In 2009, Joe Moglia, then the CEO of TD Ameritrade, quit his job to coach football. He wanted to coach a college team. But no athletic director wanted him. So he took a job, in 2011, as head coach of the UFL's Omaha Nighthawks, a team that included former Buckeye Maurice Clarett. Moglia had an unorthodox style: He ran a once-a-week class called "Life After Football," and after training camp dinners, he would make everyone stand up and tell his life story. Forbes's Monte Burke trailed Moglia—who has since earned the head job at Coastal Carolina—during the coach's time in Omaha. What follows is an excerpt from Burke's book, 4th and Goal: One Man's Quest to Recapture His Dream.
In the evenings, Joe makes the last half hour of dinner mandatory for everyone on the team. The reason: Each night, for the duration of training camp, he will be asking the players and coaches, one by one, to stand up at dinner and introduce themselves. He wants them to talk not only about their careers in football but also about their lives. A few of the more bashful players will end up talking for only 30 seconds or so. But most of the folks jump at the opportunity to share their stories.
The players talk about their jobs outside of football (quarterback Eric Crouch sells medical devices that help women deal with vaginal prolapse), their injuries (nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek had a promising NFL career derailed when he tore a bicep while tackling the Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson), and their broken home lives (both of running back Noel Devine's parents were dead of AIDS by the time he was 11).
On the seventh night of training camp, Maurice Clarett, the troubled former Ohio State star, stands to speak at dinner. This is the introduction that many have been waiting for. The dining room goes utterly silent; there are no forks scraping plates, no ice tinkling in water glasses.
Clarett speaks in a raspy, barely audible whisper. His voice, like Mike Tyson's lisp, doesn't seem to fit his body—5-11 and 230 muscled pounds—nor does its softness jibe with what the public knows about his past.
He begins by telling the room that football was his first true love. He played the sport nearly every afternoon in his Youngstown, Ohio, neighborhood. When it rained he played carpet football with his brothers inside the house. He would pretend to be Emmitt Smith or Thurman Thomas.
But trouble happened to be his other passion. He was arrested multiple times before he was 14 years old, mainly, he says, because he was trying to impress the older kids in the neighborhood. In the eighth grade he was arrested for breaking and entering a house. While attempting to flee the scene, he jumped out of a second-story window and hit his head. He got 13 stitches for the wound. That's why, since high school, he has always worn the number 13 on the football field.
He was sent to a juvenile detention center. There he met a high school football coach who took him under his wing, and who intervened on his behalf with the judge and negotiated a house arrest. Clarett worked out with the coach every day after school.
In high school, Clarett was a dynamo on the field. He rushed for 248 yards in one of his first games as a freshman. He says he never really went to class, and he was allowed to slip through the academic cracks because of his football ability. In his senior year he was named the best prep player in the state of Ohio. He was heavily recruited, but decided to stay near home and attend Ohio State. He loved the coach there, Jim Tressel.
Clarett made the team as a freshman as a backup running back. Tressel told him that in the team's first game—at home against Texas Tech—Clarett would get three series of work. "I did nothing in my first two series," says Clarett. But on the third one, he broke a long run. The home crowd went crazy. "The fans put you in games, at least at Ohio State," he says. He finished that game with 175 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
He was a hard worker in practice and in games. But off the field, he was living a completely different life. "I took golf, fishing, and softball as classes," Clarett says. "Away from class, anything you can think of I did in my 13 months at Ohio State." Drugs and women were two of the things. Cars were another—he owned three of them at a time, including a brand-new Cadillac and Lexus. "I was living the NFL life in college," he says. "I got paid more in college than I do now in the UFL."
In the 2003 national championship game against Miami, Clarett made the two crucial plays that led to Ohio State's win: He stripped the ball from Sean Taylor's hands after the Miami safety had intercepted a pass in his own end zone, which led to three important points for the Buckeyes. Then he scored the championship-winning touchdown in overtime. The sky seemed like the only limit for Clarett.
Instead the sky fell on him. Clarett was suspended from the team for receiving what were deemed "improper benefits." He also falsely alleged that $10,000 worth of goods had been stolen from him. (He later pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of failure to aid a law enforcement official.) Clarett tried to enter the NFL Draft. But by NFL rules, a player had to be at least three years out of high school to become eligible. He sued. His case eventually went to the Supreme Court. He lost.
The next two years were lost in a fog of drug and alcohol use. "I would ride around in my car carrying life sentences, with pounds of weed and bricks of cocaine," he says. In 2005 he worked out at the NFL's Draft Combine and performed woefully. He was nevertheless drafted by the Denver Broncos in the third round that year. In Denver's training camp, he says, he was partying hard at nights and clashing with his coaches during the day. He was cut before the end of camp.
And that was when the real trouble began. "I was popping pills and getting paranoid. I was robbing everyone I knew," he says. In January 2006 he was arrested in Columbus for allegedly robbing a man and woman at gunpoint and taking $150 and a cell phone; the man had pressed charges. Clarett's trial was postponed until September.
Clarett says he didn't want to go to jail. So he attempted to pay off the man whom he had robbed. He wanted him to drop the charges. The man refused to be bought. On a night one month before the trail, Clarett's life literally came to its crossroads.
Clarett jumped into his car wearing Kevlar body armor and carrying a loaded assault rifle and three handguns. He drank half a bottle of Grey Goose vodka as he drove. He missed his intended exit off the freeway. He got off at the next exit and made an illegal U-turn. A cop car happened to be there. The cops pulled him over and used Mace to subdue him.
That U-turn may have saved his life and the lives of several others. He'd been on his way to that man's house.
He was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. "Contrary to popular belief, prison does not give you street cred. Anyone who glorifies it is an idiot," he says. "It only lets your dumb ass know that you got caught doing something wrong."
But prison turned out to be a good thing for Clarett. It was where the fog finally started to lift. "I cleared my head, away from the drugs and drinking," he says. "Suffering causes you to mature." He became a voracious reader, knocking out 150 books in prison, including the works of Tolstoy, Twain, and Confucius. He became particularly interested in finance and subscribed to Forbes, Fortune, and the Wall Street Journal, teaching himself about the stock market. He read everything he could about his new hero, Warren Buffett. He started a blog, The Mind of Maurice Clarett, filled with aphorisms that he read over the prison phone to his girlfriend, who posted them. He was released from prison early for good behavior, to a halfway house. He tried out for the Nighthawks in 2010 and made the team, playing sparingly while struggling mightily to get back into shape.
Clarett ends his introduction by talking about his long road to redemption, the joy he finds in simple freedoms like watching his 5-year-old daughter run around the house. He talks about the positive example he wants to set for people, to help them avoid the trouble he'd found in his life.
"I don't want people to say ‘Don't be like Maurice Clarett,'" he says. "In fact, I want the opposite. I want people to see me now and say they want to be like me. And I'm working every day to earn that."
As Clarett wraps up, there are audible gasps and a few whispered "holy shit"s in the room. Some of the coaches stare at Clarett with stunned, almost fearful looks on their faces. There is a brief silent pause as Clarett sits down. Then the players and coaches slowly disperse.
Excerpted from 4th and Goal: One Man's Quest to Recapture His Dream, by Monte Burke.