Read Part 1 of Maurice’s autobiographical series here.
When I think back on my freshman year at THE Ohio State University, I can do nothing but smile. I had many ups and few downs during that 13-month time period. I felt like all my childhood dreams had been surpassed and I was riding a wave only a few get a chance to ride.
During my junior year in high school, I researched the idea of attempting to graduate early, because I thought my talent would allow me to succeed at the collegiate level, even at a younger age. Due to a lack of English credits I wasn’t able to complete the task. In hindsight, my not being able to forgo the remainder of my high school career was a great move by the Lord, because what took place in my senior year helped position me to succeed in Columbus.
I can remember my first day of college like it was yesterday. I was placed in a local hotel because my dorm room wasn’t ready. The temperature outside must have been in the single digits, and there was snow all over the ground. My hotel room was about a two-mile walk from campus. On that first day, I bundled up with my best outfit on and froze my ass off as I walked to school. I went to class with the intention of looking at women, but by the time I got there I was more focused on staying warm and thinking about the long walk back. Honestly, I don’t really remember much outside of the cold, but just walking on campus and going to a college classroom gave me a sense of accomplishment.
When I initially came to campus, my mind was set on being the best football player OSU had ever seen. Anyone who knew me at the time would tell you I had a huge ego. I believed in myself that much because I thought that no one had it as rough as I did growing up, so they couldn’t match my hunger to continue to develop as a player. I had come from a neighborhood and city that was filled with murder, robberies, and drug dealing. That reality and the culture hardened me. I knew the opportunity I had. I felt no one around me could match my hunger.
People wear pain on their face. You can see their struggles by looking them in their eyes, and when you capture that energy and direct it to something positive it’s hard to stop them. That was how I saw myself back then. I didn’t see the same “DOG” in the other guys on the team. I was focused and ready to claim my fame. When I first enrolled, all of the things that distract college kids — women, partying, and hanging out late — weren’t a part of my program. I had football on my mind, and nothing was going to distract me from my goals.
I understood that I didn’t have an identity early on, and I knew that being a hard worker was the image and reputation I wanted to portray to my coaches and teammates. I remember thinking that I wanted to be first in all of our drills and the strongest in all of our lifts to create a buzz about myself. I was aware that I had to sell myself to my teammates before I could think of getting on the field. I worked my ass off, and I enjoyed the entire process. When you’re living a dream, the work often doesn’t feel like work. It feels like it’s just a part of the process of success.
I remember prior to spring ball, I told one of my fellow running backs that I would start at tailback by the first game of the season. He was visibly pissed and had a very discomforting look on his face. I didn’t care. I was young, arrogant, and cocky, and everything wrong in regard to being a good teammate. My eyes were set on success, and I looked at him and the rest of the running backs as just another obstacle to overcome. Looking back on it now, it wasn’t the right way to think about being a teammate at OSU. But at the time, that cockiness was what defined who I thought I was and who I wanted to be. I respected all of those guys’ talent, but I felt I was something totally different. I had a combination of size, speed, and strength, and understanding of the game and vision that separated me from the crowd. I just needed the reps on the field. The old saying is that the eye in the sky doesn’t lie, and I couldn’t wait until I was seen on the field.
Spring ball rolled around, and I was excited at the opportunity to see where I stood in the crowd. I was excited I was living a dream and also potentially having a chance to earn a spot that I so desperately wanted. I forgot to tell everyone that I had a cast on my left thumb from an injury I sustained in high school, but that didn’t matter to me much. I just wanted to play ball and live in that moment. I had a belief in my mind that playing with a cast on my hand would show some sort of toughness. I’m not sure if it did or not for the coaches, but it definitely made me feel more heroic.
I can remember getting the garbage reps at practice with the offense. I would be the last running back to get in at practice with the underdeveloped offensive line. In a weird way, I loved practicing like that. I looked at it as me having the opportunity to showcase my natural ability with the third-team line against the first-team defense. (The cool thing about being on scout team or third teams is that you don’t have to follow rules when playing. Your only objective is to make the defense look bad.)
Unfortunately, it took some time for me to showcase any skills. I just showed toughness and I learned how to read busted plays. They kicked the shit out of our underclassmen, but I believe those practices made me a better runner.
At this time, Coach Tressel was really watching me from a distance. He was seeing how I could handle myself. He cared more about the personal development off the field rather than on it. He closely monitored my progress in the classroom, and stayed on top of me to always be caught up on my work. I actually thought that was all he cared about, because he spoke more about character, life, and graduating than ball. My mind was solely on ball.
