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After two steps back, Clarett finally takes one step ahead

Posted: Friday, February 25, 2005

He hasn't been tackled since the spring of 2003. That's not to say that Maurice Clarett hasn't absorbed more than his fair share of knocks since. If anything, the opposite is true. He's lost time, millions of dollars and a reputation. About the only thing Clarett dodged, at least until Thursday, was responsibility for any of it.

But this time, he stood still and took those hits, too. That was a big step forward.

''We can say coulda, shoulda, woulda about a lot of things. But the fact that it didn't turn out that way,'' Clarett said at the NFL combine, ''I'm not about to be mad or cry over it.''

There's no point in anybody else weeping for him, either. Not the league's scouts and talent evaluators, not the general managers who make the draft picks, not the rest of us, not anymore. Clarett caught some tough breaks growing up poor in Youngstown, Ohio, but the bad things that happened to him over the last two years — he brought most of those on himself.

Walk around with your hand out all the time, the way Clarett did at Ohio State, and two things are bound to happen. First, people are going to assume you're needy, and second, they're eventually going to want a return on their investment. He got taken by Ohio State, by Ohio State's boosters, and by all those sycophants and lawyers who talked him into challenging the NFL minimum-age requirement.

But all that had better be behind him now. Clarett has been given one final chance to prove he's his own man, and ducking wasn't an option. That included fielding an even five dozen questions from a skeptical crowd of reporters about how and why he's changed.

''I don't think I really can say. Just,'' Clarett began, ''I had to take a look at myself from outside myself. When I looked at myself sometimes, I kind of looked like a joke to myself. I guess it was a part of growing up and becoming who I am today.

''I just looked at it like one of you all might at me and be like, 'He wasn't mature.' I did do some things I shouldn't have done. I've taken responsibility for all those things and I'm just ready to move forward.''

That's the saving grace of the athletic system that used Clarett every bit as hard as he used it. The people in charge are always ready to move forward, too.

A year ago, Clarett showed up at the same combine memorably overweight and unprepared. He promised to be ready for a private workout two months later, and was anything but. The only thing that seemed sharper in the intervening months was his tongue.

In an interview with ESPN The Magazine last November, he blasted Ohio State one more time and then Clarett promised to remove any doubts about his character and his preparations when he turned at the combine this time. The troubling part is that it was never going to be as easy as he made it sound.

''I'm thinking, 'NFL GMs know college players take money,''' he said at the time. ''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.''

What's changed between now and then remains anyone's guess. But Clarett looked fit instead of fidgety, and sounded confident instead of like a con man. A month ago, reports that he was working out diligently were easy to dismiss, especially after he skipped out on a commitment to participate in a skills challenge that was staged to showcase some of college football most draftable talent.

But he showed up Thursday with a very buff 234 pounds layered on his frame, and even more important, a willingness to display it. As opposed to last year, Clarett will run, jump, lift and take part in every drill offered. He promised potential employers he was ready to do things on their terms, even if it meant getting chewed up as a spare part on special teams.

''I want to play,'' Clarett said, ''for whoever wants me to play for them.''

He won't know until the end of April which team that is, but Clarett already knows they're getting him cheap. If he'd been successful the first time he tried to get into the league, Clarett would have been a late first-round pick or an early second, probably taking home a four-year deal and signing bonus totaling close to $5 million. Now, if he's convinced a team to take a flyer on him in the third round, he'd be lucky to get a quarter of that amount.

Expensive as that hit was, he understands this is only chance to make it back.

''The fact of the matter is you step on that field, it doesn't matter where you were drafted at. ... That matters financially. But when it comes down to playing on that field, you can ask anybody I've ever played against, I don't joke around.

''I,'' Clarett said, ''handle my business.''

This time, he'd better do just that.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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