Ohio State goes for title free of Clarett's shadow


Published: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The last time Ohio State played for a national championship, Maurice Clarett scored the winning touchdown.

Facts

The fall

A timeline of events surrounding former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett:

· Jan. 1, 2006 — Accused of robbing two people at gunpoint in an alley behind a Columbus bar and is wanted by police on two counts of aggravated robbery.

· Aug. 9, 2006 — Arrested after highway chase that police say started when he refused to pull over after a traffic violation. Police say they use pepper spray on him and find three handguns and an AK-47 assault rifle inside the vehicle he was driving.

· Sept. 7, 2006 — Indicted on five charges that include carrying a concealed weapon and two counts of failure to comply with an order from a police officer.

· Sept. 18, 2006 — Pleads guilty to having a hidden gun in his sport utility vehicle and holding up two people outside a bar. Sentenced to at least 3 years in prison. "I'd like to apologize for my behavior, and I accept the time that was given to me," he said in court.

· Dec. 13, 2006 — Transferred to the Toledo Correctional Institution, where he could spend the remainder of his sentence.

The Associated Press

This time, he won't even be able to watch the whole game on television.

Clarett's fall from star tailback to convicted felon has hung like a cloud over the Ohio State program since he led them to the 2002 national title.

But after years of Clarett's embarrassing off-the-field incidents, the Buckeyes seem to have finally escaped his negative image.

A season that began with Clarett facing felony charges has culminated in a Big Ten title, a shot at a national championship and a Heisman Trophy for quarterback Troy Smith. Meanwhile, Clarett is in a prison cell at the Toledo Correctional Institution, no longer making noise.

"He's pretty much forgotten," said Ohio State fan Scott Murta, 45, of suburban Powell.

Clarett hit rock bottom as Ohio State's run for a national title was just beginning.

The 23-year-old was indicted two days before Ohio State beat Texas on charges related to a highway chase and struggle with police.

Less than two weeks later, Clarett pleaded guilty to having a hidden gun in his sport utility vehicle and holding up two people outside a bar in a separate case. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison with possible release in 3 years.

Clarett hasn't been heard from since.

Officials at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction will not present him with interview requests until February, saying they want him to get acclimated to the prison system. Clarett did not respond to a letter seeking an interview. His mother, Michelle, also declined an interview request.

Only the Buckeyes' fifth-year seniors were teammates with Clarett. They seem to give him little thought, including Smith, who was once close to the tailback.

"Every man or woman chooses their path, the life that they're going to take. There's not much you can do about it once they choose which route that they're going to take," Smith said. "As of right now, no, he's not in my thinking because that situation is totally different from mine right now. I have a group of guys I have to worry and maintain about and they mean everything in the world to me. I have to address all my positive energy toward these guys."

Center Doug Datish remarked at Ohio State's media day two weeks ago that it had been a long time since he had heard a "Maurice question."

"My heart goes out to him," Datish said. "A guy that can achieve so much and fall as much as he did, my heart goes out to him."

If Clarett chooses to watch his former teammates play Florida at 8 p.m. on Jan. 8, he won't be able to see the second half. While he has access to a television in the day room of the Toledo prison, the room closes at 9:30 p.m.

The Buckeyes won't have Clarett's distractions to deal with when they travel to Arizona this time around.

He caused controversy in December 2002 by criticizing Ohio State officials for not allowing him to fly home to Youngstown for the funeral of a friend. But on Jan. 3, 2003, he provided the winning touchdown against Miami, giving Ohio State its first national title in 34 years.

That September he was suspended by the university for violating NCAA rules. Clarett continued to draw negative attention to the university in the years that followed as he unsuccessfully challenged the NFL's eligibility rules, blew his chance with the Denver Broncos and got in legal trouble.

After Clarett was sentenced to prison, Tressel said, "Like any situation that arises, if you'll take it and use it to grow, it's amazing what it can do for you. So my prayer is that he takes that time and creates a plan for his life and that he'll have a wonderful life."

At the Buckeye Hall of Fame Cafe, where Clarett was removed from a mural of the 2002 national championship team, fan Scott Murta said he believes Ohio State and Tressel have shed Clarett's stigma in part because of Smith's rise.

Just two years ago, Smith was suspended from the team for two games for accepting $500 from a booster. Where Tressel couldn't help Clarett, he's succeeded with Smith.

"He seems to have put him on the right path," Murta said.

If the Buckeyes beat Florida, Murta believes the national title would mean much more to Ohio State fans than the last one.

"You don't have the Clarett story, people questioning whether it was legit because of all his issues," he said. "And would they have done it without him? Probably not."

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