Choice of Friends Sets Path in Life, Clarett Tells Hope Conference

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Choose your friends carefully, Maurice Clarett advised those who have spent time behind bars and are looking to rejoin society.

Clarett should know. The one-time football standout at Warren G. Harding High School and The Ohio State University related Wednesday how his choice of friends cost him the chance for a career in the National Football League. It also caused him to spend time in prison where he turned his life around.

“If you run with a bunch of losers, you’ll be a loser,” Clarett told the second annual Hope Conference held at Youngstown State University. “Hang around winners and you’ll be a winner.”

It’s critical, he said, not to rejoin the people who led you into trouble and caused you to land in prison.

The president of YSU, Jim Tressel, introduced Clarett, who had been a star on his national championship football team the first season he coached at Ohio State.

The Hope Conference drew some 250 residents of the Mahoning Valley, mostly felons, who have served time in a county jail, or state or federal prison. Recently released, they came to learn more about the resources available to help them become better parents and spouses, find a safe place to live, eat healthful meals, stay sober and get honest jobs.

Clarett told of growing up on the South Side and getting into scrapes with the law – joy riding in stolen autos and spending time in juvenile detention before he was a teenager and, in the ninth grade, breaking into a house where the owner called police.

In 10th grade at Warren G. Harding, Clarett said, he discovered a talent for football, attained a 3.5 GPA – “School was easy for me” – and began to think his success on the football field was entirely his own.

“I began to believe I didn’t need help [support],” he recounted, as he “won award after award.”

In his first game as a freshman at Ohio State, Clarett rushed for 475 yards. His exploits on the field led him to think he could ignore the rules as his friends from Youngstown helped him celebrate at Columbus nightclubs where he joined them in “drinking and drugging.”

Four weeks into the season, Tressel “sat me down. I thought he was trying to separate me from my friends, my homeboys,” Clarett said. “I ignored him.”

Ohio State went on to beat its archrival, the University of Michigan, in late 2001 and go on to win the national championship in January 2002. “I thought I was the best thing in Ohio,” Clarett recalled.

He didn’t study and sought to enroll in soft courses. An investigation by the NCAA “threw me out of the football program. I was no student [and] basically went back to the streets.”

In 2004, Clarett left Ohio for California to connect with Cleveland Browns running great Jim Brown, who had founded Amer-I-Can, a group to help individuals reach their full potential. He never made it to the Los Angeles address.

Despite the Denver Broncos taking a chance on Clarett by picking him 101st in the NFL draft – “my bad behavior and bad habits [resulted in] I did poorly in the NFL drills. … I knew I wasn’t prepared” – he spurned coach Mike Shanahan’s urging to get his life back in order by sitting out a year, getting back in shape and working with a psychologist.

He returned to Ohio and “looked up Coach Tressel. He gave me advice to help me turn my life around.”

Then, on Dec. 31, 2005, Clarett, who continued to live his life on the streets, attempted an armed robbery in downtown Columbus. That aspect of his life is well known.

Not as well known is his girlfriend informing him she was pregnant.

His life was a mess. His weight had ballooned to 275. He couldn’t sleep longer than two hours at a time.

The following August he had been drinking and was driving a Honda at 3 a.m. when he made an illegal U-turn, a maneuver a policeman saw from a nearby parking lot. He gave chase.

“A Honda is not a good getaway car in a high-speed chase,” Clarett said dryly of the five-mile pursuit that ended with him abandoning his car and trying to flee on foot into some woods.

He couldn’t post the $500,000 bail the judge set and so he spent seven months in the Franklin County jail. It gave him time to reflect on his life and to read.

He became a voracious reader in the county jail and at the prison in Toledo.

“I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed learning,” Clarett said, especially books on business and investing. He realized that he could transfer the skills he had picked up in his illegal enterprises to a legitimate business. His interest in investments led to going to Omaha, Neb., where he spent five hours one-on-one with Warren Buffett after his release.

In addition, “I gave my life to the Lord,” Clarett said to applause, and “learned how to be a father to my daughter.”

Today he works with young people, has made 80 presentations on what his life has taught him and shares those lessons. He also has a small transportation company.

Through it all, “I never gave up,” Clarett declared, and urged his audience not to yield to despair. Don’t be ashamed, he advised. “Tell your story” to those who want to help.

Among those who want to help are Pat Kerrigan, head of the Oakhill Collaborative, 407 Oak Hill Ave., and Guy Burney, who oversees the city’s Community Initiative to Reduce Violence in City Hall.

Kerrigan played a major role in organizing yesterday’s Hope Conference.

Among the social services and faith agencies on hand Wednesday morning were the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence, sponsored by the city of Youngstown; the Youngstown Metropolitan Housing Authority; the Mahoning County office of Jobs and Family Services; Home for Good, Youngstown; Free Prison Ministries Inc., Warren; the YWCA of Youngstown; Planned Parenthood; Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative; the Center for Community Empowerment; the Dress to Success Ministry of Greater Friendship Baptist Church, Youngstown; Mycap; and the Neil Kennedy Recovery Clinic, Youngstown.

Pictured: Maurice Clarett addesses the Hope Conference that took place Wednesday at Youngstown State  University.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.