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Maurice Clarett: From Football to Prison to Justice Reform Advocate

Ryan JonesContributor IMay 3, 2017

FILE-This Wednesday, Sept . 1, 2010 file photo shows Maurice Clarett walking off the field following team practice with the United Football League's Omaha Nighthawks in Omaha, Neb. Clarett, a former Ohio State football star, will talk about his life experiences after getting out of prison at the upcoming Hope Conference at Youngstown State University. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)
Nati Harnik/Associated Press

Sports are no longer Maurice Clarett's business, or his primary interest, but he can't escape the terminology of the game.

The nonprofit he co-founded last year in his native Youngstown, Ohio, to help the city's families and at-risk youth? It's called The Red Zone. He equates the role of warden in a correctional facility with that of a head coach; both, he says, are tasked with developing the skills of the people under their charge. Discussing the social and economic factors that lead to high recidivism rates, he sounds like a pundit scouring a box score: "The numbers," he insists, "don't lie."

Sports, of course, are why any of us know Clarett's name in the first place. A high school All-American, a freshman phenom at Ohio State and one of the first players to seriously challenge the NFL's draft eligibility rules, he was, briefly, one of the most compelling figures in America's favorite sport.

But that was 15 years ago. In the years that followed, a string of bad decisions derailed his promising career, cost him millions in potential earnings and eventually landed him in prison; he never played a down in the NFL. There was every reason to think Clarett would go down as a cautionary tale, nothing more.

That changed when Clarett made the decision to tell his own story. And on the subject of justice reform, few have a more compelling story to tell.

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For reasons that range from economic to moral, reforming the United States' criminal justice system and overpopulated prisons and curtailing the prison-industrial complex have in recent years become increasingly bipartisan concerns. In that, it seems fitting an issue capable of bringing even intense ideological foes together would pair Clarett with the person who runs Ohio's prisons. But while their life experiences and perspectives couldn't be more different, their principles on this topic couldn't be more closely aligned.

On Wednesday, Clarett and Gary Mohr, director of the state's Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, will headline a "Smart Justice" panel discussion in Columbus on justice reform initiatives in the Buckeye State. The event, organized by the U.S. Justice Action Network, is being billed as a chance to "move the ball forward on 'smart on crime' policy." The pairing is the result of mutual respect between the former inmate and a man once charged with overseeing prison sentences.

"I met Gary a few years ago at a speech I gave at a correctional institution, and our relationship kind of formed from there," Clarett tells Bleacher Report by phone. "He saw my perspective and the fact that when I got out of prison, I tried to make my life better and help other guys in transition. It takes more energy and thought to say, 'We don't want to put these guys in prison—let's try to figure out another way.' It's commendable for a guy in his position to step up and say, 'Can we get some reform?'

"It's something I feel very passionate about—being incarcerated and living through the backside of that. I just want to be in on the conversation."

Since leaving prison in 2010 after three-and-a-half years inside, Clarett has been speaking—honestly, even bluntly—to prisons, sports teams and other organizations about the challenges, including substance abuse and depression, and bad decisions that cost him a chance at NFL stardom.

KIICHIRO SATO/Associated Press

But speaking specifically about justice reform was a different task, one that required an understanding of the policy, politics and laws that send so many Americans to prison, and of the underlying economic, educational and public health factors that set so many up to fail. Hearing Clarett discuss the issue now, it's clear he's done his homework.

"Oftentimes, we miss the fact that it's the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections," he says. "You see the lack of professional help for people with mental health issues. You see how school systems have failed guys. There's a disconnect between the courts and the prison system. And then after they get out, there's a need to develop and get assistance and help for people to live productive lives.

"The numbers don't lie: You see guys come in and out of prison, and these guys have kids, and those kids are raised without parents. It's just sort of recycling and continuing the problem. When do you stop that? And we now have an opioid epidemic around the country compounding all that. At what point does this weigh on the economy, weigh on society so much that we do something about it?"

Clarett has made it his business to understand the issues and their potential solutions.

"I think it's very important to add to your level of credibility," he says. "People will always know me for football—you always know people for how they're first introduced to the world. But if you want to be respected and have credibility and make some significant changes, you have to dig into the stuff but still speak from your heart.

"It's not a complex thing for me to speak about because I'm speaking from experience."

That experience has been motivating him for years, from countless speaking engagements in front of impressionable kids to, more recently, co-founding The Red Zone in his hometown. The facility includes programs for people dealing with addiction and those trying to re-acclimate after leaving prison. It also aims to aid children through behavioral intervention programs and outreach into local schools.

In those efforts to help kids, Clarett's work overlaps somewhat with that of LeBron James, a peer and friend from their time as early-2000s prep stars from Northeast Ohio. It goes without saying how starkly their paths have diverged since, but in their work now, there's a happy similarity: LeBron's Akron-based foundation has pledged millions to help put hundreds of local kids through college. On a much smaller, quieter level, Clarett is trying to have a similar impact.

AMY SANCETTA/Associated Press

Asked if he's stayed in touch with LeBron, Clarett says there's almost no one he stays in touch with from his former life in sports.

"I just don't have the time," he says. "I don't really even keep up with guys or with TV or social media or anything."

The one exception: his old coach at Ohio State, Jim Tressel, with whom he remains close.

Clarett doesn't waste his energy on Twitter, trending headlines or reliving his gridiron glory. He saves it for a bigger fight, one for which his often difficult life has prepared him well.

"You understand these guys have kids and families and people who love them, and they're all being negatively affected by the current policies," he says. "It's almost to the point that it has to change, and I'm optimistic that it's happening. I just hope my one, small voice can help."

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