Clarett's call came two hours before arrest

On possibly his last night as a free man, Maurice Clarett was calling on the telephone. I hadn't seen him or heard from him in a year, not since the Denver Broncos kicked him to the curb, but I was on his list Tuesday night. Along with Jim Tressel and LeBron James and some arena football coach. His list of thank-yous.

I looked at the clock when he called, and it was just past 11 p.m. ET. He told me he was driving somewhere, and along the way his cell phone cut in and out. He wasn't loud or belligerent. Instead he seemed melancholy and possibly drunk.

He started in with his news: He was a daddy. His girlfriend, Ashley, had given birth to a baby girl on July 17 and he claimed it had changed his life. "F--- Ohio State, f--- winning the national championship, it's more cool having her,'' he was saying. He said he'd cry a lot when he held her, and that just the other day in his mom's house, he'd cried four times holding her the same afternoon. He said he'd do anything for that little girl, that he'd go to jail for 30 years for this little girl. It wasn't clear what he meant, although it's starting to get clearer now.

I asked him how he was, and he said he was growing up, taking responsibility for what he'd done. He admitted "money used to be everything'' to him and he said, "Look how cocky I used to be. Life lessons have put me on my ass.'' I'd heard this sort of rhetoric before, from almost every troubled athlete I'd ever interviewed, but then he got me. He got me when he said he wanted to dump his whole story on me, when he said "I haven't done s---. I have done nothing but f------ run a football. Don't confuse yourself. I've done nothing but run a f------ football. Don't try to make it bigger than it is.''

He started in then with his thank-yous. I had written a column in ESPN The Magazine last January, after his initial arrest on burglary charges, outlining his potential drinking problem, steroid problem and self-esteem problem. He said he'd hated that story, that he'd hated me, but he was calling now to thank me, for waking him up to reality. He said he'd been calling a lot of people that day, that he'd called Tressel -- the same coach he'd once accused of giving him cars and grades -- and thanked him, too.

Tressel had reached out to Clarett months before, having asked Buckeyes QB Troy Smith for Clarett's cell phone number. They had talked, and Tressel had offered to do all he could for him, and now -- late Tuesday night -- Clarett was saying, "Me and [Tressel] have become cool again. I was talking to Jim Tressel earlier, and said, 'Thank you for being real.' He's been real to me, and I've been real to myself. I don't run from nothing anymore.''

He said he'd also called his old high school buddy LeBron James that day -- who knows if it's true, considering LeBron's playing ball overseas -- and that there were more calls to make. It was almost midnight ET by then, but now Clarett was starting to ramble, starting to sound a little skittish, a little paranoid.

He wondered if someone was overhearing the conversation, if someone might be listening. Was he being followed?

Who knew Clarett had an assault rifle with him the whole time? Or a 9mm gun between his legs? Or that he had a hatchet? Who knew the next morning I'd wake up and hear he was under custody on alleged weapons charges, that he'd been Maced and tasered, that he'd been wearing a bulletproof vest, that he'd probably been wearing it as we spoke?

His attorney, Mike Hoague, came out Wednesday and said that Clarett has recently received death threats, verbal and written, and, suddenly, his pattern of behavior all seemed to make more sense. The people who know him say he's been alternately strong and unstable recently, that the stress of his court case and his baby girl and his uncertain future have him all over the emotional map.

Does someone really want to hurt him? Is someone bugging his phone? Or is he just delusional? Whichever, you've got to go back to last year, to the mess of Los Angeles.

After Ohio State booted him out of school, he went to L.A., where he befriended members of the rap community, manager types. They liked Clarett; he had an easy giggle, and a face they'd seen in the Fiesta Bowl end zone. He was their ticket to the world of sports, and they were his ticket to a lush lifestyle. Hell, he was broke, and they were driving BMWs and living in beachfront property. This was right up Clarett's alley.

