Real men do not quit on themselves.... Everyone will get a chance to see what it is like to come up from rock bottom. I will show everyone what a deep desire to succeed looks like.
—MAURICE CLARETT, from Toledo Correctional Institution (April 25, 2009)
Old School Gym in Pataskala, Ohio, is a 1950s-era Quonset hut that resembles a section of giant earthworm half-buried on the shoulder of Highway 40. In the worm's gut, yellow insulation drips from the curved ceiling, hovering over dusty flooring that isn't really flooring at all but thick slabs of conveyor belt that once carried coal from a nearby mine. Maurice Clarett's hands touch nearly every piece of the rusted iron gym equipment covering that floor over his 90-minute workout, which on this late-spring morning consists of burnout sets for his shoulders, legs and core—the muscle groups most important to a rugby player.
Clarett is no longer the chubby, bearded inmate whose overfleshed face appeared on news outlets seven years ago. Nor is he the hot-footed teen running back whose 11-game career lifted Ohio State to the 2002 BCS title and spawned an unsuccessful bid to barge into the NFL. (Clarett ended up the Broncos' third-round pick in 2005, but was cut before he played a game.) He is 29 now; 5'11", 230 pounds of lean, purposeful muscle. Being embedded with him proves to be nearly as challenging as his training regimen: He sleeps about four hours a night, remains in constant motion and eats but a single, modest meal in the early afternoon. Clarett explains this minimalist, hyperefficient lifestyle with a single word, uttered in a distinctive old man's rasp still recognizable to any Buckeyes fan: prison.
"If you go to college for four years, what do you live like after those four years? You live the effects of what you were fed there," he explains. "I went to Austintown Fitch [High in northeast Ohio] for one year; I went to Warren G. Harding for three years; I went to Ohio State for 13 months; I was back and forth between California, Denver and Ohio. Then I was in prison for four years. Everything was concentrated. There was no moving around."
In Toledo Correctional, where he served 42 of his 43 months for aggravated robbery and weapons charges before his release in April 2010, Clarett occupied himself largely by reading voraciously and writing blog posts, which he self-published as a book earlier this year. Today he still abides by the manifesto he composed in a six-by-nine-foot cell, portions of which read like haiku:
Success speaks for itself. Entourage out, family in. (June 17, 2009)
The growth that people see in me came from behind these walls. (Oct. 23, 2008)
The education he gave himself in Toledo produced an earnest ascetic of a man who seeks not to overcome his imperfections—he still swears a blue streak and will probably never win an award for punctuality—nor to make amends for the havoc those imperfections have wreaked. Rather, he dissects, studies and shares his flaws, a one-man bomb squad who keeps his explosive device armed so that he can show others how to defuse theirs.
Before he leaves the gym, Clarett leaps up and grabs a steel bar that's 10'2" high, hanging one-handed for a second before grabbing on with both and repping out 20 strict pull-ups. His workout complete, he drops to the floor and lands in a deep squat, as if he's just dunked (which he can also do with authority and ease). He saunters into the parking lot and lays some dap on a local pastor—a 50-ish man who looks like a Ken doll and appears to know Clarett well—and says something that makes the pastor laugh hard. The sun has not come up yet.
The transmission on Clarett's 2005 Acura is out, so he drives a compact rental through the Columbus suburbs, arriving in the dark at the modest, two-level rented house in the city of Canal Winchester. The living room is scented with incense. It's also cluttered with workout clothes and heady nonfiction books, as if a college athlete were rooming here with an economics grad student—which isn't far from the truth.
He spoons crystals of instant coffee into a mug of tap water and nukes it (another prison habit), his workday beginning as his neighbors waft through their deepest sleep. He reads an encouraging tweet from a USA Rugby coach and then accepts an invitation to speak at Wright State in Dayton. This is how he pays the bills: speaking engagements, most for a couple of thousand dollars a pop. (He spoke for free at the NFL's rookie symposium last month.)
He takes his coffee to the dining room table and begins filling orders for his book of blog posts, sliding two dozen paperbacks into two dozen clasp envelopes, writing strangers' addresses in cursive Sharpie and his home address in the upper left corner. Inside the envelopes, ink the color of Ohio State's helmets dries on each title page, where the author has scrawled a single word below his autograph: redemption.
