On possibly his last night as a free man, Maurice Clarett was calling on the telephone. I hadn't seen him or heard from him in a year, not since the Denver Broncos kicked him to the curb, but I was on his list Tuesday night. Along with Jim Tressel and LeBron James and some arena football coach. His list of thank-yous.
I looked at the clock when he called, and it was just past 11 p.m. ET. He told me he was driving somewhere, and along the way his cell phone cut in and out. He wasn't loud or belligerent. Instead he seemed melancholy and possibly drunk.
Clarett was arrested near the home of a witness set to testify against him in a separate robbery case, the Franklin County prosecutor said.
He started in with his news: He was a daddy. His girlfriend, Ashley, had given birth to a baby girl on July 17 and he claimed it had changed his life. "F--- Ohio State, f--- winning the national championship, it's more cool having her,'' he was saying. He said he'd cry a lot when he held her, and that just the other day in his mom's house, he'd cried four times holding her the same afternoon. He said he'd do anything for that little girl, that he'd go to jail for 30 years for this little girl. It wasn't clear what he meant, although it's starting to get clearer now.
I asked him how he was, and he said he was growing up, taking responsibility for what he'd done. He admitted "money used to be everything'' to him and he said, "Look how cocky I used to be. Life lessons have put me on my ass.'' I'd heard this sort of rhetoric before, from almost every troubled athlete I'd ever interviewed, but then he got me. He got me when he said he wanted to dump his whole story on me, when he said "I haven't done s---. I have done nothing but f------ run a football. Don't confuse yourself. I've done nothing but run a f------ football. Don't try to make it bigger than it is.''
He started in then with his thank-yous. I had written a column in ESPN The Magazine last January, after his initial arrest on burglary charges, outlining his potential drinking problem, steroid problem and self-esteem problem. He said he'd hated that story, that he'd hated me, but he was calling now to thank me, for waking him up to reality. He said he'd been calling a lot of people that day, that he'd called Tressel -- the same coach he'd once accused of giving him cars and grades -- and thanked him, too.
Tressel had reached out to Clarett months before, having asked Buckeyes QB Troy Smith for Clarett's cell phone number. They had talked, and Tressel had offered to do all he could for him, and now -- late Tuesday night -- Clarett was saying, "Me and [Tressel] have become cool again. I was talking to Jim Tressel earlier, and said, 'Thank you for being real.' He's been real to me, and I've been real to myself. I don't run from nothing anymore.''
He said he'd also called his old high school buddy LeBron James that day -- who knows if it's true, considering LeBron's playing ball overseas -- and that there were more calls to make. It was almost midnight ET by then, but now Clarett was starting to ramble, starting to sound a little skittish, a little paranoid.
He wondered if someone was overhearing the conversation, if someone might be listening. Was he being followed?