Lost And Turned Out

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: September 3, 2007

PHILADELPHIA — “With the first pick of the 2006 NFL Draft, the Denver Broncos select Maurice Clarett, running back from Ohio State University.

The scene in New York City was awash with well-wishers and camera flashes, as the young man steps to the podium for the obligatory pose with outgoing NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Surrounded by family, the young man trades the scarlet and gray for the navy blue & orange colors of the Broncos’ cyber-steed.

Given the reputation head coach Mike Shanahan has for creating 1000 yard backs thanks to Denver’s controversial blocking schemes, it would seem Clarett had lucked up and fell into a perfect situation.

That was one scenario as to what could’ve happened to Maurice Clarett, had he simply stayed in school. Any school. But the kid screwed up big time,

Now before you think I’m looking to go stone cold Stankonia on this dumb-dumb, you need to understand what lies beneath. “And what lies beneath,” says sports producer Patric Fharah, “is a whole lotta money.”

In 2002, Ohio State University, in great part through the efforts of the then freshman Clarett, wins the national championship — and a $10 million-plus payday for the school.

Clarett contemplates challenging the NFL’s draft eligibility rule by applying for the 2003 Draft as a sophomore-eligible. The League, for its own reasons, won’t accept anyone who has not completed three years of eligibility or is aged 21 or older.

While there have been star players who have come to the League with less than three years of college (Joe Horn, Juran Bolden, Herschel Walker) and no years of college (Eric Swann) they made stops in other leagues (Canadian Football League, Arena Football, United States Football League) before entering the NFL.

Fharah, who played his collegiate career at Ohio State under celebrated curmudgeon Woody Hayes in the 1960s, bleeds the school’s colors (scarlet and silver gray) but his heart bleeds cherry Kool-Aid for Clarett. “Why would this kid think for one moment he could challenge the NFL?”

“He had a great freshman year, but nothing as awesome as to imply dominance or a man-among-boys kind of presence. This is a perfect example of good intentions mixed with bad advice.”

While Clarett’s gesture may have ideally touched on labor issues in the only major sports league that has a defined policy regarding eligibility, Fharah says this was not the time, place nor person. “So this kid wants to challenge the ultimate boys’ club (NFL) with an inference that you will step to them and dictate your future? That’s a bad move, man.”

If Clarett’s advisors attempt to make this a right-to-work case, they (the League) will find a way to punish this kid.” Almost immediately, the ugliness popped through like a zit on prom night.

Clarett put Ohio State’s business out on Front Street, alleging illegal payments and perks beyond what should be issued a student-athlete. Business as usual on the campuses of many football factories back in the day, but in the ESPN-fishbowl of modern media, a kiss of death for any kid that has outlived his usefulness.

Because the NCAA can’t snatch back monies acquired in bowl games from schools on bowl games, Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger knew he had gotten “ovah like like a fat raaaatttt.”

Figuring he wasn’t in jeopardy because the school wouldn’t have to return any of that bowl game cash, Geiger put the hammer down on Clarett, suspending him.

But Clarett did not go quietly, as some of the crap he threw out there stuck on Geiger. Citing “personal reasons”, Geiger would resign his post months later.

Out in limbo with a pending legal challenge to those who would one day be a potential employer and cast out from school, Clarett had a lifeline of sorts indirectly tossed to him from Louisiana.

Doug Williams, Super Bowl MVP and executive with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, suggested Clarett could begin anew at Grambling State University. “Actually, that suggestion got me in trouble with the NCAA,” said Williams.

Williams, who coached at his alma mater from 1998 to 2003, said everything began rather innocently. “During a press conference, a reporter brought up the Clarett situation — implying that having a player of his caliber would be a major upgrade to our running game.”

“I had several player uniform jerseys with me, and one of them just happened to be same number (13) as Clarett wore at Ohio State. So I jokingly held up a No. 13 Grambling jersey and said ‘heck, we’ve got a jersey all ready for him!”

“Somebody among the press corps ran with that, and a couple days later, the NCAA’s knockin’ on the door talking about tampering,” Williams said.

Jokes aside, Williams admits getting Clarett would’ve been a coup. “Hell, yeah — with someone like that we’re a better team, but, in addition, the young man gets an education.”

And, for many Black athletes, an education at an HBCU offers perks not found at other Division I schools. “The support system at a school like Grambling would’ve saved Maurice Clarett irreparable harm,” concludes New York draft expert Bill Chackes.

“From as far back as the early 1970s, players from Black schools were more well-rounded and seemed to handle life away from football better than those who played at Division I schools. That still exists today.”

“At those schools, you can’t bullshit your way on the field. You had to hit the books, or you didn’t hit the field. When you consider this long-standing mentality helped to fuel the old AFL through players like Buck Buchanan, Robert Brazile, Emmitt Thomas and Winston Hill runs today with the recently retired Jerry Rice and Tyrone Poole, it’s a testimony to what those historically Black schools can offer.”

So, understanding this concept, why aren’t more talents like Clarett in HBCU’s? “Greed, brother — pure and simple,” said Williams. “ A scholarship in-state to Grambling is about $7,000.”

“For someone out-of-state, it’s $12,000. You have parents who come in telling their kid has an offer to go somewhere else where it’s a $25,000 scholarship, and they tune out what there is to offer.”

But what happened to getting a kid an education?

“Man, some of these parents, they’ve got dollar signs in their own eyes, worrying more about how often the school will be on TV for bowl games than what major their kid’s going to take”, Williams added. “ You can talk about support systems, but unfortunately, too many other folks are just thinking about support.”

And when parents start buying that shit, any young man’s ass is in serious trouble! Because others come around, blowing smoke up their ass about how great they are and dreaming about the long green they will make in the pros.

As need for a specific position increases, so does the pressure to leave early and cash in. For the past decade, over 40 undergraduates have left school early to declare their eligibility for the NFL Draft each year. Of the eight to 10 that get the desired bonus loot, many are scratching for crumbs, and have lost their eligibility.

“Camp meat” is a phrase used to describe those free agent tryout players who are just starting or came from other leagues looking to step up. Beyond the star and veteran players, these guys will make like crabs in a barrel for that most valued consolation prize; an NFL roster spot, and a minimum average salary of approximately $225,000 for a rookie.

Remember: The president of the United States makes $400,000.

And what of Clarett? He’s doing hard time — arrested for robbing someone of their cell phone. A plea deal saved him from a longer sentence, but carrying a concealed weapon, robbery and resisting arrest in the new world of Roger Goodell could be the kiss of death for a career.

Clarett rolled the dice and turned down guaranteed money — a $350,000 bonus after being selected by the Denver Broncos in the third round of the 2005 Draft, the last selection of Day One that year, confident that his additional monies for making the squad would happen for him.

For all the numbers that get tossed around in sports contracts, when it comes to football, the only guaranteed cash a player gets is bonus money upon signing, if offered — any other incentives are contingent on making the team.

If you don’t make the team, your contract becomes as valuable as a roll of Charmin. Most early round selections are considered mortal locks to secure a roster spot, but Clarett was released two weeks before the 2005 season, and did not get picked up on waivers by another club.

No agents, no fans, no jock-sniffers; not a soul in sight.

Did anyone say support system?