When people ask me who was the best high school football player I've ever seen, I don't even hesitate before saying Maurice Clarett.
Playing at Warren Harding High School, Clarett had that rare combination of speed and power you just don't see at the high school level. Or, that you'd often see at the college level, as his one year at Ohio State is evidence of.
I remember the first time I saw Clarett play. I had heard about this local kid who committed to Ohio State. I saw the highlights but wasn't able to fully comprehend how good he was. Until I saw him live.
It was a battle of Division I unbeatens, Clarett's Harding Raiders hosting Canton McKinley. More than 200 all-purpose yards and four Clarett touchdowns later, it was a blowout win for Harding. Clarett was a man among boys and like 10,000 other people in the stadium, I knew I watched someone special.
After his senior year at Harding, the USA Today named Clarett its national player of the year. At Ohio State he helped lead the Buckeyes to a national championship his freshman season. Clarett was on top of the football world.
Then, just as quickly as he rose, everything came crashing down.
Some people today still view Clarett as the man who was suspended and later dismissed from the Ohio State football team after a host of scandals, while others only think of him for his armed robbery conviction and subsequent jail time. I really hope those people had a chance to see "Youngstown Boys," ESPN's 30-for-30 documentary based on Clarett and Jim Tressell, which premiered last Saturday. They would've seen that Clarett is now representative of something else: The power of second chances.
The film told, really for the first time, Clarett's side of the story in regard to his time at, and departure from, Ohio State, and the events that led him to challenge the NFL's draft rules. Clarett held nothing back, detailing the downward spiral he went on and how he hit rock bottom, landing in prison.
I was working in the Youngstown media during the years following Clarett's time at Ohio State, when he was drafted by and later cut by the Broncos, and also when Clarett's legal troubles began to take center stage.
I got to see how the public perception of Clarett, even in his own hometown, began to slide as Clarett's personal slide went deeper. For a while, most people were still on Clarett's side. We wanted him to succeed. He was one of us; he was a Youngstown boy.
Then things began to go downhill.
Working in sportstalk radio at the time, there was a point where all we had to do was come on air, say the words "Maurice Clarett" and phone lines lit up for two hours, with people either attacking or defending him.
It got to the point, though, where eventually there was no more defending him. I admittedly was as hard on him as anybody for some of the things he did. I got tired of trying to defend the local kid who seemingly didn't care about anything. I took off the rose-colored glasses when looking at Clarett. I always said to anyone still defending him, "If this wasn't Clarett, if this was some player from Florida or USC, how would we look at him? What would we be saying about him?"
But things change. People change.
In "Youngstown Boys," Clarett put the blame where it needed to be and took responsibility for his actions. Clarett went to jail, served his time and came out a better man for it. He got a second chance at life and is making the most of it.
Clarett now does a great deal of public speaking, talking to kids and telling his story. He's helping others see where he went wrong and how to avoid going down that same path. If that message reaches even just one kid, then maybe everything Clarett went through was worth it.
You have to wonder how differently things would've turned out had there been someone like that talking to Clarett when he was young.
Clarett made mistakes, but he's learned from them and has moved on and become a stronger man because of them.
Forgiveness and second chances aren't things that just apply to large scale cases like Clarett.
It's a lesson that holds true even on the local high school levels. Too often we criticize a kid for a mistake he or she might make, whether it be on the field or off. Especially off the field, where it's likely to be a mistake 90 percent of us may have been guilty of, only we were never under the same scrutiny as high school athletes today, or maybe we were just never caught.
But the character of a man is not determined by the mistakes he makes, but rather how he responds to, and comes back from those mistakes. The best learning opportunities usually stem from indiscretions.
Everybody deserves a second chance to come back and make things right.
Tony Maluso is a sports writer for The Advertiser-Tribune.
He can be reached at:
firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow him on Twitter @TonyATSports