Speaking to a group of students recently, Maurice Clarett asked a young man what he wants to be when he grows up.
Like many boys who are awed by the spectacle and attraction of professional sports, he said his goal is to play football or basketball.
"It almost made me cringe," Clarett said.
The Associated Press file photo
Former Warren G. Harding and Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett, shown in this 2010 photo, is holding a charity basketball game Saturday in Struthers.
Growing up in Youngstown, the desire to play professional sports was intoxicating for Clarett. Gifted beyond anything his peers could imagine, Clarett was a once-in-a-lifetime football prodigy. He ran over and around players at will, leaving smallish defensive backs grasping for air while looking away in the hope they didn't make contact with his powerful, churning legs.
It came so easy for Clarett that he never had time to slow down and let life come to him. He was always in a hurry to get to the next place. When he attended Warren G. Harding High School, he wanted to be in college. As a freshman at Ohio State University, he wanted to be in the NFL.
There was that neighborhood in Youngstown from which he had to escape. There was that pot of gold glimmering so close to his face that he could almost touch it.
If Clarett had only had the voracious appetite for reading that he has now. If only he could have processed his hopes and dreams as he does now. Maybe, just maybe, he could have avoided the trappings that led to the tragedy that became his life after one incredibly successful season of college football.
Clarett gets it today, three years after being released from prison after serving a sentence on multiple charges. Those years gave him the chance to reflect on where he had been and where he wants his life to go. Better yet, it gave him a mission to return to his roots and help young men and women that come from broken neighborhoods and have seemingly little opportunity for success.
"It's not the kids' fault," Clarett said, referring to the boy he talked to recently. "It's about what they're exposed to. There are more ways to make money outside of basketball and football. I have to make these kids aware that there are skills other than dribbling a basketball."
When he isn't on the road for a speaking engagement or practicing for a professional rugby career, Clarett is giving back to the area. One of his projects is a charity basketball game Saturday at 1 p.m. at Struthers Fieldhouse that will raise funds for Victory Christian's Riot Youth Center. The center offers opportunities for area youngsters to come together in a safe environment.
The star-packed event will be filmed by "ESPN Films" as background for its upcoming "30 for 30" documentary on Clarett's life. Former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel will coach a group of athletes, including Clarett, Dan and Dave Herron, Brad Smith, Prescott Burgess and Anthony Smith. Also scheduled to play is Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson.
It will be a fun event, but Clarett's thoughts go beyond the couple of hours it will take to play the game. He wants to continue the message of hope and a positive vision that can come as a result of well-grounded plans and the desire to learn.
"When I was incarcerated I started picking up the 'Wall Street Journal' and 'USA Today' and the world became bigger," Clarett said. "My interest in reading became fanatical and everything I put my hands on made the world open up.
"I want to do something to help these kids. There's no reason why a kid goes into fifth grade with a second-grade reading level. I want to be a resource. I come from there."
Clarett thought football was the only way out, and it appeared it might work successfully when he helped lead the 2002 Buckeyes to a national championship win over Miami (Fla.). Clarett rushed for 1,237 yards and scored 18 touchdowns in one of the greatest freshman seasons ever put together in Columbus.
It was all downhill from that point on. Clarett was suspended for the 2003 season by Ohio State officials for filing a false police report. He was eventually dismissed from the football program.
Several incidents with the law led to a 2006 police chase in Columbus. He eventually agreed to a plea bargain to weapons' charges and earlier charges for aggravated robbery and was sentenced to seven and a half years of imprisonment. He was granted an early release in April of 2010.
A changed person from his time behind bars, Clarett began to look at life in ways that seemed incomprehensible in his youthful days. He had begun a personal blog titled "The Mind of Maurice Clarett" while in prison. His thoughtful, introspective comments portrayed the image of a person the public never knew.
"I enjoy creative reading," he said. "I read psychology and philosophy. I've found that the more vulnerable you are with people, the more vulnerable people come to you. When I come to these kids, they let their guard down and take an honest approach to where they are in life."
Clarett's football career ended in 2005 after a failed tryout with the Denver Broncos, who selected him with the final pick in the third round of the 2005 NFL draft. A year earlier he challenged the NFL's rule that college players must wait three years after graduating from high school before entering the draft. He won the case in a lower court, but the ruling was overturned by the Second Circuit U.S. Appeals Court.
Clarett, who turns 30 in October, is taking a gamble on a rugby career. He's currently put that on the back burner while he attends to speaking engagements and Saturday's fund raiser.
Clarett had 222 career carries at Ohio State and none in the NFL. There seemed to be so much unfinished business for one of the best high school running backs ever, yet there's no sense of remorse in his speech.
He's opening up his world now. The books he reads take him to places he never would have thought of going as a young man consumed by the belief he was destined to be one of the great ones in the NFL.
Clarett wants young people to know that positive change can happen. He's living proof.
"It's a privilege to be in a situation where I can lead responsibly and bring awareness of social change to people that look and feel like me who came from where I did," he said. "The older you get, you become more responsible. Basically, it's how do I improve someone's life? I remember being in a situation where I didn't know what to do."