Four years earlier, to the week, he wrote this:
If I get out of here and become successful people will say that making these posts [was] one of the greatest things I ever did.... They will want to take pictures and tell me how they always believed in me, even when I was at my lowest.... On the flip side of the coin, if I get out and become a failure (NOT LIKELY TO HAPPEN) ... they will use this as an example of [a] great con.... The shallow people of the world will celebrate my demise. They'll tell me that they threw my jersey away and they can't watch the 2002 National Championship game because I am in it. (April 1, 2009)
Truth be told, Maurice Clarett didn't actually type those words. Ashley Evans did. Before she did so, she gave birth to Clarett's only child, a girl named Jayden, who came into the world three weeks before the incident that sent her dad to prison: a high-speed police chase through Columbus on Aug. 9, 2006, that ended with Clarett's tires shot out, his face Maced and his 270-pound body Tased into submission. That came eight months after he held up two people outside a nightclub, and a day before he was to appear in court in that case. He would plead guilty to robbery, as well as to weapons charges from the chase—police found four loaded guns in his car, not to mention a half-empty bottle of Grey Goose. He was 22.
In prison Clarett began reading immediately. There was little else to do but work out and feel terrible about the damage he'd done to those he loved most. He called Evans daily. "One day he said, 'I have a lot of things written that I'd like you to post for me,' " she recalls. "So I Googled how to make a blog. After that, almost every morning he'd call around six o'clock like, You ready to go?
"He talks superfast, and he mumbles a lot, so I said, 'Look, we only have 15 minutes on this phone call. We're not gonna use up five phone calls on this because you can't speak English.' "
The Internet glanced at Clarett's blog and shrugged. He was released to little fanfare. He went to a halfway house in Columbus, then to Omaha to play for the Nighthawks of the now-defunct UFL. Ashley and Jayden, who had turned four, came along, but Clarett's transition to real life was marked by stoicism, long football practices and longer silences when he got home. Clarett's own dad, he says, left the family when Maurice was a toddler, and the hustling and football and jail time that he had done since then did little to prepare him for fatherhood.
Maurice, Ashley and Jayden didn't truly start knitting together their lives until last year when the UFL folded and Clarett's probation was transferred to Columbus, Ashley's hometown. Ashley, who can be stingy with compliments for Clarett, says that he has become "a wonderful dad. When he was first released he was like, I'm going to take her to the toy store and buy her a bunch of toys so she'll like me. And I said, 'That's good that you want to make friends with her, but you can't just buy her affection. She doesn't care if you spend $500 at Toys 'R' Us. She just wants you here. She wants you to sit down at her tea party, to swing her around at the park.' "
Last December, Clarett and Evans got into an argument that six-year-old Jayden did not see. When Evans made the quarrel physical, Clarett called the police to avoid being cited for the probation violation that he could smell coming, which would have returned him to prison. He didn't press charges, but they spent the first four months of 2013 in self-imposed separation, with Ashley and Jayden at Ashley's mother's house. Maurice was left with Fishy, Jayden's beloved pet fish, which died under his watch. The parents lied and told Jayden that Daddy was still feeding it while she and Mommy were on vacation.
It was around this time that Paul Holmes, the director of the Tiger Rugby Academy in Columbus, followed up on an exchange he'd had with Clarett a couple of years earlier and invited him to drop by for a visit. There, at an indoor lacrosse facility nine miles from Ohio Stadium, Clarett found something irresistible: a sport perfectly suited for his body type and skill set, a brief escape from the angst at home, and an outlet for the competitive fire that made him, as the guys at Old School Gym like to joke, "game for game, the most famous football player in history."
Sevens rugby—played with seven per side, instead of the traditional 15—is largely about creating space for swift wing players who can make tacklers miss and either take it the distance or lateral to a teammate. At a three-on-three touch scrimmage in late March, Clarett grips the white egg with two hands, cutting and juking and delivering clever laterals like a muscle-bound Chris Paul. A high school point guard himself, Clarett clearly has a gift for distributing fluttering lobs and spiraling bullets to men running full tilt on his flank. And the making-guys-miss part comes as naturally to him as walking.
But sevens demands superhuman fitness from its combatants, who essentially play padless, two-way football at a pace that would make Chip Kelly say, Slow down. Clarett is gasping, his lungs in rebellion against this part of the game.
