Former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett had a simple message to students Thursday at the Ohio Union.
“Be mindful of who you are around,” Clarett said.
Speaking to an audience of more than 500 in the Archie Griffin Grand Ballroom, the former Buckeye star discussed the troubles that derailed his promising football career and the effort he is making to restore his reputation.
“My intention is to connect with them spiritually,” Clarett said. “If I can say something that makes you challenge your old way of thinking, or that’s thought-proving, or makes you view something a little different … it’s all good.”
A key member of the 2002 National Champion football team in what would be his only collegiate season, Clarett stumbled in his attempt at an NFL career. He was then arrested on gun and driving charges in August 2006, spending three and a half years in prison before being released April 7, 2010.
While in prison, Clarett said he rehabilitated himself to lead a life of integrity. Now he tours schools, churches and businesses, telling his story in an effort to help others learn from his mistakes and make better choices.
Clarett began the hour-long conversation by detailing his childhood in Youngstown, Ohio, where he watched his oldest brother Michael — whom he looked up to as a father figure — sell drugs. Maurice Clarett said his perception of what it meant to be a man was based on his brother, and that led him to start selling drugs when he was in the seventh grade.
Clarett led a life of drug trafficking and burglarizing cars and homes while he developed into a star running back in high school. He would go on to win the USA Today Offensive High School Player of the Year and “Parade” All-American honors in 2001, his senior year at Warren G. Harding High School.
Despite experiencing success and attaining fame for his football achievements, Clarett cited poor role models and the desire for approval from his friends as the reasons for pursuing criminal activities.
“The inner city culture at large is kind of raised backwards,” Clarett said. “We’re mentored, we’re encouraged to do stupid things to gain notoriety amongst our friends, but in the long run you’re really walking down the road of destruction … you’re destroying yourself with the habits that you make.”
During his freshman year at OSU, Clarett continued to get in trouble on and off campus. Although a campus investigation did not find sufficient evidence of academic misconduct, the story of a teaching assistant’s allegations against Clarett was featured in The New York Times. OSU suspended Clarett from athletics for the 2003 season for filing a false police report and was subsequently dismissed from the university for misleading federal investigators and accepting thousands of dollars of illegal benefits.
Clarett said it was during his time as a student in Columbus that he first began to look back on his life and realize the error of his ways, but he would make his most consequential mistakes in 2006.
After being drafted in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos, Clarett was cut on Aug. 28 before the regular season even started. Just a few months later, he was arrested for two counts of aggravated robbery committed Jan. 1, 2006. On Aug. 9 of that year, Clarett was involved in a police chase while carrying several loaded weapons in his SUV.
His convictions resulted in a seven and a half year prison sentence, with the ability to apply for early release after three and a half.
While in prison, Clarett decided to leave his criminal past permanently and restructure his life. “Prison was kind of the best thing that ever happened to me,” Clarett said. “Because I was able to catch up with myself.”
Clarett said he hopes that his message reaches children who might be surrounded by bad influences. “I’m hoping that they can just understand that basically you can pick yourself up,” he said.
Many elementary school children were in attendance, as groups from multiple Columbus City Schools listened to Clarett speak.
The event, put on by the Bell National Resource Center, was structured as a conversation between Clarett and Dr. Robert A. Bennett III, Special Assistant to Associate Provost in Diversity and Inclusion as well as Program Specialist in International Affairs at OSU.
Dr. Bennett said the event was initially supposed to include a screening of the 2013 ESPN 30 for 30 documentary film “Youngstown Boys,” which features Clarett, his family and former OSU football coach Jim Tressel.
“It seemed a bit long to have that and a discussion afterwards, so we figured we’d just field questions and have a conversation with him,” Bennett explained.
Bennett said he hopes to bring Clarett in for more work with the Bell Center.
“We wanted this to be a homecoming for him — get him back home, get him amongst the Buckeyes, and go on from there,” Bennett said.
Clarett received a warm welcome from the audience, with loud applause and standing ovations as he entered and exited the stage.
Dr. James L. Moore III, Director of Bell National Resource Center, Associate Provost in Diversity and Inclusion, and EHE Distinguished Professor of Urban Education, said he selected Clarett for the event because of his inspirational redemption story.
“What we’re trying to do is improve the quality of life for black males, and we thought he could serve as an inspiration for some of the young males,” Moore stated.