COLUMBUS, Ohio — Maurice Clarett is going to be late for the baby shower.
He’s dressed and ready. His fiancée, Ashley, and the couple’s 13-year-old daughter, Jayden, are finishing hair and makeup. Family and friends soon will gather in Worthington, Ohio, just outside Columbus, to celebrate the couple’s baby boy due in about a month.
Then Clarett gets a call on FaceTime. It’s Mike Tyson.
The legendary boxer asks, or rather demands, to see him. Clarett tells Ashley he will go meet Tyson, then come to the shower afterward.
“You have to understand,” Clarett says while driving to the meeting. “Tyson is my guy.”
Two of Clarett’s fellow former Ohio State Buckeyes, Mike Doss and Jonathan Wells, met Tyson earlier that day during an autograph-signing event at a Columbus hotel. Doss, an All-American at Ohio State who played in the NFL and is married to Ashley’s sister, participated in the signing. Afterward, they introduced themselves to Tyson.
“Who was that crazy motherf—er you played with?” Tyson asked.
Tyson told Doss and Wells he had seen Clarett on TV talking about how he had turned his life around after serving nearly four years in prison for aggravated robbery and carrying a concealed weapon, a dramatic fall from his glory days as the star freshman running back on Ohio State’s 2002 national championship team.
Tyson needed to meet Clarett.
“I feel like I made it now,” Clarett says. “As a football player, I ran like I was Mike Tyson. A lot of stuff, I identified with him. He got taken out of boxing at his prime. I got taken out of football in my prime. For this dude to know who I was and know who I am — this is the biggest star in my era, him and [Michael] Jordan.”
Clarett pulls up to the hotel. He meets Doss and Wells, and they walk to a room near the lobby. A security guard is told, “Maurice Clarett to see Mike Tyson.” They enter a room filled with red-and-black boxing gloves. Pete Rose, also part of the autograph event, sits quietly at another table.
Tyson greets Clarett and immediately starts talking — about how he hurt people, how he hated himself, how his children hated him, how he contemplated suicide but was too narcissistic to go through with it. The former world heavyweight champion had served three years and six weeks of a six-year sentence for a rape conviction before being released from prison in 1995. He attempted several comebacks to the ring. He lived with depression, other mental health issues and alcoholism for years. Tyson says Clarett’s comeback story gave him hope that he could revise his own story.
The two men embrace, as tears roll down Tyson’s face.
Clarett tells Tyson about the work he’s doing now and gives him a copy of his new book: “One and Done: How My Life Started After My Football Career Ended.”
“Legendary moments,” Clarett says as he leaves the hotel. “They say you never know who’s watching.”
Clarett doesn’t meet his childhood heroes every day, but these types of encounters are not rare, given the work he does and the message he shares. He calls himself a social entrepreneur who is living out his latest chapter of a journey filled with promise, controversy and challenges.
After entering college as one of the top recruits in the country, he helped Ohio State win the 2002 national championship. In 2003, he was suspended before the season for receiving improper benefits worth thousands of dollars, and he was eventually dismissed from the school. Clarett challenged the NFL rule requiring players to wait three years after their high school graduation before entering the draft.
Following several unsuccessful attempts to make it in the NFL, Clarett saw his life veer off track. On New Year’s Day 2006, he was charged with robbing two people at gunpoint in Columbus, and that September, he was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. (He served three and a half years.)
He knew then that something had to change. Several years after his release, he started sharing his story during speaking engagements with high-profile college teams and other organizations. He used the money he received from those events to launch The Red Zone, a behavioral health and substance abuse agency in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, which services adults and children. Clarett regularly makes the roughly 160-mile commute from his home outside Columbus to the facility.
“His heart was always there,” says Jim Tressel, Clarett’s coach at Ohio State, who now serves as president at Youngstown State University. “I remember when he first got to Ohio State, he talked about wanting to be a preacher, wanting to be a difference-maker in the urban areas. He’s just a loyal guy to his roots.”
Clarett says his main mission is deeply personal: to help others and make a positive impact for those who face the same demons that once derailed him.
“I want to talk about my life, I want to talk about what’s next,” he says. “‘OK, you f—ed up. S— happened. Own it.’ … My life started once the game was over. It’s to talk about that, not anything else.”
CLARETT’S HOME OFFICE in suburban Columbus occupies half of his basement. A bookcase includes titles from Tony Robbins, Warren Buffett and Robert Kiyosaki. A large dry-erase board is filled with small, neatly written words under individual sections, each representing an entrepreneurial area.
“My prison cell,” Clarett calls the basement.