"Whooooo," he says in his Method Man wheeze, a smile suggesting that perhaps he's playing a bit of possum. Sure enough, after a water break he becomes a different player, accelerating, cutting, even talking some good-natured trash when he scores back-to-back tries against the veterans. His kicking may be awful, his conditioning subpar, but his elusiveness and defensive pressure help his team win the second miniscrimmage 10--1.
"He has gifts you can't coach," says Holmes, a shaved-headed South African who wavers between excitement at Clarett's tools and frustration over the scheduling conflicts that prevent him from sharpening them. "His ballhandling, his touch, his speed in space.... He won't beat you over 80 yards, but over 20 yards he's special."
When it's mentioned that Clarett will turn 30 in October, Holmes says, "His legs are young, though. Low mileage."
Maurice and Ashley have also found their second wind. It's May, and everyone's under the same roof again, Jayden's American Girl dolls joining her father's books on the floor. Fishy is here too, although he looks slightly different now. The bond between Maurice and Ashley is also different—more relaxed and communicative, as if they had to get that blowup out of the way in order to segue from Before to After. They all stayed up until 1:30 a.m. the other night doing Jayden's family-tree project, and Ashley has rented Maurice a post office box and bought him some address labels so that the books he sends out will look more professional. He and Evans are undergoing counseling—yet another step, like his preemptive call to the police, that Clarett never would have taken preprison: "Not at all. I would have said, The hell with this. But when something's this important you take whatever steps are necessary."
That dustup with Evans made the news, of course, because 10 years earlier Clarett had gained 1,237 yards rushing and scored the touchdown that won the Buckeyes their only national championship in the last 45 years. Or it may have been news because he was kicked off the team after that magical season and grumbled about the Buckeyes' football factory loud enough for the NCAA to come calling. Or perhaps it became news because only a few other American athletes—Tiger and LeBron come to mind—have been as famous as Clarett was at 19.
Or is it infamous?
"I was [getting home] at four in the morning instead of getting up at four in the morning," Clarett says of those turbulent early years. "Whatever came to mind, whatever I felt like doing, I just did it. No planning, no organization, no looking toward the future, no accountability, no responsibility. Just recklessness."
"People are interested in Maurice now because they want to find out how this person ends up," says Ashley. "Is he the arrogant, bigheaded guy who tried to ruin Ohio State? Or is he something else?"
As hard as he strives for "something else," a mask of darkened skin around Clarett's eyes—a mysterious and blotchy Hamburglar stain—serves as a daily reminder that he was once as arrogant and bigheaded and reckless as they come. "It's from the Mace," he explains over the only meal he'll eat on this day, a batch of lean chicken fingers. "They didn't let me wash the Mace off that night. It burned. That's what happens."
If Clarett has a singular flaw, says his friend, mentor and former coach at Ohio State, Jim Tressel, it's that "he always goes 100 miles an hour—especially his mind. And when you're 18 or 19, that's a very distracting thing. It's a little easier to manage when you're 30. Even in ninth grade you could see how bright he was, and you could tell his success would be a matter of warding off a million different distractions. Because distractions make it hard to execute."
When Clarett arrived at Ohio State in 2002, Tressel called his prized freshman into his office and listed 13 challenges the young man would face in the coming months. Tressel chose 13 because it matched Clarett's jersey number, which he knew Clarett had worn since childhood. (Tressel didn't know that Clarett had chosen 13 to commemorate the 13 staples he received in his scalp following a tumble from a neighbor's second-story window during a failed burglary.)
"He told me to expect new friends to come around," Clarett recalls. "He said popularity would come; increased attention from the media...."
"Maurice blew them off," says Tressel. "A year or so later he's in my office again, and every one of those 13 things had happened."
"He saw it all coming," says Clarett.
One of the questions Clarett must answer with his newfound focus: Is rugby a distraction? Or is it a worthwhile grind that could bring a higher platform for his teachings—perhaps even a medal? He dreams of playing for the national sevens team when rugby debuts as an Olympic sport in Rio in 2016, but his training has been sporadic at best because of his various public appearances—a schedule that today has him driving three hours northeast to Youngstown, where he grew up.
