Troubled back looks forward to starting anew
DENVER – He sat out for two years, sued the NFL and alienated his alma mater. After being regarded as one of the best prospects in the country, he wound up as little more than an out-of-shape curiosity.It’s no wonder Maurice Clarett surprised a lot of people by getting chosen in the third round of the draft. On Sunday, he reported to his new team and his new life, wearing a smile and holding a Denver Broncos jersey.He claimed his troubled past was now “water under the bridge.” He said he would be a model citizen for the Broncos – no holdouts or attitude problems here. Most of all, he said he had been humbled after two years of unseemly turmoil and was glad to be playing football again.”I’d like for, when people say my name, to mention me with the Denver Broncos and not with all the hoopla and everything else,” Clarett said at his introductory news conference.Nobody forgets about past misdeeds more quickly than NFL coaches and scouts in search of talent. The Broncos – especially coach Mike Shanahan and assistant Bobby Turner – were impressed with what Clarett did over his freshman year at Ohio State, along with the way he carried himself during his two years on the sideline.Thus, the first big surprise of draft weekend: Not that Clarett was chosen, but that he was chosen so early, in the third round – pick No. 101 – after most experts had predicted he would go no earlier than in the fifth.”Coach Turner took a gamble on me, as did coach Shanahan, and I don’t want to make them look stupid,” Clarett said.Shortly after Clarett led Ohio State to the 2002 national title as a freshman, his odyssey began.He had a minor scrape with the law. He got in trouble for accepting improper benefits and lying about it to investigators, and Ohio State suspended him for the 2003 season.He sued the NFL, challenging the league’s rule that a player must be out of high school for three years before becoming eligible for the draft. One court ruled in his favor, but a higher court overturned the ruling and two appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court failed to reverse that decision.Another season on the sideline ensued, during which Clarett accused coach Jim Tressel and his staff of arranging for him to get passing grades, cars, and money for bogus summer jobs.Then came the workouts, which were nothing short of disastrous. He clocked times of 4.82 and 4.72 seconds in the 40-yard run at the NFL combine two months ago and was so distraught, he quit in the middle of the workout.At another workout, a few weeks later, he improved on the time, but his reputation was cemented – overweight, too slow and, to top it all off, maybe a quitter, too.”In 2002, he would have been the steal of the draft and today people are surprised he went on the first day,” Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage said when the Broncos chose Clarett. “It’s a story that will be followed for a long time.”In Denver, Clarett has found the perfect place to try to make a comeback, and he has a coach who thinks his experience will work in his favor.”Here’s a guy who’s got his back to the wall,” Shanahan said. “He wants to prove he’s not a one-year wonder and wants to come out and play at that level again.”The Broncos turned Terrell Davis into a star after he languished at Georgia and was picked in the sixth round. Mike Anderson. Olandis Gary. Reuben Droughns. All were afterthoughts in the draft, but all ran for 1,000 yards with the Broncos.None of those players, however, carries the baggage Clarett does.”His thing is going to be a character thing and Mike will handle that,” Lions CEO Matt Millen said.Clarett is, by most accounts, one of the most divisive players in college history.Not only did he try to flout the NFL and its supposedly sacrosanct rule, he also dissed on his alma mater – more than once. The first came before the national title game, when he said “I guess football is more important than a person’s life to them,” because Ohio State wouldn’t let him travel to a friend’s funeral. The second came with the accusations against Tressel.He described his comments as simply a matter of “clearing the air.””My relationship with Ohio State is a good one,” he said.What he really wants to do is wipe the slate clean and start playing football again.As expected, two years away has drastically changed his perspective, helping him learn right from wrong and helping him learn to “mature and grow and accept humility.”He promised he would not be a problem player anymore, said he couldn’t wait to start bonding with teammates again. And if the Broncos tell him he needs to lose weight or run more, he said he’ll do it – no questions asked.”I think it’s a happy ending right now,” Clarett said. “I’m in a great system, with a great team that runs the ball. I’m here, living a dream right now in the NFL.”
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