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Clarett Always Has Teams on Red Alert

Times Staff Writer

Miami defenders can only hope they stick to tailback Maurice Clarett as well as controversy does.

Clarett may already be the most dynamic lightning rod in Columbus since Woody Hayes and gives Ohio State its best -- only? -- chance of defeating Miami in Friday’s Fiesta Bowl, quite a feat for a kid who just turned 19.

Clarett can’t run around end or walk around a corner without making news and he added to his clip file Monday, lashing out at his school for not allowing him to return home to Youngstown, Ohio, to attend the funeral of a slain friend.

“I guess football’s more important than a person’s life to them,” Clarett said. “That’s why I just want to get this game over with and go back home.”

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Clarett’s comments sent Ohio State officials running for cover, not for the first time this season; but there appears no simple way of containing this freshman phenom--on or off the field.

Clarett’s 1,190 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns have helped put Ohio State in position to claim its first national title since 1968, with words gushing from Clarett’s mouth almost as readily.

The questions, heading into Friday’s national championship game, were supposed to concern Clarett’s injured left shoulder, but he said the shoulder was fine. Instead, Clarett spoke of another pain.

Raised in the tough streets of Youngstown, a one-time delinquent who found refuge in football, Clarett was reminded this holiday season that not everyone makes it out alive.

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He had already, by his estimation, attended 10 funerals of friends and said he would have attended No. 11 had it not been for the matter of Friday’s national title game.

Clarett would not identify the friend he said was shot and killed Dec. 21 in Youngstown -- Associated Press reported it was 23-year-old Juan Bell -- and was short on details.

“I don’t want to go that deep or that far,” he said.

Clarett said he’d asked Ohio State if he could return home for Monday’s funeral but was told it was a compliance issue.

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“My friend had a funeral today at 11 a.m. and they wouldn’t put me on a plane to go back,” Clarett said. “They basically gave me the runaround. The funeral’s over now. That was their way of telling me I couldn’t go.”

Andy Geiger, Ohio State’s athletic director, said Clarett could have returned home for the funeral but failed to fill out the required NCAA paperwork.

Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel briefly addressed the Clarett issue after Monday’s practice, saying, “The best thing for all involved is to say it didn’t work out.”

As he sat for a mandatory media session interview in a posh Phoenix hotel, Clarett tried to make sense of his life now and the one he left behind.

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“We hold the national championship high, but they won’t talk about the homeless and the poor,” Clarett said. “We’re sitting here in this grand hotel but we can’t feed the homeless or the poor. That’s real life, this is a game.”

This has already been a newsmaker-reel season for Clarett, who burst onto the Buckeye stage by rushing for 175 yards in the opener against Texas Tech. He followed with a 230-yard effort against Washington State on Sept. 14 and was a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy until knee and shoulder injuries cut into his playing time.

In October, Clarett had to play word defense after an article in ESPN the Magazine quoted him as saying he might challenge the NFL’s rule that requires a player to be three years removed from high school before becoming draft eligible and declare for the draft after his freshman season.

“Do I think about it?” Clarett said to the magazine. “It’s got to go through your head, man.”

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More than Clarett’s words, Ohio State officials and fans were offended by the magazine’s staged cover shot: Clarett tossing his jersey away under a headline “One and Done?”

Clarett received dozens of hate e-mails from Buckeye fans.

He said Monday the ESPN photographer had set him up.

“I make one mean face and they put it on the cover,” he said.

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Clarett quickly retreated from his comments, though, when a series of subsequent injuries made it clear the freshman was not ready for the NFL.

Clarett said as much Monday, saying he needs to get much stronger as a player.

“Just the pounding on your body, I don’t think it is physically possible,” he said of the NFL question.

Clarett started only eight of his team’s 13 wins because of injuries. Minor knee surgery forced him out of a game at Cincinnati on Sept. 21 and the Buckeyes nearly lost. Clarett injured his left shoulder against Wisconsin on Oct. 19, and had only four carries the next week, against Penn State, before leaving the game in pain.

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The shoulder plagued him the rest of the season, although he came off the bench to rush for 119 yards Nov. 23 to help lead his team to a 14-9 win over Michigan.

Clarett has tried to downplay his impact on Friday’s national title game against Miami, but the prevailing opinion says Ohio State has no chance unless Clarett can control the game and the clock.

“Obviously we have to stop Clarett,” Miami Coach Larry Coker said. “He is a guy who, if he can run the ball on us and make first downs, they will be in a position to score touchdowns or score with their great field goal kicker.”

Football, though, seemed the last thing on Clarett’s mind Monday.

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He questioned what he was doing in sun-splashed Phoenix while his friend was being laid to rest back home. He questioned the economics of big-time college football relative to the big picture.

“All the money is going to the wrong places,” he said. “They take care of us, but I’d rather give it back to the people who really need it. I wish I could funnel it to the people who really need it. If you go through downtown Columbus, you have people sleeping on sidewalks and they’re giving us scholarships and they sell 100,000 tickets every game.... You walk past bums and homeless people -- this is wintertime, it’s like 19 degrees out, and they’re sleeping in boxes with little covers. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

These are penetrating issues, beyond the scope of most 19-year-olds, but Clarett seems to think he has to do what all great tailbacks do: carry the load.


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