Most days, Clarett is down here by 4:30 a.m. A morning routine of meditation and exercise helps him stay in balance. So does regular therapy and medication. “I still go to therapy,” he says. “I still take psychiatric meds. I don’t even want to minimize that. Going to therapy on a consistent basis and taking medication on a consistent basis, all that plays into personal wellness practices.”
He clears his mind and sets his intentions, visualizing projects and goals, not shying away from big ideas or what it will take to make them happen.
“Once you’ve lost everything,” he says, “you don’t fear [failure].”
Clarett began rebooting his life back in 2012, when he returned to Ohio after the United Football League suspended operations, ending his stint in Nebraska with the Omaha Nighthawks. He was catapulted back into the spotlight the following year with the release of “Youngstown Boys,” an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about Clarett and Tressel. He started speaking to teams and other groups, and traveled frequently.
During his reintegration, there were tough choices to make. He cut ties with some friends — not bad people, just no longer the right people for him to be around.
“What I was trying to do with my life, or the responsibility I had to my family,” Clarett says, “I had to let ’em go.”
There were still obstacles. In February 2016, nearly a year after his probation expired, Clarett was pulled over while making the familiar drive from Columbus to Youngstown and later charged with driving under the influence. He received a 60-day suspended jail sentence and two years’ probation, and he had his license suspended for six months.
Clarett says he hasn’t had a drop of alcohol since.
“At some point, you’ve got to realize, ‘Bro, this s— ain’t for you,'” he says. “Going to therapy, you have to find out what does and doesn’t work for you. There’s more than drinking and drugging. Stay away from lazy motherf—ers. Stay away from people who lie.
“You’re never in the clear.”
Clarett opened The Red Zone in June 2016, and the agency in Youngstown now employs more than 100 people and services 700 kids and 300 to 400 adults. About 60 adult clients live in houses Clarett has bought and fixed up in and around Youngstown. Clarett also purchased a four-story building near The Red Zone’s facility that will offer medical services. The Red Zone transports adult clients to and from the clinic for meetings and other services.
Fred Muench, a clinical psychologist and president of the Center on Addiction, says that sober housing increases the chances of recovery for people bouncing in and out of the criminal justice system, as long as additional supports are in place.
“If you don’t have housing and you don’t have a meal and you don’t have transportation, your recovery is going to come last,” Muench says. “By offering individuals housing in a supportive environment, [Clarett’s Red Zone] increases the chances of recovery, and the research shows that.”
After visiting a house he purchased and refitted in downtown Youngstown, Clarett says he put in the flooring and carpet himself and collected furniture from Habitat for Humanity. “If I’m not willing to stay there, I’m not going to put these guys here,” Clarett says.
Says one of the men living in the house, “I’ve been in another sober living house and it was a s—hole.”
The Red Zone has also placed more than 40 social workers and counselors in local schools, where they work with children flagged by educators for behavioral concerns.
“Social-emotional issues for brown people are taboo — they don’t want to talk about it,” says Justin Jennings, CEO of the Youngstown City School District and a former basketball player at Purdue. Jennings oversees a student population that, according to the Ohio Department of Education, is 57.7% black and 100% at an economic disadvantage.
According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than whites but are much less likely to seek and receive treatment.
“We offer them the opportunity in school and after school to get that service,” Jennings says. “Eventually, we would like to extend the service to our parents.”
“I’m living proof that no matter where you start off at and no matter what you’re going through, there’s a way to gradually get to where you want to go.”
Because The Red Zone is funded through Medicare and Medicaid, there’s an added financial benefit for Youngstown schools. Jennings says the district used to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for social work and counseling services.
“I grew up with all these people, so all I had to do was say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing, this is what these services are all about,'” Clarett says. “Just the affiliation and me explaining, ‘This is the stuff I’ve been through.’ … I know we’re not miracle workers, but I know people will have some level of interest and they won’t be as scared.”
David Magura, chief of probation for Youngstown Municipal Court, makes about 300 substance abuse referrals a year to several agencies, including The Red Zone. He mentions a woman whom he repeatedly sent for rehab without success. She then came to The Red Zone, which addressed not only her substance abuse but also her history of trauma. After she completed a one-year program, charges against her were dismissed.
“We’re talking about basic needs here, getting places and having a roof over your head,” Magura says. “When we send someone to Red Zone, we feel like they’re getting personalized care … which was really lacking in our community.”
Clarett says some clients stay only a few days, while others might remain up to a year. Some are felons who have struggled to secure independent housing elsewhere.
