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BCS TITLE GAME No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 2 Florida,
Monday, Glendale, Ariz., 5 p.m., Ch. 11

The anti-Clarett

Ohio State's Smith is an example of the power of positive choices; his former teammate stands in direct contrast

January 07, 2007|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — Maurice Clarett and Troy Smith were products of Ohio State's stellar recruiting class of 2002.

Both hailed from Ohio.

One went to jail last year; the other won the Heisman Trophy.

It goes to show how two men can go through the same ringer and come out looking entirely different.

Clarett and Smith had disjointed, complicated lives.

Clarett was from Youngstown, Smith from Cleveland.

"They are not mean streets, either," Smith said this week. "They are the main streets."

Neither was a choirboy. Both got in trouble as kids -- in high school and in college.

Clarett ended up a cautionary tale for everything that's wrong with college football. He seemed to compound each mistake he made with another and accepted more bad advice, perhaps, than any athlete in history.

Smith, conversely, seemed to learn from his shortcomings and grow from them. He also realized what he risked by making them.

Clarett, as a true freshman tailback, helped lead Ohio State to the national title. The game was played in January 2003 at Sun Devil Stadium, not too far from where Smith, now a fifth-year senior, will try to claim his prize Monday night with a win over Florida in the Bowl Championship Series title game at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Whatever happens against the Gators, Smith seems likely to enjoy a completely different postscript than Clarett.

The week before his team's title game, against Miami, Clarett was already a ticking bomb, ripping his school for not allowing him to return home to attend the funeral of a friend.

Clarett later became the subject of an NCAA investigation, sued to become an early entry into the NFL draft, forfeited the remainder of his college eligibility, lost his court case, had to wait until 2005 before he was chosen in the third round by the Denver Broncos only to be cut at the end of training camp, then fell into a spiral of despair that landed him in a Toledo jail.

Smith is probably going to bypass those tribulations and be a top pick in this spring's NFL draft, then a multimillionaire.

Maybe Smith was luckier because there were people around him, at the right time, to keep him from destroying himself.

"You can't look back," Smith said Friday. "If you look back you lose focus on the task at hand. But things in the past happen for a reason."

It could have turned out badly for Smith too.

He was abandoned as a child, first by his father and then by his mother, who left Troy in foster care for a four-year period in which she battled personal demons.

"Growing up, I never like to try to put a crutch on my situation because kids everywhere go through things, you know," Smith said. "It is going to be tough. It is going to be hard. That's life.

"Some of the things that you might go through might be different from mine, but who is to say my struggles are deeper than yours, you know?"

Smith left one high school for another after he viciously elbowed an opponent in a basketball game.

At Ohio State, years before he remade himself, Smith was charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct. He was also suspended two games for taking $500 from a booster.

For every step back, though, Smith was able to counter with a forward two-step.

He also caught a few breaks.

One was transferring to Cleveland Glenville High, where he would play his senior season under Coach Ted Ginn Sr.

Also on the team was Ted Ginn Jr., a football star and sprint champion.

The players would go to Ohio State together and form a friendship and one of the nation's top pass-catch combinations.

While at Glenville, Ginn Sr. became a ballast in Smith's life, even after Smith's mother returned to the scene.

Ginn Sr. pushed and prodded Smith and, when he slipped, picked him up and pointed the quarterback in the right direction.

"He was making decisions for me even when I didn't know he was making decisions," Smith said.

Smith and Ginn Jr. were also forging a bond.

"He kept me out late one time," Ginn Jr. joked when asked of their relationship. "Just once."

Then Ginn added, "Troy is the type of man that, you know, he's got a big heart. He is going to fight through everything. And that's the type of person that you want in your life."

Maybe it helped Smith that, unlike it did for Clarett, his success did not come quickly.

Clarett was the USA Today high school player of the year and was starting at Ohio State the next fall.

Smith had to find his own way -- the hard way.

As the story goes, Smith was the last recruit Ohio State signed in 2002, although some dispute this.

"There has been a little bit of folklore," Coach Jim Tressel said.

While not knowing exactly when Smith's letter of intent hit the fax machine, Tressel said the Buckeyes offered him a scholarship "well in advance to the end of recruiting."

It was no stretch to suggest Ohio State didn't quite know what to do with Smith. Was he a quarterback? A running back? A "slash" back?

Ohio State handed Smith a redshirt year in 2002 while it figured out what to do with him.

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