Monday, August 25, 2003

Has Clarett run out of chances?

By Tom Withers
The Associated Press

AKRON - As usual, Maurice Clarett was the center of attention. Front row and center court, he had the best seat in the house to watch LeBron James.

Back in January, three weeks after leading Ohio State to its first national championship in 34 years and six months before his academics and NCAA eligibility were under investigation, Clarett came to see James, his close friend and soon-to-be NBA rookie, play one of his final high school games.

Clarett's courtside appearance caused an uproar in the tiny gym at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, where James was always king.

The Buckeyes' star running back didn't appear to have a care in the world as he signed autographs and waved to adoring fans, some wearing new scarlet-and-gray "2002 National Champions" T-shirts.

At halftime, Clarett was introduced by the PA announcer, who dedicated a song to him. "This one's for you, Maurice," he said, queuing the music.

"Oh, won't you stay a little bit longer?

"Please, please, please say, you will, say you will."

Not everyone in Ohio is singing the same tune these days. While there's no denying Clarett is a major star, he has also become a major distraction and the most debated and scrutinized young athlete in the country - this side of his buddy, LeBron.

Misunderstood. Disrespectful. Intelligent. Foolish. Confused. Disappointing. Immature. Moody.

They've all been used to describe Clarett, a 19-year-old whose ability to break tackles and find the end zone is the one thing about him that remains unquestioned.

Clarett, who rushed for 1,237 yards a year ago and made the most memorable play - stripping the ball from a Miami defender - as OSU beat Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, has been the focus of two investigations.

Ohio State said Friday that Clarett could be suspended for several games but will allowed to resume practicing with the team.

The university received a list of allegations from the NCAA against Clarett on Thursday and discussed them with the sophomore on Friday, athletic director Andy Geiger said in a statement.

The NCAA and university had been investigating allegations about Clarett's academic performance and his acknowledged overstatement of the value of items stolen from a vehicle he was borrowing.

The suspension handed down on Friday was only for non-academic allegations. A 10-person university panel probing charges of academic fraud is completely separate from Clarett's open-ended suspension.

Clarett remains ineligible for games for now but could rejoin practices as early as Sunday, Geiger said.

"He's a victim of circumstances that he has created," said Thom McDaniels, who coached Clarett at Warren Harding High School in Warren, Ohio. "He has put himself in situations where the consequences, unfortunately, are not going to feel good and they are not going to be positive. And I want him to stop that."

McDaniels isn't alone. There's a sizable contingent of Buckeyes supporters who have grown tired of hearing about Clarett's off-the-field problems.

Many feel Clarett's actions are undermining coach Jim Tressel's program - one in shambles before the former Youngstown State coach took over two years ago - and could result in future NCAA sanctions.

"Everyone has a point where they can't take it anymore," said McDaniels, who speaks with Tressel on a regular basis. "I think there are people who don't know Maurice and don't care about him who are disappointed, embarrassed, ashamed and just wish that he'd move on."

The NCAA was investigating whether the sophomore tailback, who was this year's preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, jeopardized his eligibility by using a car loaned from a Columbus dealership.

The 2001 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, outfitted with TV monitors in the back of the headrests, was broken into in April. Clarett, who claims he was test-driving the car, originally told police he had lost more than $10,000 in cash and merchandise in the theft.

Later, he admitted exaggerating the losses.

On top of that, Clarett is the focus of a school inquiry into charges of academic fraud and preferential treatment for OSU football players. A teaching assistant claims Clarett walked out of a midterm and was allowed to pass a class by taking an oral exam.

And if all that weren't enough, Clarett has made other headline-grabbing news in Columbus, including:

• An interview in ESPN Magazine in which he said he might challenge the NFL's rule on underclassmen and enter the draft early.

• A heated sideline exchange with Ohio State assistant coach Tim Spencer during a game at Northwestern.

• Undergoing knee surgery then missing three other games - and spring practice this year - with a recurring shoulder injury.

• Accusing OSU officials of "lying" when they claimed Clarett didn't fill out paperwork so he could attend a friend's funeral before the Fiesta Bowl.

It has been quite an 18-month run for Clarett, who left high school six months early to jump start a college career that could end prematurely.

Earlier this month, Tressel and his 2003 Buckeyes posed for their team photograph in Ohio Stadium without Clarett, perhaps the clearest sign yet they're planning for life without him.

"I feel kind of bad," said former Ohio State safety Donnie Nickey, now a rookie with Tennessee. "I just graduated from there and everybody's talking about Maurice, Maurice. I know everyone in that locker room. I know the things that came up were only big deals outside the program.

"Nobody's going to stay and cry about Maurice not being there."

McDaniels anticipated Clarett's hardships. He knows Clarett as well as anyone.

"He's a contradiction," said McDaniels, who had his share of Clarett-induced headaches. "He wants things one way, but his actions prevent that."

Sitting in his cluttered office after practice this month, McDaniels pointed to a chair where Clarett sat for many conversations.

"Some lasted 20 minutes, others two," said McDaniels, who has concluded that much of his former player's problems are self-inflicted and not because of an unfair attack or others piling on.

McDaniels knew the spotlight would find Clarett in Columbus, and he urged Ohio's Mr. Football in 2001 to maintain a low-profile or pay for it. The warning was not heeded.

"On one hand, all he wanted to do was go to Ohio State and play football," McDaniels said. "But if that's all he wanted to do, then why is he generating all of this attention? If that's all he wanted to do.

"Maurice is a work in progress, but I don't think he understands that. I don't think he understands the magnitude of his status as a player. It's not because he's dumb. He's not. He's a bright young man."

It would be easy for former teammates to criticize Clarett, but so far, they haven't.

"The kid is a hard worker," said San Diego linebacker Matt Wilhelm, a Buckeye captain last season. "He's in the meeting room watching tape before everyone else. He's working out and no one sees that. They just see the perception of Maurice Clarett; they don't see the sacrifice and investment he puts into football. They just see the exterior."

Green Bay rookie defensive tackle Kenny Peterson, another former Buckeye, says everyone would be better off if Clarett was just left alone.

"Give the kid a break," he said. "Just let him play and go to class. Everyone is picking on him."

James, better than anyone, can identify with Clarett, the person, and Clarett, the personality.

They were raised in rough neighborhoods 40 miles apart by single mothers who wanted the best for their sons. And just as Clarett is experiencing now, James endured a chaotic senior season in which the world watched his every move.

James learned to embrace the spotlight. Clarett wants it, too, but hasn't figured out when to avoid it.

Not long after attending James' game, Clarett was at a sports awards dinner in Cleveland where Brown, Tressel and Wilhelm were among the honored guests.

As other sports celebrities mingled during a noisy VIP reception, Clarett sought a quiet spot. He leaned against a wall in the hotel ballroom, looking as if he wanted to be anywhere else.

All alone, he stood out in the crowd.

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