Michael McKnight wrote a profile on former Ohio State star running back Maurice Clarett in the July 8-15, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated, the 14th annual "Where Are They Now?" edition. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
The idea to write a feature story about Maurice Clarett was born in December 2012, when I was working on an oral history of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. That double-overtime street fight disguised as a BCS title game pitted Miami -- defending national champs and winners of 34 straight games -- against Ohio State and its vest-clad coach and humdrum schemes. Each team repeatedly battled back from the jaws of defeat, and players on both sides were helped off the field -- exhausted, broken or both. Clarett, the Buckeyes' star freshman tailback, swapped helmet paint all night with another star-crossed teenager -- including during a crucial play in the third quarter, when he somehow tore the ball away from the bigger, faster Sean Taylor after the Hurricanes' safety picked off a pass and took off for what looked like it would be a Miami touchdown. No fewer than 11 Buckeyes and Hurricanes used same phrase when recalling that play for the SI.com piece: "It changed the game."
Clarett and I exchanged a dozen emails and tried three or four times to connect by phone last December, but it never worked out, despite my last-minute efforts. (Moments after finishing the story I learned that Clarett and his girlfriend had gotten into a spat the night before -- an incident discussed in the Sports Illustrated story.) For the former Ohio State and Miami players I did speak with, Clarett was a touchstone: a hero to some, a curiosity to others, an enigma each seemed eager to discuss. More than any other player, Clarett was the one they asked me about. "You know what he's up to? You talk to him yet?"
I shared all this with my friend and mentor, SI senior writer Austin Murphy, who had interviewed an aloof, oddly unsatisfied Clarett on the field following Ohio State's Fiesta Bowl win, neither of them knowing at the time it would be the last relevant game in which Clarett would ever play. Murphy said that Clarett would make a perfect "Where Are They Now?" story, and SI senior editor Adam Duerson agreed. I contacted Clarett, who apologized for losing touch in December and invited me to Columbus.
The word "access" gets tossed around a lot, but from Clarett, I received more access than I've ever been given. The time during which I visited him was unpredictable, awkward, at times not pretty and rife with rogue waves smacking the hull of a life being rebuilt. He was both in love with his new sport, rugby, and unable to devote time to it. He was living in an empty house, unable to communicate with his daughter other than by voicemails left on her mom's phone. His car was in the shop; we drove my compact rental. These are not circumstances in which people typically invite writers they've never met into their lives. Clarett's only concerns with my request to embed myself with him for two-plus days were his daughter's privacy and, as he put it: "I don't want anything to feel like a p.r. stunt. I want it to be real and organic and accessible to people."
When Clarett is serious or in deep thought, he looks for all the world like Dwight Freeney: self-contained, confident, mature. When Clarett smiles, an involuntary act that changes every cell of him, he looks like any of the childhood photos I saw at his mother's house. The Clarett I found is both generous with his time and stingy with it, laid-back and impatient, rambling and lucid, the possessor of an energy source that could power all of Franklin County, Ohio, if there were a way to hook it up. Mostly, I found a book opened so wide to me that its covers touched behind its spine. The phrase that occurred to me late in the editing process was "Portrait of a Man Trying."
Whatever we have to say about him -- ex-convict or All-America, NFL bust or mentor to a growing congregation -- Clarett is still keeping the jaws of defeat hungry.