<
>

Maurice Clarett, the accidental athlete whisperer

play
Maurice Clarett's message to players (1:21)

ESPN Big Ten reporter Adam Rittenberg discusses why former Ohio State RB Maurice Clarett is visiting colleges to speak with football players. (1:21)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Maurice Clarett needs a volunteer.

Standing in an auditorium inside Doak Campbell Stadium, Clarett is concluding an hour-long presentation to Florida State's football team. He summons a player to the front and asks him to describe two things: a real man and a real n---a.

Clarett went through the same exercise as an inmate at Toledo Correctional Institution, where he served 42 months for aggravated robbery.

"I joked and talked more about what it was to be a real n---a and a gangsta than a man," Clarett recalls.

Clarett's case manager, Kenneth Rupert, told him he should be embarrassed.

"He said, 'Maurice, you don't know integrity, responsibility, accountability. All these characteristics are what make a man. How do you expect to function?'" Clarett says. "I have sex with women, I piss in the toilet, I play football, but I have no understanding of what it takes to be a man."

It hits on Clarett's central theme to the Seminoles: Without personal development, the biggest and strongest men often remain lost boys.

"A lot of y'all need to grow the f--- up," Clarett says. "That's the bottom line."

When finished, FSU players and coaches give Clarett a standing ovation. Coach Jimbo Fisher tells the team Clarett delivered one of the most "real" talks he has heard in 28 years in the game. Tight ends coach Tim Brewster, a Denver Broncos assistant during Clarett's brief time as a Broncos draft pick, congratulates Clarett on "an amazing success story."

Associate head coach Odell Haggins, seated in the front row, says it's one of the most inspiring speeches he has heard in 22 years at FSU.

"This man is keeping it real with y'all," Haggins tells the players. "This is true love speaking to you. I use the word love. Listen to the man."

They're listening.

Thirteen years after a record-setting freshman season at Ohio State and nine years after a descent into crime branded him as one of college football's tragic figures, Maurice Clarett is once again impacting the sport. This time, through a message that must be heard.

In recent weeks he has spoken at Florida State, Alabama, Mississippi State, TCU, Connecticut and Cincinnati (ESPN.com tagged along for Clarett's appearances at FSU and Alabama). The former Buckeyes running back also has addressed football teams at LSU, Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Tennessee, and basketball teams at Kentucky and Xavier.

He regularly texts with players he meets during speeches, including TCU star quarterback Trevone Boykin. Mississippi State star quarterback Dak Prescott called Clarett the "most real" speaker he has heard from.

"You start getting friends that want you for the wrong reasons, family, or girls and how people are around you for wrong reasons. He talked about how to get those people away from you and celebrate those that are there for the right reasons," Prescott said. "The thing he said was make a busy schedule, make it tough for them to fit into your schedule. If they can still fit in, with football going from 5 in the morning until late at night, then they're good for you. I've seen a lot of new friends in my life, family members more involved with my life than they used to be. How do I separate it whether they're here for me or just because I'm more famous?"

Clarett said that comes with understanding the player's perspective.

"You try to create a space with your messaging, you try to help them," Clarett said. "This isn't just me coming here to get a check and say words. There's a deeper meaning, there's a deeper purpose, there's a deeper intention behind it, living the effects of poor decision-making, living the effects of going to the f---ing county jail, living the effects of being confused, living the effects of not having a f---ing clue as to where your life is going."

Finding his voice

Clarett never intended to tell his story. His post-prison plan called for managing senior care services and transportation, and running football camps.

Then Marilyn Ford, a Quinnipiac University law professor, contacted him about speaking at a youth education symposium in 2010. Clarett was playing in the United Football League with the Omaha Nighthawks. After a game, he flew that night to Connecticut, still in uniform.

Ford had several notable speakers for the program, including track star Marion Jones, but Clarett, despite being "nervous as hell," wowed the group.

"People would not let him sit down," Ford said.

Clarett's speaking career since has taken off, especially after the 2013 release of "Youngstown Boys," an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about Clarett and his former Ohio State coach, Jim Tressel. Clarett estimates he has done 120 appearances in the past two years, speaking to kids, corporations and church groups.

"Everyone knows his story and knows the fact he had the world in front of him and let it slip out of his hands," said Tressel, who remains close with Clarett. "They're anxious to hear him talk about what he learned from all of that.

"I don't know that I could have predicted he would have gone and had quite this much impact on a national scale, but I knew he had the ability and the desire to do so."

Ford has booked Clarett for several speeches in Connecticut and New York. In April, Clarett appeared at a church in Stamford, Connecticut, addressing a large crowd of local coaches and players. One man, a former high school athlete who had veered into alcoholism, heard about the speech and walked nearly 20 miles from Norwalk, Connecticut, to hear Clarett.

