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Clarett says he'll play for Mahoning Valley Hitmen



Published: Fri, July 14, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



The former Harding and Ohio State standout has not yet signed a contract.

By JOE SCALZO

VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF

With three years worth of mistakes behind him and fatherhood directly in front of him, Maurice Clarett took stock of his life -- and his dwindling football options -- and decided to take a chance on an upstart league and a chance at redemption.

Thursday was the first day of the rest of that journey.

Welcome back, Maurice.

"I don't have many other options," said Clarett, who announced that he will play for the Mahoning Valley Hitmen of the Eastern Indoor Football League. "The one thing I can do is play football."

Hasn't played in awhile

Clarett, 22, has not played a competitive football game in more than 31/2 years. The former Ohio State standout, was cut by the Denver Broncos last August. He and his girlfriend will become parents next month. (His daughter is due on Aug. 18.) He's awaiting trial on aggravated robbery charges. He'll turn 23 in October.

There was a lot weighing on him, he said, and he needed to focus on his family -- and his future.

"I've changed," he said. "I think I made a lot of mistakes as a young man and I've got to accept responsibility for that.

"This is a great opportunity for me to get back on the field and take a step back toward the NFL."

Skeptics will scoff at that last point. The EIFL has just five teams and the Hitmen have commitments from just two other players. Clarett was supposed to sign with a team in NFL Europe last January, but his arrest nixed that deal. He said he's spent most of the last six months working out, waiting for someone to call.

Only one person did: Hitmen GM Jim Terry.

Made national headlines

Terry made national headlines this past week with his claim that Clarett had verbally committed to his team. As the days went by -- and Clarett's commitment never materialized on paper or in person -- Terry grew more and more nervous, and his critics became more vocal.

Worst yet, his agreement with the Thunderplex -- which was to hold the Hitmen games -- was in danger of disappearing.

"I had given him until the end of the month," said Thunderplex GM Dave Anderson. "I hadn't talked to him or his father [Hitmen owner Jim Terry Sr.] since last Friday, I think it was. The last conversation I had with his dad, I hung up on him. And I don't do that to people."

Then, on Thursday afternoon, the two Terrys (both Cardinal Mooney graduates) walked into the Thunderplex office with Clarett and asked for 15 minutes of Anderson's time.

"Maurice asked me, 'If I play for the Hitmen, will we play here?'" Anderson said. "I said, 'If you play for the Hitmen, you will play here.'"

Nothing signed as yet

Nothing's been signed -- either by Clarett or Anderson. Clarett is still working out the details of his contract -- "There are a lot of kinks to work out," he said -- but he will have a base salary with possible bonuses. There are also rumors that he will get a piece of ownership.

Regardless, Clarett left no doubt about his intentions.

"I will sign with them," said Clarett, who grew up in Youngstown and graduated from Warren Harding High. "I plan to play for two years. I need to develop my skills and hopefully get back in the NFL."

And if he doesn't?

"If after two years in the league, no one wants me at the next level, I'll continue to play in this league," he said.

As for the Thunderplex, Terry has taken steps to alleviate Anderson's fears. He formed an Ohio corporation online -- Mahoning Valley Hitmen, Inc. -- and the team is licensed to do business in Ohio. Cost estimates for a new team run as high as $250,000, but the Terrys say they can do it much cheaper by buying the boards and turf from teams that went out of business.

"I made it very clear to them that the turf cannot be held together with duct tape," said Anderson. "Things have to be done properly."

Mafia hitman logo

Another concern was the logo, which is a Mafia hitman wielding a gun. (When asked about it, Terry said, "Well, it's a little scarier than a Buckeye.")

Of course, that's not the only concern. The team's Web site (www.mvhitmen.com) has gunshot sound effects and the team's motto is "Get Whacked Indoors," which has offended people on several levels.

"Maurice had the same concerns I did," said Anderson. "He made it clear that he'd prefer not to be associated with guns."

Terry has heard the complaints -- "We don't want to come across as a bunch of thugs," he said -- and seems open to changes.

Securing Clarett helped the team (and the league) take a big step toward legitimacy.

"He might be the biggest name we sign, but he's not going to be the only big name we sign," Terry said.

Won't have competition

One other bonus: With play beginning in January, the EIFL won't have to compete with the Mahoning Valley Thunder, which will begin play in the arena2 league in April at the Chevrolet Centre downtown.

(Clarett actually approached the Thunder about playing for them, but the team declined to match his deal with the EIFL.)

The Thunderplex doesn't hold as many fans as the Chevy Centre -- Anderson is hoping for 1,500 to 1,800 -- but it should hold enough. Clarett said he will play on both sides of the ball --he only played running back in high school and college -- and is focused on helping the team succeed.

The biggest question is whether Clarett will even be eligible to play. If convicted on his robbery charges, he faces up to 25 years in prison.

"I'm not worried about that," Clarett said.

Added Anderson, "I take people at face value. Until he shows me that his not able to play, I'm going to believe him when he says he can."

"He appears to be a very down-to-earth, humble guy," Anderson added. "He mentioned several times in our conversation that he has a child coming. The way he handled himself, he really looked like a dad. He's trying to get himself together for his new family."

Will this all come together? Who knows?

"Would I buy a ticket at this point?" Anderson said. "No. But they're showing a lot of progress."

One thing's for sure -- people in this town are still interested in Clarett.

"Some people want to see me fail, some people want to see me succeed," said Clarett. "It's the same difference. People want to be in on the event."

Rebuilds credibility

And Terry, who went a long way toward rebuilding his struggling credibility on Thursday, seemed like a relieved man.

"The big picture is that Maurice Clarett is coming back to his hometown to play for the Mahoning Valley Thunder," said Terry.

When the media -- and Clarett -- started laughing at the mistake, Terry shook his head and smiled.

"Sorry, it's been a long morning," he said.

But with Clarett headed back home, Terry can rest a little easier.

His mornings should be getting better.

scalzo@vindy.com




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