Maurice Clarett has found a second life in sharing his first
It was a steamy summer night in College Station, Texas, the evening of June 23, but inside Texas A&M’s Bright Football complex, the near triple-digit temperatures were the last thing on anyone’s mind. The 100 or so players on the Aggies’ roster sat in silence as coach Kevin Sumlin introduced the guest speaker.
Everyone knew Maurice Clarett’s name, and the players who were too young to remember him leading Ohio State to the 2003 BCS National Championship game knew his story. They had all seen the 2013 documentary about his life; the one that chronicled his rise to college football stardom, the fall that landed him in prison, and his rise again.
To make sure there was no confusion about how good Clarett once was, A&M director of player development Mikado Hinson popped in a highlight tape from that 2002 season, showing Clarett gashing Miami on the way to the BCS title.
At that point, there was doubt in the players’ minds that Clarett was in fact a "real dude" (as Hinson had earlier told them), but when he got to the podium to speak, no one was exactly sure what he would say. Most assumed he would talk a little bit about football and maybe urge them not to make the same mistakes he made.
That’s exactly how Clarett’s speech opened. Then, it became much more complicated.
He began speaking in the present, looking players in the eyes and asking if they were taking actionable steps right now to improve their lives 40 years down the road. He asked about their academic coursework, whether they were taking easy classes just to get by or classes that might actually give them skills when they stepped into the real world. He asked if they were taking advantage of every opportunity a college campus provides, seeking mentors and knowledge. Did they know that in many cases their scholarships were paid for by local philanthropists? Had they bothered to reach out to the benefactors and ask how they had worked themselves into the positions to provide scholarships?
The players leaned in, engaged, soaking up his every word. One player caught Clarett’s attention, to the point that he called him out in front of the whole team.
In front of the player’s peers, Clarett asked what it took to be a man and whether he wanted to spend the rest of his career at A&M as a leader or a follower. A&M’s players gasped when they heard the questions; not because they were so straightforward but because they had heard the Aggies’ coaching staff ask the team the same questions before.
When the speech was over, the player jokingly went up to Hinson and asked if the coaching staff had put Clarett up to asking those questions.
That assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth; Clarett had not been told anything.
"He thought we had put Maurice up to that," Hinson told FOX Sports earlier this month. "I was like ‘Bro, we didn’t tell him anything.’ That really made it even more real to him because Maurice echoed what we’ve been saying. What the head coach, what the position coach, what the coordinator has been saying all along. It became real."
Oh, it was real, and also shows who the real Maurice Clarett is. No longer is Clarett the troubled former player looking to get back on his feet. He’s the adult who has done it, who is back and ready to make sure the next generation of football players doesn’t make the same mistakes.
In the process Clarett has become one of the most in-demand speakers in all of college football, the guy your favorite coach calls to set his team straight. This summer, Clarett has spoken at Texas A&M, LSU, TCU and Kentucky, with stops at UConn and Alabama last week. This week it’s Florida State. Then, who knows?
It’s all part of the new Maurice Clarett, the former football star who once brought thousands to their feet every Saturday.
Little did anyone know that he would make a much bigger impact off the field than he did on it.
Few are aware of the rebirth of Clarett. The documentary on his life, "The Youngstown Boys," began to tell the story, but in the 18 months since it first aired so much has changed.
Since then, Clarett has begun an entrepreneurial career he hopes eventually will bring dozens of jobs to his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. And his speaking career has done nothing short of take off. When the movie was released, he had only done a handful of speaking gigs, mostly to groups around Ohio. Since, he has spoken to everyone from corporate CEOs to millionaire head-football coaches to prison groups and elementary school students.
It’s been a wild ride for Clarett, but to truly understand where he is now, you first have to know where he came from. And to do that, the best place to start is probably during his time in prison. In 2006, Clarett was sentenced to 7 1/2 years on robbery and concealed weapons charges. And it was during that time that he began to re-evaluate himself and look at the decisions he made that landed him there in the first place.
"I don’t care who you are, nobody plans to go to prison," Clarett told FOX Sports in a recent interview. "When you’re in prison it’s like ‘Hey, how did this thing become what it is?’ At that point you begin to assess your behavior or assess your decision-making, and you correct it. You become self-aware, you set some good new goals and you create new paths. You realize you have to fix it."
To accomplish those goals, the first step for Clarett was to read every piece of literature he could. He knew that by the time he re-entered society, his chances at a football career would be nil, so rather than focusing on rebuilding his body he decided instead to focus on his mind. Clarett read psychology books to better understand what he had done to himself. He then read as much business-related literature as he could, with an eye toward his future. Clarett had a family to provide for, and when he left prison he wanted to be armed with as much knowledge as possible to jump right into the next chapter of his life.
"(I read) anything that taught me more about the economy, business, the mechanics of business and any industry that you can be involved in outside of sports," Clarett said.
