In a way, sitting in a movie theater with Maurice Clarett and Jim Tressel for the premiere of ESPN's 30 For 30: Youngstown Boys was surreal. But more so, it was ironic.
Outside of a few media members, ESPN executives, former teammates, and relatives, the only other people in the audience were not fans of Clarett, the public speaker and professional motivator, but rather fans of Clarett, the starting running back of Ohio State's 2002 national championship team.
Or as they're portrayed in the film: the people who were partially responsible for Clarett's downfall.
With its plural title, Youngstown Boys bills itself as a telling of the relationship between Clarett and Tressel, and while that's a crucial part of the narrative, make no mistake about it, this is the Maurice Clarett story.
Although some creative editing is involved -- most notably phony radio calls, out-of-context quotes, and reenactments of Clarett's off-the-field college days -- the film does a great job of painting Clarett as the LeBron James of football in 2002, which he was. And just as they did 11 years ago during the Buckeyes' magical season, the fans in attendance at the premiere erupted during each one of the freshman's beastly runs, from his stellar debut against Texas Tech to his national title-winner against Miami.
But after reliving what was the most impressive season for an Ohio State freshman running back in school history, the movie takes you behind the scenes of Clarett's lone season in Columbus, exploring his infamous ESPN article with Gene Wojciechowski and the controversy before the Fiesta Bowl where he felt he was deceived by Ohio State administrators as he attempted to fly home for a friend's funeral.
From there, begins the downfall, with Buckeye fans bearing part of the blame (in the movie's eyes) for Clarett's rapid ascension to celebrity. The NFL and Andy Geiger also take a shellacking in the film, with the latter being made to look as a vindictive athletic director who was out to ruin the life of a 19-year-old who called him a liar.
Whether the portrayal of Geiger is fair or not is up to you, although my main criticism of the film would be that it failed mention that Clarett lied on a police report after his car was broken into, claiming much more was taken than actually was. That was a fairly prominent reason why he never regained eligibility at Ohio State, and to ignore it is questionable at best in my eyes.
The movie also doesn't mention Clarett's own vindictiveness in 2003, when he attempted to take down the Ohio State program in multiple interviews. That wouldn't change the narrative of the film -- trust me, Maurice The Beast is hardly treated with kid gloves -- but to paint Columbus as a town that chewed him up and spit him up for no reason isn't accurate either.
In the end, however, this is a pretty honest look at one of the most fascinating characters in Ohio State history. Watching those highlights from 2002, you forget just how good he really was, and how much potential was wasted due to a number of different circumstances. Clarett is neither treated as hero, antagonist, or villain, while an explanation of sorts is even offered for Tressel's behavior and ultimate departure from Ohio State.
Youngstown Boys is obviously a can't miss for any Ohio State fan -- for reasons good and bad alike. But given the extraordinary narrative, uplifting ending, and important message about parenting, non-sports fans should enjoy it, just as much.
After watching "Youngstown Boys," I had a full page of my notebook filled with quotes, anecdotes and just plain interesting stuff I had noticed during the film.
Suffice it to say, there's a lot there.
The new documentary (or, to be more honest, film) on the journeys of Clarett and Tressel from Youngstown to Columbus, and then from celebrated to vanished, will definitely raise a lot of emotions out of Ohio State fans, though OSU is not necessarily central to the film.
It's more about life, about how one can achieve success and how quickly it can disappear – and how it can be regained in different ways. It doesn't excuse Clarett's actions that ended in his ultimate prison sentence, but it does show how having something taken away – whether it be football, family or stability – can lead to a downward spiral even for those with so much going for them.
Through it all, it's hard not to like Clarett, from the photos of Maurice the little kid in Youngstown, Ohio, to his present-day status as a motivational speaker and community pillar. A simple reason why? That smile.
He's been vilified through the years, for sure, but I've never got the sense Clarett was a bad person. He made mistakes and missteps, gave in to emotion and depression, desperation and weakness, but underneath it all seemed a person with a lot more good in his heart and mind than evil. When he flashes that smile, it's easy to see his charm.
As for Tressel, the story focuses much more on Clarett than it does "The Senator," but the clips in the early going of the young head coach are certainly worth tuning in for. Seeing a dark-haired Tressel roaming the sidelines at Youngstown State is quite a sight to behold – I could watch just two hours of that alone, to be honest.
I also must point out a few foibles in the screener media was given, which stand out to someone like me who has had a front-row seat to OSU history over the past decade. There is certainly some selective editing, including two old clips of Tressel talking about a stud freshman that was not in fact Clarett but Terrelle Pryor. (How do I know? I was there for both of the quotes, and I didn't cover the team full-time until 2005. In fact, I was but a freshman at OSU during that magical 2002 season). The image of Etienne Sabino and his teammates celebrating the 2010 Rose Bowl win spliced into the images of the '03 national championship celebration is also jarring to say the least.
Putting that aside, there are definitely some interesting parts of the film that stand out. Former Ohio State AD Andy Geiger plays the part of the villain, honestly, as the film portrays him as someone who took his personal issues with Clarett as reason to essentially excommunicate him from the football program. I can't speak for how Geiger handled that episode specifically without getting his side of it, but the Geiger I know is one of the most competent individuals and best people I've met in college athletics.
I had also forgotten about Clarett's famous ties to the "Israeli mafia," including his relationship with convicted racketeer Hai Waknine, who is featured in the film. There is also a cameo from Jim Brown (whose reference to Geiger as a "slave master," one he made at the time in 2003 and repeats in the film, was a tad bit over the top in my book), who mentions he sent his gangsters to Youngstown at one point to see what Clarett was up to after he left football.
But in the end, the story is absorbing and generally comprehensive, and it ends on notes that are both inspiring and heart-tugging. Yes, Clarett's football potential ended up unfulfilled, but it was a heck of a ride while it lasted. And in the end, one of Tressel's last quotes of the film is one that stood out to me.
"Maybe that's why some of his goals didn't come to fruition," Tressel says. "Maybe they were all leading to his greater purpose."
After watching Youngstown Boys, it's hard to disagree.