He was one of these kids who'd always looked for shortcuts. His mom, Michelle, had worked long hours at a Sears in Youngstown, Ohio, just to support her family, but he found out early that football brought him all the love and cash he could handle. A caterer named Bobby Dellimuti provided a car, and other amenities, and soon, according to Clarett, Ohio State coaches and boosters had done the same. Clarett wasn't too proud to have his hand out. It's who he was.

But in L.A., it was the last thing he needed. He was spotted driving a 745 BMW and living in a mansion, when he should've been training for the NFL. The people in the rap world were sponsoring him, figuring he'd bring them back millions after he went in the first round, but what did they know? Did they know his 40 time?

The first trainer they hooked him up with, in the fall of 2004, was Chad Ikei, out of Arizona. Clarett was 256 pounds by then. A two-hundred-and-fifty-six-pound tailback! And he had the most peculiar work habits.

"He actually wanted me to shut the gym down, so nobody could train when he was training, so he could focus and get in his intensity level, and all that,'' Ikei told me earlier this year. "I'm like 'You going to tell Coach Green someday at the Arizona Cardinals that nobody can work out when you're working out?' ''

His insecurity was mind-boggling. The harder Ikei pushed Clarett, the more Clarett sulked, and, ultimately, he quit.

"The day he quit, we were on a high school track," Ikei said. "He ran one lap, and these kids came out for PE class, and he was like, 'I'm not running in front of all these kids. It's embarrassing.' I said, 'What do you mean? For what? Who cares? He was like, 'Well, baseball season's not in, football season's going on right now, I'm too short and stocky to be a basketball player, so obviously these kids are going to know I'm not playing in the NFL or I'm not doing anything important.' I'm like, 'Who cares?'

"I told him right there, 'No one knows who you are here anyway. So who cares?' He was like, 'No, no, no.' And what made it worse, though, was when we were leaving, these two or three kids came running all the way out to the parking lot. 'Mr. Clarett, Mr. Clarett, can we get your autograph? And he smiles and signs these pieces of paper and then turns to me and is like, 'Well, you said nobody knows me. These people knew me.' I'm going 'The only reason they know you is because you're on ESPN f------ everything up for Ohio State and everybody else.' "

So Clarett quit right then and there. "Maurice was like, 'Just give me what David Boston was getting, and I'll do whatever,' " Ikei says. "He wanted an easy route out. I said, 'You want David Boston's trainer? Here's the guy's number.' "

So Clarett quickly switched to Boston's guru, Charles Poliquin, who denies supplying Clarett with HGH or steroids. (Boston has been suspended by the NFL after testing positive for steroids). Poliquin and Clarett teamed up for six weeks in Phoenix, but it fell apart when Clarett wanted to move back to L.A., back closer to his rap friends.

"I don't know why, he was living nice in Phoenix,'' Poliquin told me earlier this year. "They gave him the latest Beemer. Whoever was sponsoring him was giving him a real nice, plush life. He was driving better cars than five-year veterans of the NFL. I told his people, 'Make the guy take the bus and stay at Motel 6.'

"And he partied too much, oh yeah. When he didn't report back after the Christmas holidays, we found out he was drunk as a skunk in New Orleans. We kept calling his people, 'When is he going to be back? When is he going to be back?' Because he's the type of guy, if you're not on his ass every day, he'll gain three pounds of fat a day. But there's not a lot of guys that want to play pro football when they have a team of money men backing them up. I mean, he was living in Malibu. Right on the beach. You walked out of the house, and there you were on the beach. I've been to the house. It's a nice place. The guy owned like 10 cars and said, pick whatever car you want.

"And he was training at, I don't know, L.A. Sports Club. One of those stars, rich-and-famous gym. Which I told him you can't train [there]. It's a gym for the young and pretty, but you can't get strong, you know. When I was there, there were a bunch of guys from the TV series '24,' and actors and rappers. I would say Maurice was a classic case of Hollywood fever. Among the rich and famous, and he thought he was there with 'em.''

By the 2005 NFL Combine, Clarett was too slow to turn any heads, and his only blessing was that Broncos coach Mike Shanahan was arrogant enough to think he could save him. Shanahan thinks the system makes the back, instead of vice versa, so he picked Clarett in the third round and found out the hard way.

