The transmission on Clarett's 2005 Acura is out, so he drives a compact rental through the Columbus suburbs, arriving in the dark at the modest, two-level rented house in the city of Canal Winchester. The living room is scented with incense. It's also cluttered with workout clothes and heady nonfiction books, as if a college athlete were rooming here with an economics grad student—which isn't far from the truth.
He spoons crystals of instant coffee into a mug of tap water and nukes it (another prison habit), his workday beginning as his neighbors waft through their deepest sleep. He reads an encouraging tweet from a USA Rugby coach and then accepts an invitation to speak at Wright State in Dayton. This is how he pays the bills: speaking engagements, most for a couple of thousand dollars a pop. (He spoke for free at the NFL's rookie symposium last month.)
He takes his coffee to the dining room table and begins filling orders for his book of blog posts, sliding two dozen paperbacks into two dozen clasp envelopes, writing strangers' addresses in cursive Sharpie and his home address in the upper left corner. Inside the envelopes, ink the color of Ohio State's helmets dries on each title page, where the author has scrawled a single word below his autograph: redemption.
Four years earlier, to the week, he wrote this:
If I get out of here and become successful people will say that making these posts [was] one of the greatest things I ever did.... They will want to take pictures and tell me how they always believed in me, even when I was at my lowest.... On the flip side of the coin, if I get out and become a failure (NOT LIKELY TO HAPPEN) ... they will use this as an example of [a] great con.... The shallow people of the world will celebrate my demise. They'll tell me that they threw my jersey away and they can't watch the 2002 National Championship game because I am in it. (April 1, 2009)
Truth be told, Maurice Clarett didn't actually type those words. Ashley Evans did. Before she did so, she gave birth to Clarett's only child, a girl named Jayden, who came into the world three weeks before the incident that sent her dad to prison: a high-speed police chase through Columbus on Aug. 9, 2006, that ended with Clarett's tires shot out, his face Maced and his 270-pound body Tased into submission. That came eight months after he held up two people outside a nightclub, and a day before he was to appear in court in that case. He would plead guilty to robbery, as well as to weapons charges from the chase—police found four loaded guns in his car, not to mention a half-empty bottle of Grey Goose. He was 22.
In prison Clarett began reading immediately. There was little else to do but work out and feel terrible about the damage he'd done to those he loved most. He called Evans daily. "One day he said, 'I have a lot of things written that I'd like you to post for me,' " she recalls. "So I Googled how to make a blog. After that, almost every morning he'd call around six o'clock like, You ready to go?
"He talks superfast, and he mumbles a lot, so I said, 'Look, we only have 15 minutes on this phone call. We're not gonna use up five phone calls on this because you can't speak English.' "
The Internet glanced at Clarett's blog and shrugged. He was released to little fanfare. He went to a halfway house in Columbus, then to Omaha to play for the Nighthawks of the now-defunct UFL. Ashley and Jayden, who had turned four, came along, but Clarett's transition to real life was marked by stoicism, long football practices and longer silences when he got home. Clarett's own dad, he says, left the family when Maurice was a toddler, and the hustling and football and jail time that he had done since then did little to prepare him for fatherhood.
Maurice, Ashley and Jayden didn't truly start knitting together their lives until last year when the UFL folded and Clarett's probation was transferred to Columbus, Ashley's hometown. Ashley, who can be stingy with compliments for Clarett, says that he has become "a wonderful dad. When he was first released he was like, I'm going to take her to the toy store and buy her a bunch of toys so she'll like me. And I said, 'That's good that you want to make friends with her, but you can't just buy her affection. She doesn't care if you spend $500 at Toys 'R' Us. She just wants you here. She wants you to sit down at her tea party, to swing her around at the park.' "