On a Friday last November, Clarett walked into The Red Zone’s clinic and greeted a client named Steve. Last spring, Steve’s mother had cold-called Clarett. Her son had tried and failed to get clean and needed help. Clarett picked up Steve in an Ikea parking lot near Columbus and drove him to Youngstown to start the program. Now Steve tells Clarett he has been sober for six months. “A milestone for me,” Steve says. “Things just keep getting better.” Steve ended up successfully completing his rehab program and returned to Columbus.
“You’re invested in these dudes,” Clarett says. “You can see my man [Steve]. You see the joy on his face.”
The individual success stories are why Clarett does this work, but there are also challenges to running a social services agency. In January, The Red Zone closed a smaller facility in Columbus, citing repeated paperwork errors that resulted in hundreds of rejected Medicaid claims.
The closure took employees by surprise. Keah Carter, who worked at The Red Zone in Columbus, told WBNS-TV that employees were “blindsided” by the decision to close, and no one tried to correct the claims forms. Clarett told ESPN that the Columbus office went through several managers but that errors continued. “It’s a standard that wasn’t being met,” he says. “There’s really no more to it. I was like, ‘This is 10% of what we do.’ Youngstown is thriving. We have to move on.”
The Red Zone has since referred all clients from that office to other agencies, as required by law, and paid employees for hours they worked but at a lower rate because of the claim rejections. A spokesman for Medicaid Ohio said The Red Zone remains an active provider.
The Red Zone’s Youngstown clinic has remained open for its adult clients during the COVID-19 outbreak, strictly following guidelines from the state, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). All clients and staff members get their temperatures checked at the door every time they enter. Groups of no more than five meet at one time, with chairs at least 6 feet apart. Rooms are sanitized multiple times per day.
“This was a request from the clients,” says Nicolette Bleacher, director of new business development for The Red Zone. “They really wanted to have that structure and stability back in their lives. They were struggling with their sobriety because right now they’re stuck in the houses. Where we normally had two groups, now we have four groups. So we’re keeping all of the safety precautions in play, because that is our priority.
“We’re an essential business, and we do have clients we need to service.”
The Red Zone is also offering telehealth for Youngstown schoolchildren, providing services through cellphones, tablets and computers. Each family has different needs and access to technology, but many have wanted to continue the services and even expand them.
“It’s a struggle right now,” Bleacher says. “This is something that is extremely surreal. People who have been serviced on our mental health side, they need us more now than ever. They have really lessened the restrictions and guidelines for telehealth because of the need that’s still out there.
“We’re going to play it out, based on what their needs are as well as the direction we’re given from the governor and the CDC. We have to be on top of that.”
FEW HIGH-PROFILE college players have left a program in a messier way than Clarett did at Ohio State. His clashes with then-athletic director Andy Geiger played out publicly. During a well-chronicled controversy before the BCS title game against Miami in January 2003, Clarett was unable to fly home to attend a friend’s funeral and criticized Ohio State for not assisting him.
“Life’s a whole lot more important than football, you know what I mean?” he then told reporters in Arizona. “We’re sitting here in this old grand hotel, things like that, but we can’t feed the homeless or poor. That’s real life. This is a game.”
His dismissal and subsequent struggles created even more distance between him and the university, but Clarett has been trying to rebuild his relationship with the school.
During a visit for an Ohio State basketball game last fall, Clarett stopped to take pictures with fans outside the arena. Nearby, a current Buckeyes football player was doing the same thing.
“Blond dreadlocks, as big as a house,” Clarett says. “I walked up and said, ‘You famous?’ I’m joking with him. He’s like, ‘My name’s Chase Young.’ I was like, ‘If I have to ask your name, you’re not that famous.’ I didn’t know who this dude was. I said, ‘Next year, I better find out who you are.'”
Later in Young’s record-setting 2019 season, Clarett sent him a message on Twitter: “Yeah, I know who you are now.” In last month’s NFL draft, the Washington Redskins selected Young with the No. 2 overall pick.
In the past four years, Clarett has spoken to many high-profile college football teams but not the one 20 minutes from his home. His Ohio State affiliation can best be described as limited. He attends one or two football games each season and follows the team. In 2012, he returned for the 10-year reunion of his national championship team but felt “real funky” and “uncomfortable.”
“There’s been enough time to say, ‘Hey, us as an institution, we’re not there anymore, and you as a person, you’re not there anymore,'” Clarett says. “A large part of what I’m known for today is [because of my] time spent at Ohio State. I love Ohio State. I love what it’s done for me, what it continues to do for me.”
