Probably the most important thing you have to realize about the ESPN film "Youngstown Boys," set to premiere on the network at 9 p.m. Saturday after the Heisman ceremony, is that it almost didn't happen.
Since his release from prison in 2010, Maurice Clarett has become a force for good in the community – going back to college, speaking to youth groups and prison inmates, and holding football camps in an effort to keep people of all ages from making some of the same mistakes he's made.
And he's done a lot of it away from the media spotlight, which is how he generally prefers it to be.
But directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist had an ace up their sleeve when it came to getting Clarett to talk for the project – their prior 30 for 30 film, "The Two Escobars," which is generally agreed upon as one of the top documentaries in the series.
"Initially I didn't want to do anything with the film," Clarett said this week on an ESPN conference call. "You're not sure if the people involved will be responsible with the information that you give them, seeing as it's about your life. But after watching the body of work that they did with ‘The Two Escobars' and after watching the things that they sort of did with us, I loved the film from an artistic standpoint.
"They weren't just set on just slamming somebody. They were just telling an independent story saying, ‘Hey, this is kind of what took place, this is what really went on,' and then the people who will view it can kind of take what they take from it."
The result is a film that traces Clarett's rise from a prep football star in Warren, Ohio, just outside of Youngstown – and what a force of nature he was on the field – to Ohio State star to cautionary tale of just how quickly it can all go away.
Fans will happily remember watching Clarett's exploits in scarlet and likely shake their heads at what might have been as his relationship with Ohio State sours and the bottom falls out for Clarett.
Both Clarett and Jim Tressel – whose rise as the head coach at Youngstown State and eventual fall at OSU somewhat mirrored Clarett's – were interviewed extensively for the film, and both seemed pleased at the result.
"I was very pleased as to what was displayed," Clarett said. "I believe the film kind of transcends me and Coach Tressel. I think it has a lot of things that people can relate to, be it from a coach's standpoint, be it from just a young guy coming from the inner-city standpoint, understanding the relationship between a father and a son, a role model, understanding ignorance, understanding ambition, understanding and allowing yourself to be able to do something great, handling adversity, understanding how drugs and alcohol played a role in my – well, mine individually – but also having somebody in your corner who kind of never gives up on you and will still have a hand out for you after everything you've been through."
Added Tressel: "Yeah, I would say that I thought when Maurice and Jeff and Mike came to me that I was going to just be giving them some sidebar discussion and so forth, and little did I know the dual approach, so I'm humbled and flattered that they would do that."
A Rocky Road
While the film touches on the lives and careers of both Tressel and Clarett, the film essentially follows Maurice from his childhood to his current days in the Buckeye State.
In the film, viewers will see the inner-city Youngstown streets Clarett grew up in. As his mother Michelle tells the story, one night as a youth, Clarett was watching TV when bullets tore through the family's home, with one whistling by just inches from Maurice's head.
It could be a hard place to grow up, but Maurice found his escape in football and training. He was truly a man among boys as a prep player and even stood out physically upon arrival at Ohio State.
What is interesting, though, is that Clarett now looks back upon his football career and wonders if he'd do it all again.
"I don't even know if I would play football now if I had the mind-set I have now," Clarett said. "You need to make decisions to either beat somebody or to hit them with my body. Kind of like that animal nature or the animalistic side of me caused me just to run into people and not care about my body or think I was some tough guy.
"I don't have anger towards anybody (now). I used to have anger towards a lot of things when I was younger, and I'd just channel it and I'd channel all the energy or channel that toughness or that pain and I just deliver it onto people. It was a personal competition for me just to beat on people or to act like I was tougher, but I don't care about that any more. I can't even say I would be the same football player."
Of course, that old anger, that inner passion drove Clarett to be a force unlike many others on the football field. His freshman year of 2002, he was named the starting running back from the first game at Ohio State and then simply went off. He ran for 175 yards and three TDs in the season-opening win vs. Texas Tech and added 230 in a win vs. eventual Rose Bowl participant Washington State two games later.
By the end of the season, despite missing all or part of five games, Clarett had carried the ball 222 times for 1,237 yards (a 5.6-yard average) with 16 touchdowns while adding 12 catches, two of which went for scores.
He did even more than that, though, making the biggest plays in the biggest games. He keyed a tough win at Wisconsin, had a TD run and a huge catch to set up another score in the Michigan win, then ran for two TDs and famously stripped Sean Taylor of an interception in the Fiesta Bowl triumph vs. Miami.
But the storm clouds boiled over a few times, including just before the Fiesta Bowl when he accused Ohio State of not allowing him return to Youngstown to attend the funeral of a childhood friend. The distrust with director of athletics Andy Geiger seemed to spark from there, and it resulted in a confusing, stormy time throughout the summer and fall of 2013 that essentially ended with the superstar excommunicated from the team.
