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Clarett's Struggle With Right and Wrong Lands Him in Jail

September 03, 2006|From the Associated Press

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — For years, there were plenty of people eager to adore Maurice Clarett.

Thousands cheered him as he juked and slashed his way through high school in football-mad northeast Ohio. The roars grew deafening when he took his show down the road to Ohio State, rocking the Horseshoe as he rumbled through Big Ten defenses.

The Buckeyes are still hearing those cheers, starting the season as the No. 1 team in the nation. For Clarett, though, there is disappointed silence, and the heavy thud of a cell door closing.

"Everybody, you know what they say?" asked Jim Roland, who has lived across the street from the Claretts since Maurice Clarett was barely old enough to cradle a football.

"They say our friend let us down."

Less than four years after leading the Buckeyes to their first national title in 34 years, the former running back sits locked in a jail cell. What began with robbery and weapon charges in a New Year's Day incident escalated three weeks ago when police stopped Clarett near the home of a potential witness and found him wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying three semiautomatic handguns and an automatic rifle -- all loaded -- in his sport utility vehicle.

Two very different paths, two very different lives.

"He could be charming, funny, engaging. He was bright in many ways. But I also felt he was flawed in understanding the difference between right and wrong, and not having any willingness or even recognition of living life by the rules," said former Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger.

"He always seemed to have one foot in the place you wanted him to go, but you could never get the second foot there."

Clarett is scheduled to go on trial Sept. 18, pending a psychiatric evaluation, and is barred from talking to the media. His mother, Michelle, did not return several phone calls from the Associated Press, and no one answered the door at the family home in Youngstown. His attorneys, Michael Hoague and Nick Mango, also did not return repeated phone calls.

"He's a good guy who's had bad guidance and listens sometimes to the wrong people," said Denver Broncos safety Tyler Everett, a friend of Clarett's since they were 12 years old and a teammate at Ohio State.

Clarett was born with a gift for creating holes and slithering through them. Big and strong at 6 feet, 230 pounds, he made even the toughest defenses look silly. If he didn't run by you, he'd run over you. If he didn't see a hole, he'd make one.

He piled up 4,119 yards rushing and 52 touchdowns in three years at Warren Harding High School in Warren, Ohio -- despite missing part of his junior season because of an ankle injury. His senior year alone he carried for 2,194 yards and 38 touchdowns, and was named Ohio's Mr. Football and USA Today's national offensive player of the year.

At Ohio State, he sat out all or part of five games because of injuries, yet still set freshman records with 1,237 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. Without him, the gleaming 2002 national championship trophies probably would be in Coral Gables, not Columbus.

At the Fiesta Bowl against Miami in a second overtime, Clarett cut through the Hurricanes defense and dived into the end zone for the winning, five-yard touchdown. He also made the most memorable play of the game, stripping the ball from a Miami defender after an interception.

"Anyone that had been there his freshman year in that stadium, I mean, he was everything. To everybody. From Game 1," said Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, a teammate at Ohio State. "People chanted his name the whole time, and he had a great year."

But football was more than an ego boost for Clarett. It was his way out.

Clarett grew up in gritty Youngstown, in a neighborhood on the hard and unforgiving south side. The steel mills and factories that once provided jobs for generations of families are long gone, and little good has replaced them. His mother tried to keep her three sons away from temptation, but it was never far off.

Clarett once said he'd been to 10 funerals by the time he left for Ohio State. He knew at least three people who'd been shot, one of whom bled to death before his eyes. His oldest brother, Michael, is serving a 4 1/2 -year prison sentence for drug trafficking, possession and assault.

At the Claretts' two-story house, there's a "no trespassing" sign out front, and the shades are drawn. Abandoned houses dot the street where he and his friends played football after school, and weeds are the only occupants of one lot. One neighbor greets visitors with a scowl and the threat of his two pit bulls, while a little boy riding his bike wears a T-shirt that says, "I am important." Two weeks ago, a man was shot to death in front of the crowd at a peewee football game less than two miles away.

"Maurice required a lot of attention keeping him on the right track, keeping him focused," said Paul Trina, the athletic director at Warren Harding, where Clarett transferred after his freshman year.

"We felt good here. We got him through high school and got him into college. You'd have hoped he had it figured out by that time."

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