Clarett arrives an hour early for his engagement at a church, so he swings by his old neighborhood to visit his mother. Michelle Clarett's house lies at the end of a long row of houses that are hurting, but her hedges are trimmed, her lawn mowed, her windows without boards. There's a garish yellow Humvee gathering dust out back—Maurice's ride before he economized his life.
Michelle is polishing her son's old trophies when he enters the house. The scene borders on kitsch, but her flyaway hair and faded Grinch T-shirt make clear that she wasn't expecting company. Her son delivers a hug and disappears to pick out a clean shirt for church and a few rap CDs for the drive back to Columbus.
Clarett has made the three-hour drive to Youngstown not so he can speak at the sprawling Victory Christian Center, but just to be present and nod along silently while Nate Ortiz, a friend and Victory's youth pastor, tells 70 high school kids about the meaning of Easter. "This isn't rare," Ortiz says later. "He does this all the time. He doesn't ask, 'Do I get to speak? Can I promote my book?' He just wants to be here. He knows his presence means something to these kids."
When Ortiz proclaims during prayer that "the greatest comeback in history was pulled off by...." Clarett, ever mischievous, whispers to the person next to him, "Maurice Clarett," and snickers. Afterward, noting the lack of black kids in the house, Clarett suggests that he and Ortiz organize a life swap involving the Victory kids and those who live near his mom in the upper Southside.
It's past 10 when he finally heads back to Canal Winchester, 1:30 a.m. when he is finally dropped off outside his house and 6 a.m. when he calls to apologize for sleeping in. Fifteen minutes later he's doing a Southern sports-radio talk show as a favor to an old UFL teammate. The hosts blindside him with questions about betraying Ohio State and the slow 40-yard dash that he ran eight NFL combines ago, but he endures it. Instead of succumbing to his emotions, he tries to change the subject to the kids he met last night in Youngstown.
"There was a time when he thought the world revolved around him," says Tressel. "Clearly, today he knows he's just a part of the world and that it's his job to help the world. And that's a huge change. It's maturity."
The victims of the crimes Clarett perpetrated in 2006, however, are not as easily distracted by what one of them calls "his new reign of positivity; this is something he should have been doing all along." In an e-mail to SI, that victim (who asked for anonymity) expressed anger that Clarett never apologized, frustration at having to still field media requests every few weeks and, finally, reluctantly: "I forgive him."
Clarett's response to those who think that what he's doing now is an act: "I'm not mad. I understand it." But that's all he can muster now because he's out of breath from sprinting 100s and 200s.
In February 2009, Clarett dictated to Ashley a lengthy blog post about an anonymous inmate on his cellblock, "a young man who is 18 with a 13-year sentence.... I made it a mission of mine to set aside time for him.... I want to be his symbol of hope."
In a letter to SI, that inmate, Orlando Payne, now 22, wrote, "You're writing [about] a great person. Maurice truly gave a young man hope and guidance when it was needed most." When Clarett left prison, he says, he left Payne his copies of Rich Dad Poor Dad, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Science of Psychology, among other books.
"Most importantly, he encouraged me to study a dictionary," writes Payne, who has at least three more years to serve. "Every day, Maurice taught me to never let my past dictate my future. He continues to inspire me and always will."
Lord knows I can't save the world. Yet I have this silly little thought in the back of my head telling me I can. (April 29, 2009)
One of Clarett's teammates with the Omaha Nighthawks was a long snapper named Matt Overton, who wound up getting cut, bringing both his paltry UFL income and his larger NFL dream to a halt. "What NFL team is going to sign me after a UFL team cuts me?" Overton recalls thinking. Clarett, his senses still adjusting to the sudden saturation of freedom, offered Overton his couch and a daily workout partner for as long as he wanted them.
Today Overton is entering his second season as the long snapper for the Colts. Clarett doesn't claim credit for Overton's current mid-six-figure salary, but he is proud of the platform he helped his friend achieve, from which Overton can do things like show terminally ill kids around the team's facility and surprise them with tickets to a Justin Bieber concert, as he did last month.
"Maurice never let me quit," says Overton. "Sometimes I'd slack off—not encouraged, not motivated—and he'd ask me, 'Where do you want to go?' "
For Clarett, the dream of representing his country in rugby at the Olympics feels no less attainable than the dream Overton clung to while crashing on an ex-convict's rented sofa. So far, however, he hasn't shown a strong enough commitment to the sport to register on the national coaches' radar. "He's got a lot going on from what I hear," says U.S.A. Sevens coach Alex Magleby, who has a scrum of fully committed prospects fistfighting for a shot at Rio. "He's got a lot of talent, but where does rugby fit into his life?"