Afterward, Clarett spoke to the man and encouraged him to seek counseling.

"That's when I realized," Ford said, "that Maurice has a gift."

Clarett doesn't use notes or video when he speaks to college athletes. He dresses casually, donning a shirt of the team he's addressing. His messages aren't radical -- take your education seriously; nothing in life changes but circumstance and opportunity; show me your friends and I'll show you your future; there's no blueprint for fame; understand your platform and the responsibility that comes with it -- but the delivery hits home.

"He was completely real," Prescott said, "not trying to sugarcoat it. He related to us. We were all just amazed."

Clarett tells his story in great detail, something he picked up in prison while watching a Denzel Washington interview with Charlie Rose ("From the specific comes the universal," Clarett often says). He mixes in humor, even in describing his failed attempt to evade police in Columbus on Aug. 9, 2006. ("A Hyundai is not a getaway car," he tells the Florida State players.)

He can be professional and profane in the same breath. He describes being a successful entrepreneur and a street hustler; a drug dealer, a drug and alcohol abuser and a depressive; a caring father to Jayden, 9, and a fiancé to Ashley, who stuck with him through everything. He drops LeBron James' name ("We were buddy-buddy") and explains how he felt during a disastrous 2005 NFL combine ("I was done with football") and after being drafted in the third round ("I knew I would be exposed").

"I'd seen the 30 for 30, but I never knew what really went down, like him having mental issues, thinking about killing himself," Alabama tight end O.J. Howard said. "It makes you think about where you're at now. You can't really get caught up in all the negativity, all the hype, the parties, doing drugs. Because it's so easy to fall down the wrong path.

"His story made us realize that could be us."

TCU coach Gary Patterson never had met Clarett before his Aug. 9 speech. While many coaches bring in droves of speakers for camp, Patterson is picky.

"I didn't know what to expect, but the message was unbelievable," Patterson said. "To know he's trying to help others, that's as big a deal as anything. There's a lot of people in the world that would be negative about what happened."

Clarett doesn't label himself a motivational speaker. He needs a microphone to magnify his raspy voice. He's not polished and can drag as he packs so many details into his story.

But there's no embellishment. It's all true.

"I'm able to own everything that happened to me," Clarett said. "I'm vulnerable in every situation. These kids have been through real s---, real things that have halted their development or situations they've been glad to escape, and that connects with them."

Football masked the man

Clarett arrives at Alabama's Mal Moore Athletic Facility on a steamy Friday afternoon. Checking out the bronze busts of Alabama's national championship-winning coaches in the lobby, he stops at Bear Bryant's. "He's an O.G. right there," he says, smiling.

Before his speech, he relaxes in the office of Justin Dickens, Alabama's director of football operations. Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland ducks in, introduces himself to Clarett and embraces the ex-Buckeye.

"Two fifty? Wow," Ragland says, smiling, wanting no part of trying to tackle Clarett.

Clarett works out constantly, eats only once a day (a prison practice that has carried over) and looks like he could still break tackles with ease. Greeting Clarett after a Florida State practice, Fisher tells the 31-year-old, "You still got it going on."

"Even for someone who hasn't heard of him, he's got a little bit of an advantage in that he walks in the room and he still looks like he can still play," Tressel said.

Football vaulted Clarett from the streets of Youngstown into the national spotlight at Ohio State. It brought him adulation, women, money, opportunity. But he has a complex relationship with the game and his old school.

He says he "never really cared" about the sport, and these days, he only watches championship games or bowls ("It's the only time guys are giving it their all," he said).

He tells players how football made him famous but never helped him grow, urging them to develop an identity away from the game. His own failure to do so doomed him when Ohio State suspended him for NCAA violations.

"It was the shock of my life," he tells the Florida State players. "From the habits I had in place, from the person I didn't develop, that person showed back up. This person has not been trained or developed or skilled to figure out what's going on.

"I know X's and O's, down and distance, that s---, but I don't know life."

He recalls how he spurned his academic adviser at Ohio State, taking "bulls--- classes" such as officiating softball and officiating golf. When the Broncos repeatedly urged him to speak to a sports psychologist, he refused.

Clarett only sought help and began to find himself when football wasn't there and prison was. He began reading and devoured self-improvement books -- James Allen's "As a Man Thinketh" was first; dozens of others followed.

The warden in Toledo, Kellah Konteh, placed Clarett in programs where he learned about behavior, critical thinking and anger management.

"I was able to sit still," he said. "I was able to wake up, be in one place, work on thinking. I developed myself after football stopped masking everything."