Current Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith is open to Clarett becoming more involved. Smith told ESPN that Ohio State’s coaches decide who speaks to their teams and that Clarett should reach out to them or to Smith.
“The people he may have had challenges with are all gone,” Smith says. “He’s done a great job with what he’s done. It’s great to see people like him change their lives to an unbelievable positive. I’ve listened to him, I’ve seen him talk, he’d be great. He has to make the attempt to reach out.
“We have people calling us every day. If he called us, we’d embrace him.”
In February, Clarett met Buckeyes coach Ryan Day for the first time at a Nike Coach of the Year Clinic in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. They took a picture together, and Clarett came away hopeful about rebuilding a connection with the Buckeyes program.
For Clarett, a return to Ohio State, and possibly completing his degree there, would close an important loop.
“Look, s— happened,” Clarett says, “but what I contributed to this place and what I made people proud of, it was from an 18-year-old kid who loved this place more than anyone could love anything else. What’s done is done, brother. It’s over.
“How do you move forward?”
CLARETT OFTEN RECEIVES follow-up calls from coaches after his speaking engagements, asking if he can work with a particular athlete. When Clarett visited Xavier University’s basketball team a few years ago, then-coach Chris Mack told Clarett that coaches aren’t sure how to help their athletes.
“My expertise is not in the brain,” says Mack, now the head coach at Louisville. “It’s not in dependency issues. It’s not being able to analyze what went wrong in a kid’s childhood and how they’re dealing with it now. There are times when you feel like you’re not equipped, and Maurice is very identifiable to the kids we have.
“I told him I’ve had players who maybe didn’t have the problems with getting arrested and all the things that happened to him, but they needed help.”
Mack told Clarett about John Lucas, the former NBA player and coach who lived with cocaine and alcohol addiction and has run a substance abuse recovery program for athletes in Houston since 1986. “He’s John Lucas, 25 years later,” Mack says.
Like Lucas, Clarett is acutely aware of what athletes endure once their playing days are over.
“You’re pissed off at yourself, you’re pissed off at the world, you’re pissed off that the dreams you had as a seventh-, eighth-, ninth-, 10th-, 11th-, 12th-grader didn’t happen,” he says. “If you’re that person, you’re going to do some things to self-destruct. You’re going to be drinking, drugging, smoking, popping pills, you’re going to be reliving your glory years with your college friends. You see it all the time: Guys get done with the game, and the only thing these guys want to do is f—ing tailgate all the time because they can’t leave that atmosphere.”
Which brings Clarett to his most personal project yet: a Red Zone-like facility for college athletes facing substance abuse, mental health issues and other challenges.
He has scouted sites around Columbus and has already started fundraising. Because The Red Zone is accredited, colleges could use the NCAA special assistance fund to send athletes to the facility. (Ironically, the same fund could have been used to fly Clarett home before the national title game.) Insurance from the schools would cover other expenses. Clarett’s plans also include fitness equipment so athletes could continue to train while there.
Many colleges have counselors and other specialists either on or near campus to help struggling athletes, but Clarett sees value in changing their environment.
“That removal is a little bit of a safety net for student-athletes,” says Mario Mercurio, Xavier’s associate athletic director for basketball administration. “Being with someone who’s not necessarily tied to your program gives them an opportunity to have a fresh lens and look at their situation and find a solution. A structure built by somebody like Maurice Clarett, if he had a campus, the sky would be the absolute limit.
“There’s a huge market for it. There’s an absolute need for it.”
Clarett wants to help college athletes get healthy and return to competition, but he’s more invested in their personal development for life after sports. After speaking to a college basketball team recently, he asked a player to describe himself. The player responded that he was 6-foot-5 and black. “That was the depth of his explanation,” Clarett says. “He didn’t see himself being a person who can run a company. Athletes have a lot of social equity. There’s a service you can do. There’s a product you can push. But we don’t talk about those things being transferrable.
“You’ve got to say, ‘Bro, it’s OK to build a f—ing life.'”
Clarett is deeply affected by stories like that of Charles Rogers, the former Michigan State All-America receiver and No. 2 overall NFL draft pick who played only 15 pro games. Rogers was addicted to opioids and had legal issues, and he died last November of liver failure at age 38. Clarett sees many athletes headed down a troubling path, the same one that led him to prison.
“A lot of athletes, the reason why they stay stuck is because they have no platform, like, ‘How do I become comfortable living in this real world?'” Clarett says. “Being comfortable with yourself and processing s—, it’s just a lot, man. But this is the process.
“I’m living proof that no matter where you start off at and no matter what you’re going through, there’s a way to gradually get to where you want to go.”