the writer.

"There were never the words, 'What if?' formed in my mouth during the course of the interview, nor were there any hypotheticals," Wojciechowski said Friday. "Was Maurice overwhelmed by the reaction? Probably so.

"Did he maybe panic a little bit? Probably so. But never was a scenario given where I asked him if a certain monetary figure were available to him, would he leave early. I think he's a great kid. All he ever said was, he was considering the option. He never said he was going to do it. He said what he said."

Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel calmly downplayed the controversy.

"From an employment standpoint, I don't know if I'll be here three years from now myself," he said. "I don't know if I'm granted that. I plan to. Just like I think he plans to. He doesn't have his bags packed for the Denver Broncos or anything like that.

"He's a freshman. In one way, there's an innocence to that and in other ways I suppose a danger to that. I hope he doesn't ever mature into a skeptical, all-these-guys-are-out-to-get me thing. You don't want that to happen, either."

Said Tim Spencer who coaches the running backs, "I think he didn't quite understand the scope of how big football and how important it is to people in this community. He thought he knew but he really didn't know till it happened. I think he's learning to deal with that.

" ... I mean, he said what a lot of kids think, but don't say. I know he's a team player and he's out there to help his team get better, but when you see it in print, sometimes it looks like you're just in it for yourself and yourself only. That's not the way he wanted to come off."

The learning curve may be tougher off the field than on it. He has rushed for 980 yards and 13 touchdowns, recording six 100-yard games in seven appearances, and is 147 yards from breaking Robert Smith's freshman single-season rushing record of 1,126.

"The only thing I really worry about right now is beating Penn State," Clarett said. "The yards, they're going to be there. The yards will come, whatever. The only thing that's important right now is beating Penn State. If we lose this week, they're not going to be talking about 147 yards, they're going to be talking about the Buckeyes' loss."

Numbers are only numbers,

hence his decision to wear No. 13 as a special tribute to his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.

"The first year I was playing football, I wore No. 13, and I kind of took it from there," Clarett said. " ... That's what I started off with and I'm just taking it back to Square 1.

"Just more reasons, being from Youngstown, against everything. Everyone says it's a bad-luck number; just going against the grain, against all odds."

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