This is the first of a two-part series by Maurice Clarett on his childhood, his high school years, and his experiences at Ohio State and beyond. Part 2 will run later this month.
When I was a young boy growing up, I had a dream like every kid. I never could imagine that what I was doing in the front yard would land me at Ohio State, the NFL, or in the UFL. I can remember using my toys as football players and playing games on my bedroom floor. I can remember playing team football with friends from around the neighborhood and emulating players we had seen on television. I remember watching guys like Earnest Byner, Thurman Thomas, Emmitt Smith, and Deion Sanders. I also remember getting on my knees and playing carpet football in my mother’s living room with my brothers when I couldn’t go outside. Lord knows she would have whupped us if she ever found out. Sorry, Moms.
My first memories of organized football came from my Little League football team. I started in 1989. Our team was called the Little Braves. Our colors were orange and blue. I loved every second on that team. My first position was strong safety. I don’t remember if I got any playing time or not, I just remember coaches yelling and the players drumming beats on their pads as a way to pump us all up. I’m not sure if either the yelling or the beating on our thigh pads helped us on the field, but the adrenaline sure felt good.
As a Little Leaguer, I played strong safety, linebacker, nose tackle, tight end, and fullback, but I never played running back. Back then, I was a fat kid who loved to eat. My positions switched as my appetite changed. I don’t know if the diversity of positions played helped me be a better running back, but I had a wonderful Little League football experience. I won a lot of games, made a lot of friends, and played a lot.
It was when I transitioned to junior high that I first became a running back. It wasn’t out of choice, either, it was through circumstance. We didn’t have enough guys to practice in all the positions. So it was at practice one day that the coach asked me to just fill in. As they say, the rest was history. I had two great seasons as a running back in junior high and my identity in football was formed. I was a big, hard-nosed runner who just made plays.
Now, there were a lot of off-field issues that made my transition to high school a nontraditional one. I got arrested as a juvenile multiple times. Prior to my finishing the eighth grade, I was arrested and on the verge of being sent away for a year because of a breaking and entering charge. I was always looking for respect from the older guys in my neighborhood, and this seemed to be a prime opportunity. We basically picked out the house in our neighborhood that we thought had the most money and broke into it. To our surprise, the owner of the home was in the house, and the crime didn’t go as planned. I split my head wide open after jumping out of a second-story window headfirst, and eventually got locked up. Little did I know — that event would soon shape my life and reality for years to come.
That crime landed me right back in the Juvenile Justice Center, and if it wasn’t for an officer who worked at the facility who was also a high school coach, I don’t believe things would’ve shaped up the way they did. He intervened with the judge and asked her if she could put me on house arrest. He would serve as my mentor. A condition of the agreement was that I would have to go and lift weights and attend the school where he coached. And for a while that’s what I did. He would either come and pick me up or I would get a ride to his school, and I would just work out and he would talk to me about life. The obvious thing that he spoke on was my ability to play ball and how my talent could birth a new reality for myself. He spoke about hanging out around positive people and taking advantage of my talent. He knew that guys get caught up in the streets. I appreciate his advice now just as much as I did back then.
But like everything else in my life at that time, things got weird. When it was time for me to enroll for the school year, I found out that I wasn’t in the appropriate school district to attend the school. And at that moment he advised me to not attend Youngstown inner-city schools in fear that I might backslide. Out of respect, I enrolled at a suburban school.
The school was called Austintown Fitch. It was predominantly white, which was a change of pace for me. Up until that point I had been in schools where the majority was black. The changes were not just on a social level, but also on an economic and a physiological level. But, nonetheless, I was getting a new start at life, so all that was minimized to a large degree.
When I arrived during the last part of the summer, I attended workouts with the team. I felt like I had to prove myself because of my circumstances, and when every opportunity presented itself, I made the most of it. Like most high school teams, the freshmen are targeted. They are the newcomers or weak links and are tested on the field. They didn’t realize it then, but I knew they wanted to put me in my so-called place because I was rumored as the freshman who could “really play.”
Now it was time for the season to roll around, and I had made my mark. I was a legit backup for our starting running back and an alternate on most special teams. Being a backup in a lot of areas almost guarantees playing time, and I was happy with that. But I never could predict how things would change so quickly. My future changed with a kickoff return. It was the third quarter, and I was asked to go in for the first time. I was the deep kick returner, and as fate would have it the ball was kicked to me. I received the ball and just ran to daylight. I ended up returning the ball 78 yards, and at that moment I knew they would put me in at running back.
The next series, I got in at running back and had a decent day. I had about 30 yards on six carries. When I left the field, the coaches seemed to be extremely excited. I could see it in their eyes that they knew they had a star. Even at a young age I knew how to read people. Body language never lies.
The next week, we played a school by the name of Youngstown Rayen. At practice that week I was told that I would get some playing time at running back, so I was pumped. When it came to game day, all I could think about was the game. I envisioned myself scoring touchdowns. I envisioned fans screaming, and I envisioned me being the sole reason we were winning. It sounds very selfish now, but those were my thoughts. And as the day rolled on, that’s all that went through my mind.
So as the clock ticked and the day passed, opportunity met preparation, and luck happened. It was the second series that I got in the game. I wasn’t nervous because nobody expected much out of me.
I can’t remember the first play, but what I do remember is that I gained yard after yard after yard. I can remember the fans screaming and my teammates patting me on my head. I knew right then that I was the new name on the scene, and I wasn’t going to allow anyone to take that away from me. Most people didn’t understand that I was in disbelief of what had just taken place, and they couldn’t understand the circumstances I had just come from. The moment of me playing well was a feeling I believe I experienced alone.
