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Wait Class

When the courts ran a reverse last spring, two college football stars wound up on the sidelines. Their different ways of handling exile could shape their NFL futures

Although they live in different parts of the country, Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams are roommates of a sort, sharing space in their own personal limbo. With their remaining college eligibility squandered and the beginning of their NFL careers on hold, they are neither pros nor amateurs, stars without a stage. They are casualties of the same court ruling, marking time until the draft next April but doing so in decidedly different ways.

In February, when Clarett won his legal challenge to the NFL rule prohibiting players from entering the draft until at least three years after their high school class graduated, he and Williams, both sophomores at the time, declared themselves eligible for the draft. But two months later an appeals court reversed the decision, leaving Clarett and Williams out of the draft--and ultimately out of football this season. Williams petitioned the NCAA for reinstatement of his college eligibility at USC but was denied two days before the Trojans' season opener; Clarett made no attempt to return to Ohio State. Clarett's lawyers have continued the legal battle, but they received another setback last Friday, when a Federal appeals court in New York City denied their motion to re-hear his suit against the NFL.

Williams has reenrolled at USC, where he is taking three classes this semester. Like Clarett, he declined to be interviewed for this story, but he told the Los Angeles Times in September that he was enjoying life as a student and didn't mind the temporary absence of football. "It's totally different," he said. "Kind of like living a lifestyle you always wanted to [try]." Williams, a 6'4", 230-pound wide receiver who is working with a personal trainer to prepare for the draft, can't help the Trojans in uniform any longer. But he has tried to contribute to the program in other ways, attending practices and helping to mentor his replacement, freshman wideout Dwayne Jarrett.

During home games Williams usually can be found on the Trojans' sideline, but Clarett has been even tougher to track down than he was on the field as a Buckeyes halfback, with friends and family guarding information about his movements as if he were a CIA operative. Various reports have had him back in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, and vacationing in Atlanta, but a family friend says that Clarett has been working out for the last several weeks with a trainer outside of Dallas. There were rumors that Clarett neglected his conditioning after he was barred from the draft, but Vince Marrow, a longtime friend of Clarett's, says that isn't the case, at least not now. "He's been working out hard every day," says Marrow. "He's in the best shape of his life. When it comes time, he'll prove it."

He will have to, because many NFL scouts are looking at Clarett with a skeptical eye. He is in his second straight season of inactivity, having spent the 2003 season on the sideline after being suspended for receiving improper benefits. In addition to concerns about his speed (in top shape he ran only a 4.6 40) and tendency toward injury, there are questions about his maturity and work habits. His Howard Hughes act of the last few months hasn't exactly helped his stock. "Nobody even really knows where the kid is half the time," says one NFL scouting director. "The last thing anybody wants is another Ricky Williams on their hands." But it is a measure of Clarett's promise--he rushed for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns as a freshman in 2002--that he is still widely considered to be among the top 10 running backs entering the draft and isn't likely to last longer than the second round in April.

Mike Williams is held in higher regard by pro personnel people, partly because of the grace with which he has handled his season without a team. It would have been hard to blame him if he had blasted the NCAA for refusing his request for reinstatement. He had no way of knowing that the original court ruling would be reversed, and when it was, he made a good-faith effort to meet the NCAA's eligibility requirements. He parted ways with his agent, repaid all the financial benefits he had received during his brief time as a "pro" and enrolled in summer classes to fulfill his academic requirements, moves that didn't sway the NCAA but will surely win him character points with NFL general managers. Even though Williams, who caught 95 passes for 1,314 yards in 2003, won't be the swiftest receiver in the draft--he has 4.5 speed--he could be the first to be chosen. Draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. even has him pegged as the No. 1 overall pick.

But for now, all Clarett and Williams can do is work out and wait, like two commuters who just missed the NFL train and are waiting at the station for the next one. Don't be surprised if Williams has the longer, smoother ride.

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I'd give back Game 7 to have her back. --RED SOX OUTFIELDER TROT NIXON, WILD IN THE STREETS, PAGE 26