Football, prison and everything in between

 Maurice Clarett
Maurice Clarett gives a motivational lecture to youth at Victory Christian Center in Coitsville last spring. Photo by Dustin Livesay/The Jambar.

By: Steve Wilaj

On April 7, 2010 — eight years after Maurice Clarett was on top of the college football world — the former Ohio State University star running back received a dose of freedom.

He was released from the Toledo Correctional Institution after serving three and a half years of his seven-and-a-half-year sentence.

Three years later, Clarett continues to obtain freedom, only in a different way. By telling his sensational life story to audiences all around the country, Clarett is freed by the truth.

“There are a lot of different problems that I had growing up. And when I was in prison, I was able to experience some rough stuff,” Clarett said. “So, when I speak, I speak from a truthful place. I just try to be open and honest about things that happened in my life and tell it to the best of my ability.”

Coming out of Warren G. Harding High School in 2001 and leading the Buckeyes to a 2002 Bowl Championship Series National Championship victory, it was supposed to be Clarett’s football abilities that he talked about a decade later.

However, as Clarett admitted, his unstable background led him off the right track and into trouble.

“As a young guy coming up, I beat a young girl. I beat a cop, and I beat adults,” he said. “You talk about how someone screwed you a few times when you were young and didn’t have the father figure around.”

It’s experiences like this — as well as many others, like a robbery conviction, an OSU scandal, money troubles and a well-publicized 2006 arrest — from which Clarett finds his motivation to help others.

“People come up and say, ‘Hey, I was going through the same thing, and now I think I can get through it,’ and things like that,” he said. “I did a sharing of my story, and a woman came up to me bawling her eyes out.

“She’s a hostess, 30-years-old and addicted to drugs. The story of me not giving up on myself, I encouraged her to want to reach out and fix her problem.”

It was during Clarett’s time in prison when he realized he wanted to make a change. While imprisoned, he would write sporadically and post his thoughts to a blog through his girlfriend.

Shortly after he was released, he took these thoughts and applied them to motivational speaking.

“I went around and talked about my lack of character and lack of discipline and all the characteristics that people said about me,” Clarett said. “You know, I don’t speak in perfect sentences all the time. My grammar can be out of place. But I kind of just get in a room with people, take a breather and speak.”

Nowadays, Clarett’s idea has blossomed into a full-time practice. He speaks six or seven times a month and has talked to high school students, college students and professional sports teams.

In February, he made a return to his hometown and spoke at his former high school. Dante Capers, the principal of Warren G. Harding High School, said he felt Clarett “had a message about life choices and decision-making that was really relevant and necessary for our students to hear.”

The 45-minute speech, which Capers described as “informal and conversational,” started with a brief Q-and-A session between Capers and Clarett. Following that, Clarett delved into his life story and personal troubles. Finally, students had the chance to ask Clarett questions of their own.

“I thought it was pretty strong,” Capers said. “Probably the best gauge of that are the students. We had some students that had some really powerful takeaways — just about consequences, actions and opportunity.”

Speaking in the Youngstown-Warren area is something Clarett values.

Knowing of the area’s struggles, he makes it his obligation to help as many troubled youths as he can.

“You can’t save everybody, but those kids that want to do something with themselves are special, and you have to make yourself available,” he said. “When I was younger, I wish people had come back and helped show me some way to get out.”

In association with the Comeback Project, Clarett will speak in the area on April 27. With a group that includes Jim Tressel, former Youngstown State University and OSU head football coach, and eight other former area football stars, the Comeback Project will stop at the Struthers Fieldhouse at Struthers High School at 1 p.m.

The Comeback Project’s main goal is to positively influence the area’s youths and raise money for local charities.

“Operating in the real world outside of the city limits, I realize a lot of these kids don’t get these things taught at home,” Clarett said. “So, you create things like this to first of all connect with them; two, to build a relationship; and three, bring them over to better environments and safer campuses in the area. … My way out was football, but a lot of these kids don’t see ways of anything else. You have to have the heart to do it.”

Recently, Clarett’s efforts have received national recognition. ESPN is in the process of making a documentary for its critically acclaimed “30 for 30” series that will focus on his comeback. In fact, ESPN will shoot footage for the film during the Comeback Project presentation at the Struthers Fieldhouse.

Also, Clarett released his personal memoir earlier in the year. He said “My Life, My Story, My Redemption” is a project he is “very proud of,” adding that it “shows the educated side” of him.

“It just goes back to how I lived growing up, and it’s interesting to see where I’m at now,” Clarett said. “The material that’s written, it’s kind of cool to see the path it takes to get your life on track.”

Indeed, Clarett’s life is on track. It’s something he can finally say with sincerity and confidence.

“Speaking from my experiences, I think it’s a testament to say that going through what I went through and going to prison and abusing my body, it’s worth it,” he said. “My life is worth it now.”