COLUMBUS, Ohio — The NFL’s rookie symposium returns to Northeast Ohio later this month, bringing every drafted rookie together for three days of life and business lessons the league hopes can help the players avoid squandering the opportunities professional football success can bring them.
Eight years after he attended the symposium as a Denver Broncos rookie “and didn’t listen to a thing,” this year’s symposium is going to bring Maurice Clarett back home, too, as a guest speaker. His is the story the league wants to help these players avoid.
Cut before his NFL career really started, Clarett’s spiral included problems with alcohol and an arrest in Columbus near the Ohio State campus with multiple firearms. Clarett pleaded guilty in 2006 to aggravated robbery and carrying a concealed weapon and served more than three years in prison.
The only football he’s played since helping Ohio State win the national championship in 2002 came with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League. Now 29 and back in Columbus, Clarett said he’s clean, happy and anxious to come to Aurora, Ohio later this month to speak at the rookie symposium.
“I understand that what I have to share is a national story of success and failure — great failure in a very public way,” Clarett said. “It’s a story of redemption right now. Going to the symposium, I can identify with a lot of those guys. I don’t know if they know my story or not, but I know a lot of them grew up with nothing. I know they’re getting money for the first time and they have everybody they’ve ever known trying to get their hands on it.
“These guys are 21 and 22 and they’re now the head of the household. They’re not used to that. They were college stars whose only responsibility was to show up to lift and practice. If anybody knows what it’s like to throw it all away, it’s me. And now to have a stage and a spotlight to reach somebody before he does something near as stupid as the things I did, it’s a privilege.”
Given Clarett’s struggles and bizarre post-Ohio State journey, he makes an ideal choice for the NFL and the purpose of the symposium. He said the opportunity to speak at the symposium came about, at least indirectly, through his past experiences, too.
Deana Garner is now the NFL’s director of player security services. In her previous role at the NCAA, Garner investigated Clarett and the improper benefits case that followed his departure from the school. Clarett said he talked to Heather Lyke Catalano, a senior associate athletics director for sport administration at Ohio State, this spring and that she contacted Garner to discuss the possibility of having Clarett at the symposium.
Of Catalano, Clarett laughed and said, “I caused her so many problems when I was there.” Now, she’s helped give him the chance to continue to share his story of working to overcome them.
“From age 14 on, that prison stint is the most time I ever spent in one place,” Clarett said. “I was never in a good place mentally when I was younger. I was always involved with people and things I shouldn’t have been. I was a mess, really, but the fact I was good at football always seemed to cover that up.
“Prison gives you time to think about that stuff. It gave me time to realize how much I gave away and how stupid I was.”
It was eight years ago that Clarett attended the rookie symposium, which was held that year in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“It seems like a lifetime ago,” he said. “I don’t remember much about my specific symposium experience. I could guess that I was tuned out. Mentally, I was not in good shape back then.”
Like this year’s event, the 2005 symposium was held in late June. Two months after, Clarett was released by the Broncos and never played in a regular-season NFL game. Another problem child from the NFL’s class of 2005, current Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, addressed his struggles to rookies at the symposium last year.
Jones got the second chance never got, but Clarett holds no ill feelings about that.
“Maurice Clarett was a toxic name, and that’s my fault,” Clarett said. “No one to blame but myself. I’m glad (Jones) got his shot. Other guys, too. Right now I’m rooting for JaMarcus Russell in his comeback.
“Everybody has demons. Everybody makes mistakes. People deserve second chances, and guys who have the ability to play football but screw it up deserve the same second opportunities if they do right.
Speaking engagements are paying Clarett’s bills right now. He declined to talk much in detail about his past transgressions or how he’ll share them due to a contract he has regarding an upcoming documentary on his struggles, but in an interview late last week he said he’s “extremely excited” by the opportunity to speak at the symposium. He said he did a speaking engagement shortly after being released from prison and “it clicked immediately.”
“I never script anything,” Clarett said. “I share my story, my feelings, where it went wrong. I take questions from the audience and I want questions. I want people to ask anything they want to ask, and I hope somewhere in my answer or my message is something that can help somebody go the right way.”