The Clarett Saga Is A Wake-Up Call for Us All

Items found on the passenger seat of Maurice Clarett's SUV after an incident include a loaded assault rifle, a handgun and a bottle of vodka. A CD featuring children's songs recorded by Ohio prison inmates also was in the vehicle.
Items found on the passenger seat of Maurice Clarett's SUV after an incident include a loaded assault rifle, a handgun and a bottle of vodka. A CD featuring children's songs recorded by Ohio prison inmates also was in the vehicle. (Columbus Police Department Via Associated Press)
By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, August 10, 2006

It was a Friday night in the Arizona desert, Jan. 3, 2003, the greatest night in young Maurice Clarett's life. The freshman tailback ran five yards for a touchdown in the second overtime to deliver a college football championship to football-mad Ohio State University. He was a kid, a baby really. And with that touchdown run, he had stepped not only into football glory, but also into a royal group of preposterously young college athletes who had led their schools to national championships . . . people like Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Grant Hill.

That Fiesta Bowl game attracted the biggest television audience for a college bowl game in five years, and people throughout the country had seen Clarett carry his team past the University of Miami. There seemed to be no limit, not that night, to how far the kid might climb in the football world, to how big a star he might become.

You would have to have been the darkest of cynics to even suggest that Clarett's first big night would be his last, that his life would descend into a hellish nightmare that included an exit from big-time football, courtroom drama, a charge of robbery and now this unbelievable police chase on an interstate in Ohio with Clarett allegedly wearing a bulletproof vest and sitting next to a small cache of weapons.

What exactly are you preparing for when you get into a car with two handguns, an assault rifle and a bottle of vodka while wearing bulletproof clothing? At least in his mind, Clarett was about to do some serious battle with somebody, and the best news of the day is that the police found him first. The worst news of the day could be that he and his small arsenal of weapons were tracked down near the home of a witness set to testify against him next week in a hearing relating to the robbery charge. According to police reports, they couldn't stop him with a stun gun because of the bullet-proof vest, but they did stop him with a spray.

This comes eight months after being accused of flashing a gun and demanding property from a man and woman on New Year's Day, an incident which earned him two counts of robbery.

Perhaps football might have saved Clarett at one point. Even as someone who was not in favor of the NFL changing its rules to allow Clarett in early, I sit at the keyboard now wondering what might have become of Clarett had he spent the last three years within the structure of a football team, which is probably the only structure he had ever known -- certainly the only one he ever appreciated. It's impossible to not wonder what might have happened had Clarett been good enough to stick with the Denver Broncos, who brought him to camp last summer.

What's fairly safe to say is that football isn't going to save Clarett now, not after this.

"He's got some heavy issues," Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan told reporters in Denver yesterday. "It's just a shame this has happened to a guy that [had] so much promise and so much ability. I'm not sure what happened to him but it's a real shame. . . . We tried to reach him quite a bit when he was here. One thing he did have here was a lot of support from our veterans and our players tried to really take care of this guy and he wanted no part of it, and that was one of the reasons why he didn't make our football team."

One of those veterans, safety Nick Ferguson, is quoted on as saying: "I was one of the guys who really had somewhat of a decent relationship with him and talked to him on a consistent basis. The first time he left camp, I was asked to kind of use that relationship to find out what was going on. But it just seems like the young man is troubled."

I'm sure there are any number of players and coaches who were in Denver last summer and in Columbus, Ohio, before that who thought they could reach Clarett . . . and couldn't. Shanahan went as far as to say, "He was one of the few players that we've had that really didn't want to be helped."

Imagine what Clarett felt when he could see LeBron James soaking up all that adulation, flirting with all that endorsement money, the NBA guaranteed salary. James was a hero in Ohio, too, but he hadn't taken the state school to a national championship.

Problem was, Clarett played the wrong sport for that kind of individual cash-in. The NBA sells its stars; the NFL sells its teams. Clarett wasn't sophisticated enough to see the difference. He wanted what he felt was coming to him, so he left Ohio State. He listened to the fools who told him it was his birthright to play in the NFL, even though labor laws and smart labor lawyers knew otherwise. Instead of getting tens of thousands of dollars up front to sign with the Broncos, which at least would have given him a little financial cushion (which more than 99 percent of kids coming out of college get), some knucklehead negotiated a back-loaded deal that presumed Clarett would make the team, which he didn't.

So he was left with nothing, really. No money, no education, no real NFL skills.

With the downward spiral Clarett is in, who's to say he could have lasted even if he had made the team? Then again, maybe carrying the football was the only dream the kid ever had, and maybe he felt utterly useless away from the locker room, the training room, the field, the huddle.

If that's the case, then every high school coach of every teenage phenom, especially the ones who walk around like the world owes them, ought to get the video of Clarett sitting in the back of that squad car being hauled away from his stalled car and his weapons and his half-empty bottle of vodka and say to them in the firmest possible voice, "Son, let me tell you the cautionary tale of a kid named Maurice Clarett."

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