Clarett's Ohio State career lasted all of 11 games, but it still follows him, and at times, frustrates him. When he returned to Columbus from Omaha and tried to find an apartment, he often was told: We can't rent to you because you're a convicted felon. But do you mind if we take a picture real quick because you're Maurice Clarett?

"A slap in the face," Clarett said.

He begins his speech at Alabama by explaining he's not representing Ohio State, which eliminated the Tide in last year's College Football Playoff. He has traveled to address many top-tier college football teams, but the one closest to his home has yet to reach out. Clarett doesn't take it personally -- he wonders whether the current regime wants to distance itself from the Tressel era.

Clarett initially took courses at Ohio State after his release, but his main tie to the university is through friends working for the office of diversity and inclusion, specifically the Todd A. Bell National Resource Center on the African-American Male. These connections are helping Clarett pursue his next initiative, a personal development center for college football players headed down the wrong path.

Players identified by their schools as candidates for drug or alcohol abuse treatment would come for six to eight weeks, either after the season or after spring practice -- the times when most off-field incidents occur. They would go through behavioral counseling, cognitive skills classes and academic support -- much of the same programming Clarett did in prison. Schools could use the NCAA's special assistance fund to finance the trips.

Clarett says he's building a team of educators and counselors, including several former college football players. Next month, Clarett says, he will sign a lease for space in a 17,000-square-foot building in Columbus, which would include weight training equipment for players to maintain their on-campus regimens.

"We want guys to think about life," said Dr. Robert Bennett, a former Morehouse College football player who works at Ohio State's Bell Center. "The schools are going to want them to train and stay up with their classes, but we want them to have time to understand who they are and how did they get there.

"We'll do some self-reflection."

For Clarett, it his "service to men" work. He's not looking to profit -- he earns enough from his other businesses. He's looking to give back.

"Let this be more than a texting conversation," he said. "Let me spend time with you. ... This isn't something that becomes a career. It becomes a part of you."

Clarett's proposed center would be close to his football roots, which propelled him to his current platform. But he's conscious not to link himself to Ohio State.

"You want to show that you can operate and live without the engine of any school," he said. "A lot of guys believe, 'This is the only way I can succeed, being associated and affiliated with this.' You want to be identified as you -- an individual who represents a certain message, a certain way of thinking, a mentality.

"You don't want that to be overshadowed by any institution in any facet."

Buffett's investment in time

"Does everybody know the greatest investor of our time?" Clarett asks Alabama's players.

"Jimmy Buffett?" one replies. Snickering ensues.

Clarett smiles and tells how he began researching American business magnate Warren Buffett while in prison. He studied Buffett's philosophies and investment strategies. He read every business publication he could find and became enthralled with entrepreneurship.

While playing in Omaha, Clarett met Joe Moglia, the former TD Ameritrade CEO. He told Moglia his story and how he researched Buffett while incarcerated. Moglia, a friend of Buffett's, told him he'd reach out. Soon thereafter, Clarett's phone rang. It was Buffett. They met for about five hours.

Clarett, calculating the rate for meetings with Buffett, tells players, "He gave me about $3 million of his time."

"I never saw that coming," Alabama's Howard said. "He kind of threw us a curveball when he said he was sitting down with Warren Buffett in his office."

Buffett taught Clarett the value of not forcing things and to channel his energy toward his priorities. So Clarett honed in on a goal of becoming an entrepreneur.

He says he's involved in a packaging distribution business and a transportation company. His social media timeline features stimulating quotes right after "drivers wanted" posts.

Clarett intends to graduate college but doesn't know when. If he does reinvest in his education, he wants to take courses in accounting and finance to fill "the gaps inside my work."

"I'm not about to go and put a half-ass effort in and take some half-ass classes online at some half-ass university," he said. "At that point, you're preaching one thing and doing something else.

"If I go, I'm going to educate myself."

His career is booming, but his past still brings obstacles. He needs non-felons to lead his businesses, and some firms have said they legally can't work with him. Clarett's probation ended this year, and he hopes to get his record expunged by 2019.

"This could be the biggest rehabilitation story that comes out of sports," said Bryan Wilks, an entrepreneur who reached out to Clarett after seeing "Youngstown Boys." They became friends, and Wilks mentors Clarett with his packaging business.

"His mind is always on," Wilks said. "He's flooded with ideas. And if you get him in the right moment, you go, 'This dude's brilliant.' He's going to start businesses, some of them will work, some of them won't, but the most important trait of Maurice is the dude doesn't give up. He keeps going.

"People are going to be shocked by what he accomplishes."