Clarett's chance may be his last
The NFL is full of heartwarming tales about guys who came out of nowhere to make it big.
Maurice Clarett's story will not be one of those. He may wind up going late in the draft, but he is not going to sneak up on anyone.
The one-time Ohio State running back and cause celebre slipped into the shadows more than two years ago, being glimpsed only occasionally since inside a courtroom or at a rare workout, or else ratting out his former program in print and on TV.
But Clarett popped back into the news earlier this week when his name was included on Wednesday's list of underclassmen eligible for the April draft. And if he lets this chance slip the way he has so many others, what Clarett will find is that he's run out of rope.
"It's been a tough road, but that's behind him," San Diego general manager A.J. Smith said.
"Whether you go in the first round, the seventh or walk into training camp a free agent, you're going to get your opportunity. This is his," Smith added, "and I, for one, wish him the best."
Drafting NFL players is only a guessing game
Clarett played his last football game more than two years ago, but the lack of college experience -- or buzz, for that matter -- is hardly his biggest obstacle. Patriots lineman Stephen Neal, breakout Charger tight end Antonio Gates and Colts wideout Marcus Pollard, to name just a few, were all late-bloomers who hadn't played even a single down in college.
Neal wrestled and the other two played hoops, but all patiently wended their way toward the NFL, stepped up when their chances came, and are now reaping the rewards. Whether Clarett has the skill and work ethic to do the same is anybody's guess. But for the measuring that goes on, that's exactly what the draft is -- a guessing game.
"Every kid does what he wants to do in terms of showcasing himself -- that's their prerogative -- and we observe," Smith said. "Then we make our decisions.
"Personally, I think all guys should stay in school. But some individuals have to do what they think is best for their families."
Before drawing the wrong conclusion, understand this is how Smith and his counterparts do business -- officially, anyway. Because the league bars a player from entering the draft until he's been out of high school for three years, GMs are supposed to wait for the NFL-approved list of underclassmen, then start studying them as thoroughly as they've been tracking the upperclassmen.
Clarett will have to answer the doubts
Clarett tried to change that in a much-publicized antitrust case against the NFL, and lost on appeal. In the process, he got used as a platform for some unscrupulous actors -- remember Jim Brown calling Clarett selfless and a "pioneer" -- and lost more goodwill than most people can afford.
Clarett showed up for the league's scouting combine last February memorably overweight and unprepared. The private workout he staged two months later to dazzle those same scouts was anything but dazzling.
In rare interviews since, Clarett has come off both evasive and vindictive, leaving teams to wonder about his conditioning and the company he keeps.
Clarett told ESPN The Magazine in November that he would answer all those doubts at next month's combine.
"I'm thinking, 'NFL GMs know college players take money,' " he said, not getting off to a good start. "It was nothing like I stole something. Nothing like I'm running from the law or I'm dragging a girl down the stairs. No domestic violence. No nothing. (But) I got to clear myself up now, because it's affecting the minds of the GMs."
Vince Marrow has been telling people back in Columbus, Ohio, that his now 21-year-old cousin is in "spectacular" shape.
"Better than ever," Marrow claimed, because Clarett hasn't taken any hits in a while and he's been weightlifting and running all the while.
Clarett hasn't made himself available for confirmation, but there have been rumored sightings of workouts as far afield as Texas, Florida and California.
In the pros, how you play is all that matters
Certainly, few other people back at Ohio State would vouch for him. Clarett's hide-and-seek tales of handouts from boosters have already sent athletic director Andy Geiger into early retirement and the mess is still a long way from being cleaned up. NCAA investigators have been back there to check out Clarett's blasts more than once and they may have a satellite office up and running by the time the sanctions are being handed down.
But that's the beauty of the pros. They gave Barry Switzer a job and he had Oklahoma on double-secret probation all the time. More to the point, they understand that not every kid is as lucky or comes to them as polished as USC's Matt Leinart, gifted with both talent and a supportive, well-off family, and able to delay launching his career until he's ready.
To the NFL, it matters only so much whether you were a wrestler in college, like Neal, or a budding career criminal, like Lawrence Phillips, or a troublemaker, like Clarett. It doesn't matter, either, that this draft is far deeper in running backs than last year's was -- or next year's looks to be.
Clarett will get the chance to prove what he wanted to all along, that he is good enough to play on Sundays.
"He's so far off our radar right now that it will be a while before we get around to evaluating him. But he'll be treated like everybody else," Smith said. "I can guarantee that much."
XJim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org.