Maurice Clarett took the microphone and worked his way down the stairs on the left side of the stage of the Frederick Douglass auditorium. He wasn't going to put himself on a pedestal, he was going to tell his story about hitting rock bottom, from the ground floor.
Wearing a gray suit, Clarett — in a low, raspy voice — told 69 football players from Baltimore high schools that three and a half weeks after his now-fiancee, Ashley Evans gave birth to his daughter, he was arrested, and subsequently served three and a half years in jail.
Clarett blames his downfall on hanging out with the wrong people. As he travels the country, from his hometown Youngstown, Ohio, to Los Angeles, Houston, New Jersey, New York City and Baltimore to tell his story and inspire young inner-city student-athletes, Clarett spits a signature phrase: "Show me your friends, and I'll show you your future."
As part of an NFL Player Engagement and Family League of Baltimore pilot program, speakers such as Clarett are brought to Frederick Douglass. The program, called 1st and Goal, also placed a tutor at Douglass — Michelle Harper — to focus on academic and career development for student-athletes.
Clarett made clear on Saturday that success need not be confined to becoming a professional athlete.
"He is basically my role model now," said Azariah Bratton-Bey, a sophomore running back at Frederick Douglass. "I now understand that even if you don't make it [in the NFL], you can still be successful. ... I never thought I'd actually meet him in person. That was a blessing."
Clarett started his speech by describing his arrest, which was shown in ESPN's recent "30 for 30" film, "Youngstown Boys," which focused on Clarett and his relationship with Jim Tressel, his football coach at Ohio State.
"You saw me getting treated like an animal," Clarett told the student-athletes about his arrest. "Tased. Beaten. Shoved into a van with a muzzle on my face. This was the position I put myself in."
The treatment followed a long, high-speed car chase that ended with police discovering four loaded guns, including an AK-47, and a half-full bottle of Vodka in Clarett's car.
The first true freshman tailback to start at Ohio State, the guy who exceeded his hype by rushing for 175 yards and three touchdowns in his debut and in 2002 led the Buckeyes to a national championship, was confined to a six by ten cell four years later.
After football was taken from him, first by the NCAA for multiple rule violations in 2003 and 2004, and again when the Denver Broncos cut him in 2005 because he was out of shape, Clarett turned to the people on the block, those he used to steal cars and get into shootouts with in junior high.
"My mistake was not understanding how to disconnect myself from these individuals," Clarett said. "It was a lack of consciousness on my own part, [and] instrumental in my downfall. All these things led to prison."
It was there where Clarett, whose father was never in his life, found guidance from older men and — for the first time — took advantage of the resources available. He went to anger management classes, and he started to read a lot.
The first line he read, which was out of a James Allen book, is still the most meaningful: "As a man thinks in his heart, so is he."
For Clarett, that was a turning point. He started asking himself: what is a man?
"I knew how to describe being a real brother," Clarett said. "I knew how to be 'Maurice the Beast' and have sex and get high. But what is a responsible man? How can I line up my behavior with that?"
It meant staying sober and hanging out with the right people. He already tried to clean up after being cut three months after the Broncos drafted him with the last pick in the third round of the NFL draft. But he relapsed after just two weeks. This time, with a 4-year-old daughter, it would be real.
These days, for Clarett being a man means waking up at around 4:30 a.m., early enough where he can go to the gym, come back and iron clothing to get his fiancee and daughter ready for school.
And it means traveling the country, speaking.
For Corian Bell, a junior right tackle and defensive end at Mervo, Clarett's talk made a big difference.
"[Clarett] really touched me," Bell said. "He and I have been through a lot of the same things ... I had a single parent growing up. A man stays strong. If I stay strong to what I really want to do tonight, then it will be good."