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By JOE SCALZO



Published: Mon, April 25, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By JOE SCALZO

VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF

MAURICE CLARETT HAD ALREADY left the party Saturday night in Los Angeles, where about 15 of his friends, family and associates had gathered to watch the NFL Draft.

The Youngstown native had dropped a few people off at their hotel and he was driving in his car, mentally preparing himself for the day ahead, where he was hoping someone, somewhere would take a chance on him.

Just then, around 8 p.m. Pacific time, his phone rang. It was Denver running backs coach Bobby Turner.

"He said, 'We're gonna pick you,'" Clarett said. "I was like, 'You serious?' "

He was. And they did.

With the final pick of the final round of the draft's first day, the Broncos stunned the football world by taking Clarett at No. 101.

"Here's a guy who's got his back to the wall," Denver coach Mike Shanahan told reporters. "He wants to prove he's not a one-year wonder and wants to come out and play at that level again."

Clarett's agents Josh Luchs and Steve Feldman, had been talking to another NFL team -- reportedly Dallas -- that had indicated it would pick Clarett in the fourth round. Denver, which didn't have a fourth or fifth round pick, figured this might be its last chance to get Clarett. And, since the 101st pick was compensatory, Denver couldn't trade the pick for a fourth or fifth rounder.

At about the 99th pick, the talks heated up.

"When we got the phone call, the first thing they asked us was, 'Is he healthy?'" Luchs said. "We said absolutely, he's healthy. So they asked, 'Do you guys have his head on straight and are you going to keep his head on straight?' We assured them he's a good kid and he'd keep his head on straight.

"So they said, 'OK, we're pulling the trigger here.' "

When his name was announced, the fans at New York's Javits Center greeted the pick with a mixture of cheers, boos and, more than anything else, shock.

"You have to wonder how Shanahan walked around Denver today considering how big his testicles are," Luchs said.

Background

Clarett, a Warren Harding High graduate, ran for 1,200 yards and 16 TDs as a freshman at Ohio State, helping the Buckeyes win the national title in 2002.

But he's spent the past two years away from football, suspended from Ohio State because of academic problems and NCAA infractions.

He unsuccessfully sued the NFL to gain entry to last year's draft and, after running poor 40-yard dash times, promptly quit in the middle of his NFL Combine workout in February.

For the past two months, his handlers have tried to polish his image, hoping Clarett would be a fifth- or sixth-round pick.

He did much better.

"Obviously, we're ecstatic with the outcome," Luchs said. "Nobody thought this was even remotely possible."

When told he should be up for Agent of the Year, Luchs laughed.

"Are you putting that in writing?" he said.

Clarett spent Sunday in Denver and was introduced at an afternoon press conference at Broncos headquarters. He promised to be in camp on time and be a model citizen.

"From here on out, whatever they ask me to do, I'm gonna do," Clarett said. "Coach Turner took a gamble on me, as did Coach Shanahan. I don't want to make them look stupid."

Good situation

Clarett, who grew up on the South Side, will join a Broncos offense that has turned previously unheralded running backs such as Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary and Reuben Droughns into 1,000-yard rushers.

Even Clarett's critics had to admit he's going to a good situation.

"I think Maurice Clarett in Denver has a chance to be a decent football player," said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.

Of course, Clarett still must win over a boatload of skeptics, who feel the former Ohio State standout is (pick one) too selfish, too immature, too slow, too injury-prone or too rusty to be a solid NFL player.

"All that other stuff is water under the bridge," Clarett said. "I'm just ready to get back to playing football."

And that's what he does best, Luchs said.

"As I've been saying, you knew there was going to be someone out there who saw this guy's talent and recognized what he's accomplished," he said. "If we were able to change the perceptions about him or at least show he's changed, we knew someone might go up and take a chance."

Early call

Earlier Saturday, long before Clarett's name was called, another Youngstown native, Michigan defensive back Marlin Jackson, was selected by the Indianapolis Colts with the 29th pick in the first round.

Jackson, who was born on the South Side and moved to Sharon when he was 6, got a congratulatory phone call from Clarett -- and from a whole lot of other people.

"Oh man, I got the most phone calls I've ever got in my life in a two-day period," Jackson said, laughing. "I was happy for [Clarett]. Maurice and me are friends, we're both Youngstown guys and we've always had a lot of respect for each other.

"I'm just proud of him. He went through a lot of stuff and kept his head on straight and kept with it."

Several teams talked to Jackson on Friday night and he wondered if he might go earlier, but Colts coach Tony Dungy was the first to call him on Saturday.

Jackson, a three-year starter for the Wolverines, will try to be the missing piece for a Colts team that has lost to the Patriots in the playoffs the past two years.

With quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wideout Marvin Harrison, offense hasn't been a problem for Indy. Defense is another story. Six of its first eight picks were defensive players, including another Big Ten cornerback, Illinois' Kelvin Hayden, who was picked in the second round.

"It's probably the best situation for me," Jackson said. "It's a winning organization and the only thing holding them back from a Super Bowl is that they have to get better on defense. They need help at corner and I'm going to try to come in and fill a need on an already great team."

Familiar faces

He'll have some familiar faces with him in the Colts' defensive backfield, including Chaney's Anthony Floyd (Louisville), and former Big Ten standouts Mike Doss (Ohio State) and Bob Sanders (Iowa).

Former Michigan linebacker Cato June is also on the team.

"I'm familiar with all of those guys," Jackson said. "It's really going to help ease the transition."

He'll also be close enough to home to see his friends and family. He'll have to adjust to his new surroundings at the RCA Dome -- he's never played indoors -- but he doesn't think it'll be a problem.

"It'll be nice to be out of the snow," he said.

Jackson became the first Youngstown-area player drafted since Ursuline's Mike Echols was drafted out of Wisconsin in the fourth round by the Titans in 2002.

His first major purchase will be a house for his aunt, Gwendolyn Pope, who helped raise him. Other than that, he's focusing on football.

"I'm looking forward to practicing and learning the defense," he said. "The past few days have felt like a dream. The whole experience of hearing my name called and flying out to Indianapolis for the press conference, it's just a great feeling. I feel really lucky."

scalzo@vindy.com




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