Clarett could have been somebody

Updated: January 3, 2006, 5:49 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

It's pretty much a perfect story, at least for those who find themselves drawn to such things. Maurice Clarett's tale features a charismatic figure who squandered his talent, laid waste to his career, tilted at Establishment windmills and ultimately fell all the way down.

He is either tragic or pathetic, and his story allows for any reader to choose that on his own. He either has no future or may just now be on the verge of forcibly finding one, again depending on your perspective.

And his story has been told before, through different people, in different situations. There is almost always a Maurice Clarett somewhere in sports. And sporting America is almost always drawn to that thematic flame.

The Clarett case, though indisputably sad, is not without its darkly comic element. How many guys are (reportedly) in the process of committing a robbery when they get (reportedly) outed by an acquaintance at the scene?

Hey Kreidler, good to see -- whoa, is that a new gun? Did they have a sale at the Sports Authority?

As it was, the people robbed in the alley behind the Opium Lounge (and you couldn't make up a name like that even if you were writing a novel) in downtown Columbus, Ohio, this week surrendered only a cell phone, and they weren't hurt. That's the good news, I guess. The bad is that Maurice Clarett used to stand for something, or so some of us thought. But maybe that's show business.

As it is, Clarett is free on bond and facing two charges that each carry a possible sentence of three to 10 years in prison. He appeared in court in the usual drab jail garb and the cuffs. He turned himself in on Monday night at about the time, coincidentally, that his former Ohio State team was beating Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, a place where he once shined.

I'm telling you, this is why nonfiction keeps burning up the best-seller lists.

Of course, Clarett had a chance to be remembered for other things. I wouldn't call him Dwight Gooden -- whose name on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot this year was a stark reminder of how great Gooden was before his own life fell apart -- but Clarett at least had the chance.

He had talent. He was good enough to be a featured player -- as a freshman -- on the Buckeyes team that won the BCS title in 2002 at the Fiesta Bowl. He was good enough to have visions of greatness in the NFL, along with people around him whispering in his ear that he ought to bust that move to the pros right now.

And he had a chance to make history, sort of. Clarett was among those who challenged the NFL's rule that prohibits players from coming into the league until they're at least three years out of high school. It was a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in the end sided with the league's ability to make its rules and stick by them.

By then, Clarett's own life was sliding off the table. Charged with lying to the cops about stuff stolen out of his car. Suspended for the 2003 season by Ohio State. Went to ESPN The Magazine to lay out details of how coaches and boosters cheated to keep him in school and eligible to play football.

Then … nothing.

No calls. No queries. A brief stint with Denver before being cut in training camp last August. The possibility (so says his agent) of signing with some NFL team and getting shipped out to Europe to rehab his game, a la Lawrence Phillips.

This is a guy who made a lot of noise over the past few years without any of it amounting to anything, really. Even his accusations of cheating at Ohio State went nowhere, in part because Clarett wouldn't cooperate with NCAA investigators who wanted to know more.

In the end, that is, Maurice Clarett didn't stand for anything other than a well-worn cautionary tale. He's Example 1,678 (or so) of the notion that it isn't enough in sports to be good. You've got to be able to take talent and shape it. You've got to have a head to go with the body.

And he will disappear now, popping up again only when it's time to go to court or be found innocent or be sent to jail. The ending of his story isn't actually written; it's just that so few people will be around to read it when it is. For sporting America, Clarett already had his tragic moment: He could have lived the life.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.