The kid relies on his instincts. Every great running back learns to pick his spots, but Maurice Clarett grasped that lesson earlier than most. Ohio State's 19-year-old freshman sensation had little choice; grow up where he did and one false step means you might never get the chance to make another.
Keep that in mind as the he-said, they-said argument between Clarett and OSU officials plays out over the final two days of preparations leading up to the Fiesta Bowl.
On Monday, Clarett criticized his own school for failing to help him return home to attend the funeral of a murdered friend. On Tuesday, after OSU athletic director Andy Geiger said Clarett failed to file the financial aid forms needed by the school to disburse NCAA emergency funds, Clarett coolly accused school officials of lying.
''I won't sit here,'' he said, encircled by reporters, ''and let them lie about that.''
It was the second straight day that a kid used to impressing people with deeds did it with words instead. But not everybody was caught off guard.
''I don't know if surprise would be the right word,'' his mother, Michelle Clarett, said during a break Tuesday from her duties as chief deputy clerk of Youngstown's municipal court. ''I'd have to say I know my son and I'd guess he went with what he was feeling that day.''
Clarett's frustration with OSU -- ''I guess football's more important than a person's life to them.'' -- pulled the covers off the normally sleepy run-up to Friday's national championship game against Miami. But he didn't stop there.
Warming to the task, Clarett went on and slammed college athletics for not diverting some of its considerable wealth to ease the burden on society's weakest and poorest. It's a topic he knows only too well.
Clarett is the youngest of three boys raised in a tough part of a tough town by a single working mother. Nearby, his grandmother's three-bedroom house might be packed with the Clarett boys and as many as 11 cousins. Still, the traffic inside paled by comparison to what went on outside.
For most of the week, the Claretts' front lawn was the neighborhood's football stadium, the back yard its basketball arena. And there were times when there were games going on in both, his mother recalled.
She became commissioner of the local peewee football program to shepherd her own kids and still holds the position today. For all that, though, Clarett went to work each day praying the games on her lawn began and ended peacefully.
''It was kind of a safe haven,'' she said.
But only barely.
Earlier this year, Clarett told ESPN The Magazine about sitting on his porch one night and watching his next-door neighbor bleed to death from multiple gunshot wounds. Another time, while playing touch football, he saw another neighborhood kid sitting atop a car killed in a drive-by shooting. Clarett had been to 10 funerals by the time he was out of high school.
His best friend is doing 19 years in the slammer, and Clarett spent three stints in juvenile detention centers, including 90 days for breaking and entering. He once said he thought he'd wind up as a drug dealer because that was one of the few successful role models he'd come across.
None of that meshes easily with the thoughtful kid who talked at length Monday about how the scholarship that carried him from Youngstown to Ohio State's campus in Columbus opened his mind without forcing him to shut his eyes.
''You go through downtown Columbus, you've got people sleeping on sidewalks. ... This is wintertime, it's like 19 degrees down there. They're sleeping in boxes and little covers,'' he said. ''It don't make any sense to me.''
But put Clarett on a football field and his world is ordered in a hurry. With a shoulder injury limiting him to part-time work, he still amassed 1,190 yards and 16 TDs this season, both OSU freshman records.
Against Michigan, in the game the Buckeyes needed to finish the regular season undefeated and gain their first national title try in 34 years, Clarett not only ran for 119 yards, scored the first touchdown and caught a 26-yard toss on the crucial drive, he actually called the pass play. Clarett saw a gap in the Wolverines' defense and, hardly bashful, talked Coach Jim Tressel into letting him exploit it.
''He's always right there, in coach's ear,'' OSU receiver Michael Jenkins said. ''He's a smart kid. He always wants the ball, and he's figured out how to get it.''
And what to do with it once he does.
''Keep my shoulders square,'' Clarett said, unafraid of a collision, ''and head north and south.''
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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