Clarett gets his big chance

NFL goes on looking small

Nfl Draft

Pro Football

April 25, 2005|By David Steele

POOR Aaron Rodgers, right? Waited so long to get drafted, left all by himself, cameras trained on him, the world seemingly mocking him.

Boo hoo. Compared to what Maurice Clarett endured before being drafted, the Cal quarterback had a day at the beach. Clarett, who carried Ohio State to a national title in January 2003, waited two years to get drafted.

Some people said Rodgers has poor mechanics. Other people said Clarett was a criminal, a liar, a cheater, a head case, a quitter and a snitch. Also a threat to the integrity of the NFL and the values of higher education.

Oh, and don't forget fat, slow and lazy. Which is no way to go through life, son - no, wait, that's fat, drunk and stupid.

The bottom line on NFL draft weekend was that Clarett wasn't projected to go on the first day; some projected him to be bypassed altogether. Instead, he was taken in the third round by the Denver Broncos, a Super Bowl-winning organization led by a coach with a near-impeccable reputation. Some of it already has rubbed off on Clarett; in many minds, he now might not be so bad if Mike Shanahan likes him.

How "bad" Clarett really is has always been up for serious debate, anyway. "Character issues" is shorthand for a number of problems, real and speculated, attached to Clarett, but don't let anyone fool you about what the overriding problem was. As even Clarett has said, "I've never beaten anyone up or anything." Not that that's ever stopped college or NFL teams from welcoming a player.

The problem was that two years ago, at age 19 and after as spectacular a freshman year as anyone has ever had, Clarett tried to enter the NFL two years before league rules allowed. His life and good name have gone downhill since then.

The worst that happened to him as a result? He didn't play in a single game for two seasons. Clarett deserved that as much as Southern California receiver Mike Williams deserved to have a year of his football life stolen from him. That is, not at all.

Both will be in the NFL this year, though - that is, if Clarett becomes the runner he was before the league, the NCAA and his school buried him. Kind of cool, isn't it, to have the standout players from back-to-back national championship teams in the pros now? You'd think that would be incentive for the NFL and the NCAA to examine whether their eligibility rules weren't a tad arbitrary, or even pointless.

It ended up being incentive for them, and Ohio State, to paint Clarett as a villain - and, just for laughs, to deny Williams, as well. To them, it kept their institutions pure. Looking like petty, overbearing (and probably unconstitutional) pigs in the process apparently was a small price to pay for that perceived purity.

Oddly enough, Clarett's critics - and there were many, some of them justified - point to a possible lack of toughness. Yet is there anyone who was forced to endure more unnecessarily on his path to the NFL than Clarett? Maybe, just maybe, his desire to play football burns hotter than he's getting credit for, and supposedly that's what teams like.

At least one team liked it. The Broncos trotted Clarett before the cameras in Denver yesterday in what has to be the first nationally televised introductory news conference for a player chosen 101st overall. The nation might have been stunned to see that he did not, in fact, have horns sprouting from his forehead or cloven hooves.

Clarett performed well before the cameras. The impression he left was of someone who managed to handle the roadblocks, who was as mature as a 21-year-old can be expected to be, who was at ease in the face of hard questions, who walked the fine line between explaining his past and dwelling on it. He did not come off like a con man or a knucklehead or a short cut-taker.

One word he repeated often was "humility. He said he got a good dose the past two years with all the barriers he had encountered, and he recently chose to shed the "yes men" advising him, and add people who pushed him, told him the truth and opened his eyes to reality.

Now, he said, thanks to his two-year exile from football, "I cherish it more. Before, I don't want to say I took it for granted, but I kind of thought football would always be there."

The trip from age 19 to 21 is long for anyone, and his trip was longer than most players'. Clarett appeared wiser, and that may be all the proof the NFL and NCAA need to make their case.

Still, shame on them for making it the way they did - robbing him of his chance to play, smearing his reputation and scaring anyone who follows him into compliance.

Anyway, good luck to poor Aaron Rodgers. Now, where can I buy Clarett's Broncos jersey?

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