Should Clarett find more room for the sport over the next three years (he was recently invited to train with the esteemed L.A. Rugby Club), the words he wrote in his cell on Jan. 9, 2009, may prove prophetic.
If I ever get the chance to step on that field again, I will come back to make my family and friends smile. I have a gift and I am extremely talented. I might not get the money that I expected in the past but I guarantee that someone will smile again when they see me play. I am a beast on that field.
For now, in lieu of the unique brotherhood of a rugby team, Clarett relies on his girlfriend and his child for companionship, plus a small circle of friends, including Warren Buffett, whose brain he picked often during his time in Omaha. "I say it every time I speak. Show me your friends, I'll show you your future," Clarett says. "I have a picture from  with 15 guys from my neighborhood, hanging out in a nightclub, partying. Out of those 15 people, 10 of them have been in state or federal prison, including myself. Two of them are dead. You look at that photo and a lot of stuff makes sense."
Some of Clarett's newer friends have suggested that he try to get his felonies pardoned so that he can run for the soon-to-be-vacant state representative's seat that serves Youngstown. U.S. congressman (and former Tressel quarterback) Tim Ryan has made it clear that the city needs homegrown leaders like Clarett, who isn't ruling out paid civil servanthood. After all, he has experienced everything his home state has to offer, from absorbing the cheers of 100,000 at the Horseshoe to lying spent and burned in the back of a paddy wagon.
"Who knows?" says Clarett, his face creasing to reveal perfect politician's teeth. "These legs are still fresh."
"You can't just buy [your daughter's] affection," Ashley told Maurice. "She doesn't care if you spend $500 at Toys 'R' Us. She just wants you here. She wants you to sit down at her tea party."
"He won't beat you over 80 yards," says one coach of Clarett's rugby skills, "but over 20 yards he's special."
Five Completely Trivial Things We Learned About Maurice Clarett
The person Clarett says he most wants to meet is ... Charlie Rose. "Charlie Rose is the s---."
Search the Twitter hashtag #upearlytotrain to behold the ungodly hour at which Clarett (@ReeseClarett13) works out every day.
Clarett cites David Hawkins's Power vs. Force as the book that had the greatest impact on him in prison. "It's about the underlying nature of relationships," he says. "It has helped me distinguish content from context, truth from nonsense. Every conversation I have now feels like a movie I've seen before."
Jayden Clarett gets $10 from Maurice for every book report she writes for her dad. She was recently advanced a year and will start third grade this fall.
Of his momentum-swinging strip of Sean Taylor in the 2003 BCS title game, Clarett says, "The way he was carrying the ball, it just didn't look right. It wasn't what I had been taught. Next thing I knew, I had the ball." The play negated Taylor's interception and set up a field goal. The Buckeyes beat Miami—winner of 34 straight games—in double overtime 31--24.
To go behind the scenes at one of Clarett's Old School Gym workouts, including an in-depth conversation with the former Ohio State running back, visit SI.com/mag
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
RUGBY FOR DUMMIES Eleven years after he rushed for 1,237 yards as a freshman at Ohio State, Clarett is trying to pad his résumé as a tackle breaker on the rugby pitch.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
[See caption above]
CUFFS, ENOUGH Deemed a flight risk and, according to one assistant prosecutor, "a threat to the community," Clarett was held on $5 million bail before being sent to Toledo Correctional.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (FIESTA BOWL)
YO SOY FIESTA The legs that ran for two touchdowns in the 2003 BCS championship game win over Miami are fairly fresh for Clarett's latest undertaking.
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (RUGBY)
[See caption above]
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
TOTALLY FLOORED For all the lows, Clarett (left, in his garage turned weight room) is starting to savor the highs that come from raising Jayden.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
CON AIR Before things went south, Clarett soared at OSU: He scored in eight of his 11 appearances for the Buckeyes and rushed for 100 or more yards seven times.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
13 GOING ON 30 Tressell predicted many of the issues that would bedevil his prized recruit, who has done his best to avoid trouble since his release from prison.