Common lives, plenty of questions for Vick, Clarett

The convenient reaction is to call Marcus Vick and Maurice Clarett thugs. Or punks. Or ungrateful, numb-from-the-neck-up crazies who co-authored the book, "How To Screw Up Your Life Before Your 23rd Birthday."

They had everything. They have nothing. Cautionary tales, right?

Call it coincidence, fate, sad destiny … whatever … but Vick and Clarett have more in common than recent photo sessions with police mug shot cameras. They share a childhood, a confusion, a confluence of circumstances that should give you pause before dismissing them as knuckleheads who deserve whatever bed they've short-sheeted.

In 2002, both were college freshmen in their home states: Vick at Virginia Tech, where he was expected to continue the legacy established by his famous brother, Michael; Clarett at Ohio State, where the Buckeyes soon would name him the first true OSU freshman to start at running back since 1943. No pressure there.

Vick grew up in a part of Newport News, Va., that was harder than the back of your father's hand. Visitors drove through quickly and with their car doors locked. That explains why Michael later used some of his Nike and Atlanta Falcons money to buy his mother a brand-new house in upscale Suffolk.

Clarett lived with his two brothers and 11 cousins at his grandmother's house in a Youngstown, Ohio, "neighborhood" -- if you can call a ghetto a neighborhood -- where the sound of gunshots was commonplace. He ate pork and beans for dinner, a couple of folded slices of bologna (no bread) for lunch. By the time he enrolled at Ohio State, Clarett had attended the funerals of 10 friends, seen two people shot and killed in front of his grandma's house, and served three stints in a juvenile detention center.

I still have the blue notebook and the cassette tape from the hour-plus interview I did with Clarett at the Buckeyes' football offices in 2002. Listening to that tape earlier today, I was struck by his easy laugh, his emotion, his anger, his weariness and his perspective.

"I betcha there's a lot of football players in the nation with a whole lot of stories like mine," he said that day.

And later: "You don't know what I've been through, so you can't judge me. Until I know what you've been through, until I know the reason for doing what you're doing, you can't judge me."

Clarett screwed up the syntax, but you get the point. He wasn't like you and me. He was, in his own words -- at least, when it came to playing football -- "an 18-year-old son of a bitch."

But he was smart. Street smart. Football smart. Maybe too smart for his own good. As we walked through the nearly deserted Ohio State locker room, Clarett casually pointed to another player.

"He is the next Michael Vick," Clarett said.

"What's his name?" I said.

"Troy Smith," Clarett said.

Actually, Marcus Vick was supposed to be the right-handed version of the next Michael Vick, but we know how that turned out. Or do we?

I interviewed Marcus Vick once, for an ESPN TV feature. He was a lot like Michael, in the sense that he'd rather have his nose hairs plucked with pliers than do interviews. He was soft-spoken, measured in his responses, respectful.

But think about the immense pressures on his shoulder pads. It would have been like Eli Manning following his brother Peyton to Tennessee. As it was, we concluded the TV piece with Marcus walking down Michael Vick Hallway at the Va. Tech football facility.

Michael Vick's jersey is retired at Virginia Tech. You can't miss it at Lane Stadium, the same stadium where Marcus would make a play, then hear the public-address announcer accidentally call him "Michael" over the loudspeaker. Habit. It happened occasionally on the road, too.

Marcus wore No. 5. Clarett wore No. 5 during his sophomore year of high school before switching to No. 13. In 2002, you could go to a souvenir store across the street from the Ohio State campus and buy a Clarett Buckeyes replica jersey for $39.95.

Clarett made the game-winning TD run and the game-saving tackle in the national championship game against Miami. But he also said he might consider challenging the NFL's early eligibility rule. The hate mail arrived shortly thereafter.

He was suspended by Ohio State for the 2003 season because he accepted extra benefits. Clarett promptly sued the NFL over its eligibility rule but eventually lost the case in a May 2004 ruling. He accused Ohio State of multiple NCAA violations (none was proved).

Last April, he was a surprise third-round draft pick by the Denver Broncos. He was cut in late August.

And on Jan. 1, he was charged with two counts of aggravated robbery. Some résumé.

Until recently, Marcus Vick's replica Hokies jersey sold for $58.99 at the Campus Emporium in Blacksburg. But that was before he was ticketed for driving with a suspended license last month (he failed to tell his coaches that he was also ticketed for speeding), stomped on the leg of Louisville's Elvis Dumervil during the Gator Bowl, got dropkicked off the team as a junior, then was charged with three misdemeanor counts of brandishing a firearm.

Now, that same jersey sells for $29.99. Plenty in stock.

Vick was suspended for the 2004 season (for possession of marijuana and a conviction for contributing to the delinquency of a minor by allowing underaged girls to have alcohol; he was found innocent of having sex with a 15 year old). And this season at West Virginia, he was disciplined for a middle-finger salute at Mountaineers fans. Never mind that some of the fans called him a rapist, a pedophile, a child molester. Or that the Hokies' team bus drove by a building that featured a sign hanging from one of the windows: "Hide Your Children. Marcus Is In Town."

And for what it's worth, Vick and Tech coach Frank Beamer did wait outside the Louisville locker room in hopes of apologizing personally to Dumervil and Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino. They were told by a U of L official that Dumervil and Petrino weren't interested in discussing the incident.

I'm not making excuses for Clarett or Vick. You do the crime, you serve the time. You make decisions, you live with the consequences.

But I'll forever wonder what would have happened had Clarett won his battle against the NFL or stayed put at Ohio State. I wonder what would have happened had he not been afraid of flying and signed with his out-of-state favorite, Texas, or one of his other finalists: Notre Dame, Miami, Tennessee. He would have been a senior this year.

Marcus also considered Miami and Tennessee, as well as Virginia. What would have happened had he chosen to step outside Michael's considerable shadow? What would have happened had Michael, trying to be a good brother, not spoiled Marcus by giving him a Cadillac Escalade for his freshman season?

I hope Vick and Clarett figure it out, especially Clarett, who doesn't have a financial security net like Marcus does with Michael. I hope, once their legal issues are resolved, they get another chance to play football.

But whatever happens, I'm not going to judge. That's for someone else to do.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.