Last December, Clarett and Evans got into an argument that six-year-old Jayden did not see. When Evans made the quarrel physical, Clarett called the police to avoid being cited for the probation violation that he could smell coming, which would have returned him to prison. He didn't press charges, but they spent the first four months of 2013 in self-imposed separation, with Ashley and Jayden at Ashley's mother's house. Maurice was left with Fishy, Jayden's beloved pet fish, which died under his watch. The parents lied and told Jayden that Daddy was still feeding it while she and Mommy were on vacation.
It was around this time that Paul Holmes, the director of the Tiger Rugby Academy in Columbus, followed up on an exchange he'd had with Clarett a couple of years earlier and invited him to drop by for a visit. There, at an indoor lacrosse facility nine miles from Ohio Stadium, Clarett found something irresistible: a sport perfectly suited for his body type and skill set, a brief escape from the angst at home, and an outlet for the competitive fire that made him, as the guys at Old School Gym like to joke, "game for game, the most famous football player in history."
Sevens rugby—played with seven per side, instead of the traditional 15—is largely about creating space for swift wing players who can make tacklers miss and either take it the distance or lateral to a teammate. At a three-on-three touch scrimmage in late March, Clarett grips the white egg with two hands, cutting and juking and delivering clever laterals like a muscle-bound Chris Paul. A high school point guard himself, Clarett clearly has a gift for distributing fluttering lobs and spiraling bullets to men running full tilt on his flank. And the making-guys-miss part comes as naturally to him as walking.
But sevens demands superhuman fitness from its combatants, who essentially play padless, two-way football at a pace that would make Chip Kelly say, Slow down. Clarett is gasping, his lungs in rebellion against this part of the game.
"Whooooo," he says in his Method Man wheeze, a smile suggesting that perhaps he's playing a bit of possum. Sure enough, after a water break he becomes a different player, accelerating, cutting, even talking some good-natured trash when he scores back-to-back tries against the veterans. His kicking may be awful, his conditioning subpar, but his elusiveness and defensive pressure help his team win the second miniscrimmage 10--1.
"He has gifts you can't coach," says Holmes, a shaved-headed South African who wavers between excitement at Clarett's tools and frustration over the scheduling conflicts that prevent him from sharpening them. "His ballhandling, his touch, his speed in space.... He won't beat you over 80 yards, but over 20 yards he's special."
When it's mentioned that Clarett will turn 30 in October, Holmes says, "His legs are young, though. Low mileage."
Maurice and Ashley have also found their second wind. It's May, and everyone's under the same roof again, Jayden's American Girl dolls joining her father's books on the floor. Fishy is here too, although he looks slightly different now. The bond between Maurice and Ashley is also different—more relaxed and communicative, as if they had to get that blowup out of the way in order to segue from Before to After. They all stayed up until 1:30 a.m. the other night doing Jayden's family-tree project, and Ashley has rented Maurice a post office box and bought him some address labels so that the books he sends out will look more professional. He and Evans are undergoing counseling—yet another step, like his preemptive call to the police, that Clarett never would have taken preprison: "Not at all. I would have said, The hell with this. But when something's this important you take whatever steps are necessary."
That dustup with Evans made the news, of course, because 10 years earlier Clarett had gained 1,237 yards rushing and scored the touchdown that won the Buckeyes their only national championship in the last 45 years. Or it may have been news because he was kicked off the team after that magical season and grumbled about the Buckeyes' football factory loud enough for the NCAA to come calling. Or perhaps it became news because only a few other American athletes—Tiger and LeBron come to mind—have been as famous as Clarett was at 19.
Or is it infamous?