From that point, the film details how Clarett's separation from the football team and Tressel led to a descent that included challenging NFL eligibility rules, his eventual swift exit from the league, a battle with depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and the eventual standoff with police that led to Clarett getting more than three years in prison.
Looking back, Clarett can see how his life spiraled out of control.
"If I could do one thing over, I wish that I could have better control of my emotions when I was younger," he said. "I'm pretty sure everybody wishes they could. But I just understand how many decisions were made based upon emotion and how they affected me throughout my life. … Then again, I probably wouldn't be in this position making this film if I did, to go through and recover from it, to get back to where I'm at right now."
Michelle Clarett noted that Maurice "caught up with himself" while incarcerated, and Clarett himself speaks of how he spent his time in prison working on his mind after years of focusing more on his body. A voracious reader, Clarett brushed up on two subjects in particular – the world of finance and The Bible – and reconnected with Tressel upon his release.
Since then, he has connected with his daughter and has carved out a career for himself as a source of inspiration. He gives speeches at prisons, camps and churches, seeks out youth groups to spread his message, and helped found The Comeback Project, a charitable organization created to "creatively educate urban and inner city kids." The Comeback Project even staged a charity basketball game last spring near Youngstown that featured numerous former OSU football players as well as Clarett and Tressel.
With a large smile and a relatable story, Clarett has found himself helping people of all ages wherever he goes.
"People are people, it doesn't matter the age. Problems are problems," he said. "Some people have different trials at different moments in life. … I see it everywhere I go; it doesn't matter if somebody is older or younger, I connect with them on some level, just based upon seeing so much and experiencing so much and coming through on the other side, so much that people just listen.
"I will say outside of fulfilling or pleasing your family, there's nothing greater than when you look at somebody and you're speaking and you're connecting with them and their eyes are talking to you, like, ‘Hey, I want to listen to what you have to say,' or ‘I'm asking a question to you,' and I know that inside the question that they have been paying attention to what I've been saying.
"They just kind of take that information, they go off and they send you a text message later on and say, ‘Hey, I applied what you said or I applied what you taught me, and it served some benefit towards helping me where I'm at in my life right now.' "
A New Era
Of course, things are much different these days for both Tressel and Clarett from their days at Ohio State.
Tressel is, to some, a leading candidate to become president at the University of Akron, where he currently works as a school executive VP. While he's not in football – though he does stay close to a number of his former coaches and players, even tripping to East Lansing this fall to see 11 of his former players or coaches take part in the Michigan State vs. Purdue contest – Tressel still gets to do many of the things he did while working at OSU or Youngstown State.
"I'm very involved in much of the same things I was doing as a coach – recruiting and advising and counseling, preparing young people for their future, helping them get placed in their future, being there for them as a mentor and giving them guidance and so forth," he said.
"It's a little bit exhausting quite honestly at the university level. I used to only have 100 guys and now I've got about 26,000 students. So I've enjoyed doing this here at the University of Akron because it's exactly what we did for years and years on the football field."
Meanwhile, Clarett has tried to mend fences with Ohio State. He enrolled in classes after his release from prison and continues to pursue a degree. He has been back on campus numerous times, and he was back in the stadium with Tressel a season ago when the 2002 team was honored on its 10-year anniversary during the Michigan game.
"My relationship with Ohio State is cool," he said. "I went back down there this spring. I was down there working with Boom Herron and Beanie Wells, and we were doing a bunch of running back drills, got a chance to go inside the weight room, seeing like the young guys, Carlos (Hyde) and Braxton (Miller) and a lot of those young guys, (Bradley) Roby, and had a chance to do some drills with them this offseason.
"But when the fall came back around, I didn't want to be around all the media attention or be some sort of distraction to what it was they were doing. But a lot of those young guys, they know my number. I call them, I tease them, I text Carlos back and forth, so for the most part it's cool."
And with the perspective he's earned, Clarett is able to enjoy life in a different way now. He spoke to media this week while in New York City to promote "Youngstown Boys," and he was able to come up with an example of just how much his life has changed from its lowest point.
"I'm in Times Square today walking around," he said. "I can't say five or six years I could have just appreciated walking around and seeing people, the different nationalities, just the different culture, just enjoying the snow outside and going to the toy store and seeing the different things. But the struggle or the pain or stuff like that helps you appreciate more. It helps you connect with life on a deeper level outside of the titles or the labels and the accolades and stuff like that. I'm not going to lie to you; that's fun to do, but sometimes you get to a spiritual place where you're happy to be alive, happy to wake up, happy to walk outside, happy to make people smile.
"Those things right there really sing to the tune of where I'm at. Even though I like to enjoy myself and have fun like everybody else, sometimes I'm just happy to be alive."