I took that energy and that opportunity and in my next game I exploded on the scene and broke the single-game rushing record with 248 yards. It was then that I realized I had a gift to play ball. I made defenders miss. I broke through tackles. I pass-blocked well, and I caught every pass that was thrown to me. I still get a kick to this day from that performance.
My fate changed the very next week. We played a team in the Northeastern Ohio area. It was raining all day. I didn’t wear the appropriate cleats, and as a result I couldn’t make the cuts I wanted. On a toss sweep to the right, our quarterback pitched me the ball, and I began to run as fast as I could to stretch the defense. When I saw the crease I wanted to run through, I tried to plant my right foot. I slipped and my ankle just popped. A defender then jumped on that ankle trying to tackle me.
I felt a pain that I never felt before, and right then and there I knew I was done for the season. I got up off the field with the help of trainers and players, and I just felt miserable. I felt as if I was worthless. I also felt I was letting my team down, because I couldn’t assist them anymore, at least on the field. As we boarded the bus after the game, I just remember me sitting alone thinking, What am I going to do now? It’s not very encouraging to know you won’t be playing anymore. And on top of that, it’s not encouraging to have to watch practice and games, because the reality of not playing is depressing.
But the show had to go on, and my reality had quickly changed. I was put on crutches and in a cast. I had to take them everywhere I went, and that was a job in itself. I did rehab day in and day out trying to get ready for basketball season, and I just kept my focus there. When rehab started to improve, I asked the coaches if I could be a ball boy as a way for me to be involved in some capacity.
I had been watching the news and reading the newspaper, and a school by the name of Warren Harding was doing outstanding. They were ranked in the top 25 in the country and were sending players to big-time colleges. Those two facts sparked a plan to get noticed by their coaches. What better way to get next to them than to be a ball boy? I knew our coaches would be occupied with the game when we played Warren Harding, and I knew that I would have an opportunity to network.
The night we finally played Warren Harding, it was very cold. Our team’s spirit was down — most of the players just wanted to get the season over with. I was anxious for the game to start so I could ask their coaches directly about how I could transfer. And when I finally did, I wasted no time. I was recruiting myself.
I talked to coaches, players, and anyone who would listen. The coaches ignored me, but the players helped me out. Once I had gotten what I needed as far as contact information, my decision was made. It was more of a “when” rather than an “if.” At the end of the game I was looking forward to the next season already. It wasn’t that I hated the school I attended, but I just didn’t think it was the best fit for me at that particular time.
I left Austintown Fitch midway through basketball season. I tried to stick it out through the basketball season, but my mind, body, and spirit didn’t want to wait any longer. There wasn’t anything wrong with the coaches, players, or community. It was just me feeling like I needed to be in a different organization to meet my personal goals as a ballplayer.
I loved the structure and the camaraderie between all the players and staff at Warren Harding. It was run and felt like an elite high school program. The detail in 7-on-7 passing camps, recruiting, weight-room work, speed work, classroom work, and just overall maintenance of athletes was phenomenal. My decision was a great one, and I was happy I moved.
The offseason had come to an end, and it was time to play ball. I felt prepared, and that was all that mattered. I had spent time getting to know my teammates off the field, and I felt comfortable with them on it. So when the game started, I was ready to go. I don’t remember all the details but I do remember these numbers: 180 yards and 6 touchdowns.
I had success early at Warren Harding, but I was beginning to learn more about the actual game of football from the shoulders up. It just wasn’t me running off of instinct. The teams we played were too good just to beat them off of instinct. It took knowledge of the game and understanding of defensive fronts and blitzes to have a good chance to win on offense. And when we lost, it was usually because we didn’t execute well in a few of those areas. Elite programs are programs that go above and beyond in teaching the nuances like that to high schoolers.
I learned that playing all the way through the fourth quarter mattered. I realized how turnovers affected the game and how special teams could decide a game. There were just so many circumstances I had never been in before that I was in that season that affected my growth. I can look back now and see how they all played a role.
With all the success I had in my previous seasons, I was heavily recruited. But prior to my senior season I decided to go to Ohio State, and that was heavily because of Coach Tressel. Not a lot of people know, but Ohio State never offered me a scholarship before I committed. Sounds crazy, but I actually called them and told them, “I’m coming.” I knew they would get around to recruiting me, but I just killed the entire process and called them myself.
A lot of pressure was taken off of me going into my senior season because I had made my decision on where I was attending school. It made it easy to relax, focus, and concentrate on the season rather than try to keep impressing teams and keep going through the recruiting process. The phone calls and entire process can become overwhelming to anyone. I was happy and comfortable with my decision, and I thank God to this day that I’ve always had the ability to be comfortable with all choices I make.
Now, everyone knows, or at least I think they should know, that I was the first player to popularize the graduating-from-high-school-early trend. It was a choice I made by just wanting to start early. I had investigated the process my junior year, and I made sure I took the appropriate classes to make it happen. I wanted to be involved in spring ball because I felt if I knew the system at Ohio State early, then I would have a great shot at playing. It’s not to say the guys who were there weren’t good, but I knew my skill set and body type fit Ohio State football. The only thing missing was the knowledge of the game.
Stay tuned to Grantland for part two of Maurice’s autobiographical series.
Maurice Clarett is a contributor to Grantland. You can read his weekly column at ourbuckeyehub.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @reeseclarett13.