Michelle is polishing her son's old trophies when he enters the house. The scene borders on kitsch, but her flyaway hair and faded Grinch T-shirt make clear that she wasn't expecting company. Her son delivers a hug and disappears to pick out a clean shirt for church and a few rap CDs for the drive back to Columbus.
Clarett has made the three-hour drive to Youngstown not so he can speak at the sprawling Victory Christian Center, but just to be present and nod along silently while Nate Ortiz, a friend and Victory's youth pastor, tells 70 high school kids about the meaning of Easter. "This isn't rare," Ortiz says later. "He does this all the time. He doesn't ask, 'Do I get to speak? Can I promote my book?' He just wants to be here. He knows his presence means something to these kids."
When Ortiz proclaims during prayer that "the greatest comeback in history was pulled off by...." Clarett, ever mischievous, whispers to the person next to him, "Maurice Clarett," and snickers. Afterward, noting the lack of black kids in the house, Clarett suggests that he and Ortiz organize a life swap involving the Victory kids and those who live near his mom in the upper Southside.
It's past 10 when he finally heads back to Canal Winchester, 1:30 a.m. when he is finally dropped off outside his house and 6 a.m. when he calls to apologize for sleeping in. Fifteen minutes later he's doing a Southern sports-radio talk show as a favor to an old UFL teammate. The hosts blindside him with questions about betraying Ohio State and the slow 40-yard dash that he ran eight NFL combines ago, but he endures it. Instead of succumbing to his emotions, he tries to change the subject to the kids he met last night in Youngstown.
"There was a time when he thought the world revolved around him," says Tressel. "Clearly, today he knows he's just a part of the world and that it's his job to help the world. And that's a huge change. It's maturity."
The victims of the crimes Clarett perpetrated in 2006, however, are not as easily distracted by what one of them calls "his new reign of positivity; this is something he should have been doing all along." In an e-mail to SI, that victim (who asked for anonymity) expressed anger that Clarett never apologized, frustration at having to still field media requests every few weeks and, finally, reluctantly: "I forgive him."
Clarett's response to those who think that what he's doing now is an act: "I'm not mad. I understand it." But that's all he can muster now because he's out of breath from sprinting 100s and 200s.
In February 2009, Clarett dictated to Ashley a lengthy blog post about an anonymous inmate on his cellblock, "a young man who is 18 with a 13-year sentence.... I made it a mission of mine to set aside time for him.... I want to be his symbol of hope."
In a letter to SI, that inmate, Orlando Payne, now 22, wrote, "You're writing [about] a great person. Maurice truly gave a young man hope and guidance when it was needed most." When Clarett left prison, he says, he left Payne his copies of Rich Dad Poor Dad, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Science of Psychology, among other books.
"Most importantly, he encouraged me to study a dictionary," writes Payne, who has at least three more years to serve. "Every day, Maurice taught me to never let my past dictate my future. He continues to inspire me and always will."