When Clarett was released from Toledo Correctional Facility after 3 1/2 years for good behavior, he had a wealth of knowledge but was still only known for football. Eventually he wanted to transition into the business world, but to help put a little money in his pocket, the plan was to open a football camp or two to start. And he was given a chance to play when the Omaha Nighthawks of the now-defunct United Football League gave him a shot.
It was during his time in Omaha that Clarett was offered his first speaking engagement. Ironically, the request didn’t come from a former football coach, or anyone involved in the sport, but instead from a law professor in Connecticut. Marilyn Ford remembered Clarett’s story and was impressed when she heard that Clarett not only was out of prison, but also had begun taking classes toward his degree at Ohio State. She was running a symposium at Quinnipiac University called "Disparity in Youth Education" and believed that Clarett would be a perfect fit for her panel.
Granted, she had never heard Clarett speak before; since this was his first speaking engagement, no one had. With a diverse crowd expected to attend, Ford wanted a diverse panel to discuss the issues at hand. And she thought Clarett’s story — not so much his downfall but his efforts to turn his life around — would be a nice contrast to many of the professors and other academic minds.
"I had no idea if he’d be a good speaker," Ford recalled. "But I knew he had a story to tell."
I had no idea if he’d be a good speaker. But I knew he had a story to tell.
Marilyn Ford, who sought Clarett as a speaker at Quinnipiac University
As it turned out, Clarett did have a story to tell, and did it in a dynamic way. Clarett was scheduled to speak for 20 minutes, but the response was so powerful that Ford pulled him into a side room for a question-and-answer session that lasted hours. If Clarett didn’t have a flight to catch to Omaha that afternoon, he might still be speaking there.
Before Clarett headed to the airport, Ford made one demand: She insisted that Clarett call her when he returned to Omaha. He had a gift, and she damn well wasn’t going to let him waste it.
"A few days later he called me, and I said, ‘Have you ever thought about going on the road and telling your story? Because you connect,’ " Ford told Clarett. "He comes across as very genuine, he’s got credibility. And he said, ‘No, I have not.’ And I said, ‘Well, you should.’ "
Clarett took Ford’s message to heart, and from there the bookings began. At the beginning it was mostly small churches and prisons, maybe an elementary school. Most of the engagements were around Ohio, and occasionally in Connecticut or New York, when Ford would bring Clarett back to the region or recommend him to another group locally.
But then, just as Clarett was getting comfortable in a field he had never planned on getting into, the documentary came out in December 2013. From there, a side gig became a full-time career.
"Within two days of the film release, that Monday morning, we woke up to 350 email requests," Clarett’s cousin and booking agent Richard Owens said. "(It was) people wanting him to come out and speak from all over the country."
The requests came from as far west as Scottsdale, Arizona, and from corporations as large as IBM. They came from major college football programs such as Tennessee and Notre Dame, from student groups at smaller schools like Bethune-Cookman. And, of course, they continued to come from prisons, elementary schools and churches as well.
Basically, they came from everywhere. And faster than anyone could keep up.
"(Prior to the film) he spoke maybe once a month," Owens said. "Once the film came out, it was bananas from that point."
Today, Clarett has spoken to thousands of people, with his speeches varying from group to group (after all, a room full of IBM CEOs has different requirements than a group of 18-year-old football players). Regardless of who Clarett is speaking to, all his speeches carry the same tenets: Work hard and take advantage of your opportunities; we all make bad decisions, but there isn’t a single mistake you can’t dig your way out of.
They can somewhat relate, regardless of their profession. I’m talking about judges, doctors, teachers, lawyers, (all the way down) to crack addicts, unemployed, they can somewhat relate.
Richard Owens, Clarett's cousin and booking agent
What’s most incredible is that virtually everyone, regardless of race or social standing, can take something from Clarett’s speeches. As Ford mentioned, he connects in a way few speakers do.
"They can somewhat relate, regardless of their profession," Owens said. "I’m talking about judges, doctors, teachers, lawyers, (all the way down) to crack addicts, unemployed; they can somewhat relate. They can say ‘You’re real. You’ve been through this before.’ ‘Hey I’m a judge, but I haven’t always been on the straight and narrow path.’ Or ‘I have a son going through the criminal justice system. Here I am a federal court judge.’ "
For football players, the message is much more direct. Clarett talks about what he was like at their age and implores players to not make the same mistakes. More important, in a world where media and fans claim that the system of big-time college athletics uses student-athletes, Clarett flips the tables and tells the players to use the system to their advantage.
"He challenged guys academically," Hinson said. "He said, ‘A lot of guys get degrees they’re never going to use.’ He said, ‘If you get degrees because it’s easy to go through, don’t do it. You’re not getting challenged in the classroom because it’s about playing ball.’ But he said, ‘Listen, real life is about getting real jobs. You need skills.’ He challenged them in their degree plan."
To his credit, Clarett doesn’t only challenge the players, he challenges the administrators as well.