Coach Tressel was very open in regard to who was where on the depth chart, and it was public information that it was an open competition at running back. I had done enough on the field and in the weight room to keep my hat in that race. So when we opened camp, everyone was awarded reps with the first team, and that was what I wanted. That’s when I felt like I could show how I separated myself. I did a decent job with the backups in the spring, but I knew I could make a stronger case with the first team.
There was one day in camp when I felt good and ready to take my spot. The other guys were just messing up. One running back was fumbling, another had an ankle injury, and it was just me and our third-string running back. We were in a period when we were scrimmaging, and I was in. I believed I ripped off about seven or eight good runs, and everyone knew that I separated myself from the crowd. It was obvious because no one else had moved the ball on our defense. The off-tackle plays that Ohio State uses today were the same plays I had success off of that afternoon.
Coach Tressel called me into his office. He told me I had worked my ass off and deserved to be the starting running back, but that if I wanted to keep my spot, I had to be productive early and often. He told me I would be starting against Texas Tech and that I had three series to showcase my ability. I remember calling all of my friends and family members and telling them to watch. I was happy I was going to be seen on the tube. I could have never imagined what took place that day. I’m sure no one did, but it was my turn once again.
I can remember not having too much success on our first two series, and I remember Tressel telling me that I had only one series left. As fate would have it, I broke a 48-yard run on an off-tackle play. That was when I introduced myself to the world and my life changed forever. I was no longer Reese from Youngstown. I was Ohio State’s freshman tailback.
The first person to try to pull the reins and give me some advice on how to handle my success was Coach Tress. He called me into his office the following Monday and laid out 13 issues that I would face throughout the year, and lord knows that was my sign to avoid all the pitfalls I fell inside. His topics ranged from leadership to teamwork to friends to scheduling time to women, etc., etc., etc. I believe that he knew all of his information went through one ear and out of the other. I didn’t care to hear what he had to say at that time, and in the long run I paid the price. He tried to give me the game plan for success, but I just wasn’t ready. I was caught into the fast life. I was living for the moment, and it felt good.
Everyone needs to put my and Tressel’s relationship in the proper context. He did everything in his power to help me, but I didn’t want to listen. I wanted to be a gangsta playing football who hung out with big crowds and had sex with lots of women. My focus wasn’t set on being a better man. When I got in trouble, he told me to tell the truth to the NCAA, but I didn’t want to. My archenemy at that time was Ohio State’s athletic director, Andy Geiger. Tressel had no power when we won the championship. It was just his second year. He was still adjusting to the fame, like me. Geiger felt as if he had already gotten a championship out of me, and he could win with the other guys. I was accepting illegal benefits, but they certainly didn’t call for the severity of suspension that was imposed upon me. I sparked the fire when I called OSU liars at the national championship game, and when the NCAA came to investigate me, Geiger served me up on a platter. No protection from him. I’ve never had a problem with anyone at Ohio State, only Andy Geiger.
One play I will remember for the rest of my life is the play in which I stripped the ball from Sean Taylor. I can remember Craig Krenzel calling the play in the huddle and I was just thinking, we need to score. I can remember Ben Hartsock telling me about how he was going to run his route, and jokingly telling Craig to throw him a touchdown. We broke the huddle. The ball was hiked. I ran to my blocking assignment, and, in the process, Sean jumped under the route and made a great play. The first thing I thought was to get out of the way, because people will knock the shit out of you on interceptions. Guys look to blindside people.
I saw Sean running down the field, but I also saw how loosely he was carrying the ball. I took a good angle, and he never saw me. I put my arm between the ball and his body and just dropped my weight. To this day, when people ask me about my career at Ohio State, they always ask about that play.
We had an amazing run to the championship, and Coach Tressel and I had a great relationship through it all. He’s the best coach a player could ask for, and he cares more about the man than the football player. His track record speaks for itself. That’s my buddy. I’m glad to have played for him, and I’m proud to have won a championship for THE Ohio State University. I still have pride in the school, and I still love the fact that I’m an Ohio boy.
Everyone wishes things would have played out differently, but they didn’t, and I can live with that. I’m back to being friends with all of my old teammates and coaches, and I’m back to being a responsible father.
I’ll graduate in due time, and I’ll continue to read, write, speak publicly, and be a positive force in any community I reside in. Stay tuned.
Maurice Clarett is a contributor to Grantland. You can read his weekly column at ourbuckeyehub.com. Follow him on Twitter: @reeseclarett13.
Previously from Maurice Clarett:
A Life in Two Parts: Part One
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