The minute Clarett arrived in Denver, the team began to sour on him. At the airport, before flying from Colorado to the rookie symposium, he frantically called the Broncos, saying he'd left a brief case in his airport limo. But there was no brief case in there, just a water bag he always carried around. That's all right, he said, he wanted it.

He would take that water bottle everywhere, including the Bronco weight room, and the team started getting suspicious when, before minicamp practices, he'd grab the bottle and say, "I gotta get my Goose on.'' It wasn't a joke; the Bronco players were convinced he was chugging Grey Goose.

There was another incident at the team hotel, where he was accused of making sexual comments toward a guest. He denied it, but it didn't help that he had also begun alienating members of the Broncos staff. That summer, after minicamp, he had missed a weight-lifting session with the team's strength coach of 11 years, Rich Tuten, and he and Tuten had then engaged in a profane shouting match. Offended by it, Clarett marched into GM Ted Sundquist's office and demanded that Tuten be fired. When Sundquist refused, Clarett -- who hadn't even signed a rookie contract yet -- asked to be traded.

By this point, the Broncos were wary of him. They offered Clarett a $416,000 signing bonus, but only if the contract had default language. But Clarett, against the advice of Clarett's former agents, Steve Feldman and Josh Luchs, turned it down. Feldman and Luchs -- who now, as agents for Gersh Sports, represent the Broncos' new star rookie RB, Mike Bell -- implored Clarett to take the signing bonus, but Clarett wanted to replace it with an incentive package that would pay him first-round money if he rushed for 1,000 yards in multiple seasons. It was his ego talking. Clarett even wanted Pro Bowl language. It was a reach, and if he got cut, he wouldn't see a penny. Obviously, the Broncos agreed to the deal. And when he spent 18 days nursing a groin injury, they cut him. He never carried the ball in a preseason game.

And now what? He had no money, although he claims he's made some periodic cash doing autograph sessions. His rap friends had financed him, with the idea he'd pay them back with his NFL riches. But there were no riches. He left for his hometown of Youngstown, thinking he'd go to NFL Europe and get himself back on the field, get himself financially liquid. But then there was his New Year's Eve arrest in 2006, and his pending court case. Not a team would touch him. "He'll never play again,'' said a league executive. So how was he going to pay these people back? How much did he owe? Were these people on his back? Were these the threats his lawyer spoke about?

Does this explain the assault rifle? The bulletproof vest? The phone call to me?

They found a half-full vodka bottle in his SUV early Wednesday morning. Grey Goose. Something was driving Maurice Clarett to drink (although police said they did not sense he was intoxicated) and it was obviously on his mind Tuesday night. He said his thank-yous to me, to Tressel, to LeBron, and after he hung up with me, he called his newest football coach, Jim Terry.

Terry is the head coach and owner of the Mahoning Valley Hitmen of the Eastern Indoor Football League. This isn't even arena ball, it's minor league arena ball. And this was the only team on earth that wanted Maurice Clarett.

According to Terry, Clarett was on the phone with him at about 1 a.m, a half hour after I was on the phone with Clarett and two hours before the gun arrest in Columbus. Clarett was very likely thanking Terry, too, thanking him for being the last football coach on earth to take a chance on a has-been from Ohio State.

So it all makes sense, all the contriteness, all the thank-yous, all the quasi-goodbyes. If someone was coming after Maurice Clarett, that meant someone was coming after his baby girl. And if someone was coming after his baby girl, he was going to do anything he could to stop it. If that meant carrying four guns and wearing a bulletproof vest, so be it. Maybe, Tuesday night, he knew it was over. Maybe that's why he told me, "I'm a young man going through stress. I'm a person who was scheduled to make millions and didn't make 'em."

The more I think about it, maybe he'd decided Tuesday night was the night to tell everyone how he felt, his last chance for a confessional.

And now he's in maybe the safest, best place for him.

The slammer.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at tom.friend@espnmag.com.