"It’s also going to the administrative staff and explaining to them how they can be more supportive," Clarett said. "It’s about offering up these kids legitimate classes. A lot of these kids are just taking lollipop classes, and these coaches know that they wouldn’t put their own kids in these courses."
"It’s the responsible thing to do — put every resource in place for these kids to be challenged academically. … I have to challenge the student-athlete support services, I challenge the coaching staff, and I challenge the students because there’s something to say to everyone. And it’s not rude. But it’s like, ‘Let’s be serious with each other.’ "
When asked about one of the biggest, most far-reaching topics facing college athletics today, Clarett added rare depth to the discussion.
"People say all the time, ‘Do these college students need to be paid?’ " Clarett asked aloud. "It’s like, that’s not the question. The question is, ‘Do they need to be educated properly?’ That’s the bigger question."
While speaking has become his bread and butter, it is only part of who Clarett is now. In addition to the speeches, Clarett also has entered the beginning stages of what he hopes will be an entrepreneurial career.
While in prison, he took an interest in the work of Warren Buffett, the business magnate whose net worth was last estimated at a cool $67 billion. Clarett eventually had the chance to meet Buffett when he was playing in Omaha.
"I went down, and I thought it was just going to be a quick picture," Clarett said. "Next thing I know, we’re sitting there for hours and we’re going back and forth. And I felt like I knew him because I read so much."
Through the principles he learned in prison, as well as some other knowledge he’s picked up over the past few years, Clarett has started a few businesses locally. His transportation service is beginning to take off; Clarett announced he was hiring three new drivers in the past week. Clarett also is in the early stages of opening his own packaging company, becoming part of an industry that generates hundreds of billions of dollars a year in revenue.
The packaging idea wasn’t anything Clarett learned in prison, but rather through a chance meeting. Bryan Wilks had no ties to Clarett until he saw "Youngstown Boys," and when he did, he decided to reach out to Clarett with a congratulatory note. From there, Wilks had no expectation that he would hear from Clarett. Not only did Clarett respond, but a friendship blossomed.
As time went on, Clarett began picking Wilks’ brain about the packaging industry, a field Wilks has worked in for close to 15 years. He now serves as a bit of a mentor for Clarett. Wilks, who owns his own packaging company, sees in Clarett everything needed to be a successful entrepreneur. He is an avid learner, an outside-the-box thinker and a relentless worker.
All Clarett needs at this point is experience.
"He fits the profile perfectly," Wilks said. "He’s the kind of guy who is going to thrive in a business if he’s given a little bit of help. The more he gets exposed to business at a higher level, the better he’ll be."
Clarett continues to make strides in the entrepreneurial world, but his focus remains on his speaking career. It’s grown not only in the sheer number of engagements but also in the impact they are having. Ask anyone who has had Clarett speak to their group, and they come out raving.
Ford, who hired Clarett for his first gig nearly four years ago, tells a funny story about friends at Eastern Connecticut State University hounding her for Clarett’s contact information after he first spoke at Quinnipiac. Clarett eventually was booked and set to appear for a single speaking session.
Safe to say, it went a little longer than that.
"He was only supposed to speak at 9 a.m. and it turned into a full day, nearly two-day event," Ford said. "He got in the night before, and all of the next day he must have talked to five or six different classes, and then talked to an auditorium session with like three or four thousand young people on their campus."
Oh, but the party kept going.
"They had a steak dinner with the president and the board of trustees," Ford said. "When I say they loved him so much at Eastern Connecticut, I’m pretty sure that if Maurice was in the market for a job, he could have gotten a job there."
It was the same at Bethune-Cookman University, where Clarett appeared at a "Male Empowerment" seminar in April 2014. Not only did the students immediately demand that Clarett return the following year, but to this day they’re also still using the lessons he taught them.
"We have our students mentor local elementary, middle school and high school kids," director of student leadership Jermaine McKinney said. "When they’re speaking to these kids, they’re using the messages that Maurice Clarett gave them."
Then, of course, there was the young man at Texas A&M, the one Clarett called out. According to A&M’s staff, he has never been a troublemaker but instead someone who simply needed guidance. He was the kind of person who would listen to what the coaches were saying but didn’t always integrate those lessons into his life.
So what happened since Clarett spoke to the Aggies?
I really believe that was a crossroads moment in this young man’s life. He got challenged by a real dude. He got challenged by someone who’s lived it, walked it, talked it.
Texas A&M director of player development Mikado Hinson
"Yes, I have seen some subtle differences in the young man," Hinson said. "I’ve been watching him take things more seriously. You can see him thinking things through. You can see him looking at things through the bigger picture."
Hinson continued, emphasizing the impact Clarett had.
"I really believe that was a crossroads moment in this young man’s life. He got challenged by a real dude. He got challenged by someone who’s lived it, walked it, talked it. And he’s been put in the pit to the prison to the palace, so to speak. And he’s someone who is now living it."
Clarett is indeed living it, and in a lot of ways living out a dream that he never knew he had.
"We don’t often know our calling in life," Ford said. "Maybe this was his calling."