|Friday, September 13
Updated: September 14, 4:57 PM ET
Clarett thinks, acts and plays beyond his years
By Wayne Drehs
Walking off the field following last Saturday's 51-17 drubbing of Kent State, Maurice Clarett was hit by barrage of Buckeye fans. They craved a smile, a wave, an acknowledgement of any sort.
But the 18-year-old wanted no part. Even though he rushed for two touchdowns, giving him five in his first two college games, he stared at the ground, ignoring everyone. During postgame interviews, he said very little. Back in his dorm, he said even less.
The reason: A third-quarter fumble against Kent, the first of Clarett's college career.
See, when you're an ultra-perfectionist, a former USA Today High School Offensive Player of the Year who expects Walter Payton-like production every time the ball touches your hands, coughing up the football eats at you like a tapeworm.
"It's like losing your wallet or your lunch money," said Clarett, the first true freshman to ever start a season-opener at running back for Ohio State. "And that's not cool. Even after you get it back, it still bugs you. It bugged me on the sideline. It bugged me in the locker room. And it has bugged me all this week. I'm still not happy about it."
Welcome to the world of Clarett, a 6-foot, 230-pound competitive freak who has sacrificed high school, friends and a normal teenage life for football greatness. He's escaped the treacherous streets of Youngstown, Ohio, where he watched most of his friends end up dead or in jail, and come to Columbus, with expectation as high as anyone before him, and delivered.
"He has this passion to be phenomenal," Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said. "He only wants to be an extraordinary football player on an extraordinary team. And while a lot of people talk about all the goals they have or things they want to achieve, he goes out and does it."
Clarett graduated from Warren's Harding High last December, foregoing the end of his senior year to get a head start on college football. In the season opener against Texas Tech three weeks ago, needed just 12 carries to eclipse the century mark, eventually rushing for 175 yards and three touchdowns. It didn't surprise Tressel one bit.
"The first time I saw him play he was in the ninth grade and I thought, 'My goodness, this guy might be able to help us right now,'" said Tressel, who coached at Youngstown State before coming to Columbus last year. "I knew he was a hard worker. I just didn't know how hard."
Clarett's often the first one to show up for practice and the last to leave. Already, in just nine months in Columbus, he's called out upperclassmen dogging it in practice. And he's never satisfied with a drill until he's done it right.
Tressel is a close friend of Thom McDaniels, Clarett's high school coach and the two have already talked about handling Clarett with delicate hands. The problems come in practice, when Buckeye coaches, looking to protect their football futures, pull Clarett out of a drill and find themselves rewarded with a mini temper tantrum.
"He understands you can't get every carry in every game," McDaniels said. "But man, does he not like it when he doesn't get his share of reps in practice or the work that he thinks he needs. He can lift on his own, he can run on his own, but he can't get carries and he can't run routes by himself. Coaches aren't always used to players who crave practice."
Part of the craving, McDaniels said, is a fear of failure. Part of it is a desire to truly be the best ever. But the biggest part, according to Clarett, is the motivation of giving Youngstown something to be proud of.
In Youngstown, Clarett grew up avoiding drug pushers, gang bangers and an all out urban hell. While he was lucky, others weren't. Four of his close friends were murdered. Another 10 to 15 acquaintances, he said, were gunned down. There are countless others who still sit in a locked jail cell for a host of crimes.
"You would see somebody someday and then the next day, they'd be gone," Clarett said. "And you just knew. Going to so many funerals really makes you grow up quickly."
His upbringing scarred him so much that Clarett said he still has difficulties with intimacy. He keeps friends at a safe distance as a way to protect himself from potential emotional scars of a sudden loss.
But it's those same scars that push him.
"Every day I strap on the pads, I'm not playing for myself," Clarett said. "I'm playing for the kids who have a dream. I'm playing for the guy who had more talent than I did, but didn't make it.
"I'm playing for the guy who works 9 to 5 everyday so he can pay $50 to watch us play. I want him to get his money's worth -- to leave the stadium thinking, 'That was one of the best football players I've ever seen.'"
Earlier this week, the phone rang in McDaniels's office, just as he figured it would. On the other end was Clarett, frustrated by his fumble, disappointed that the Buckeye ground game totaled 144 yards against Kent, and irritated that coaches pulled the first-team offense in the second half.
McDaniels basically told him to chill. And even though he might not play like it, start acting more like a freshman. After all, one fumble isn't the end of the world.
"Here's a kid who's hungry, who has this incredible desire to be the best on every single play in every single game of anything he does," McDaniels said. "And that's not easy to live up to. So I told him to relax, think like a coach, look at the bigger picture and everything will turn out just fine."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.