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Maurice Clarett, now a UConn consultant, turning life around after time in prison

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Tyler Polley knew of Maurice Clarett the football player. So did most of his UConn teammates.

What they didn’t know was his story — from college football superstar to NFL flameout to felon to what he has since become, a motivational speaker who founded a behavioral health agency named The Red Zone.

That first speech, a year later, still resonates because it was so revelatory.

“When he told his story, I was just in shock how he bounced back,” the senior said in a phone interview. “He pretty much lost everything. It’s inspiring.”

It was supposed to be a one-off meeting with the men’s basketball team at Connecticut, one of several guest speakers coach Dan Hurley has talk to his players during the summer. Instead, Clarett became part of the program at Hurley’s request. His official title is consultant. But after talking to Clarett, it sounds like he’s more of a therapist. Before the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, the 36-year-old Clarett spent up to three days every month with the team. Even when he isn’t around, he communicates with the players, frequently connecting with them over the phone.

“My thing isn’t to talk to them,” he said. “My thing is to listen to them.”

Maurice Clarett
Maurice ClarettAP

Most experts predicted NFL stardom for Clarett after he led Ohio State to a BCS national championship as a true freshman in 2002. It didn’t work out as planned. In 2003, he was suspended for receiving improper benefits, and eventually was dismissed from the Big Ten school. He challenged the NFL draft eligibility rules and lost, was drafted by the Broncos in the third round in 2005, but never appeared in a game.

His life went off the rails from there, sinking into alcoholism and a life of crime. He served 3 ¹/₂ years in prison for armed robbery before remaking his life with a drastic 180-degree turn. In 2016, he founded the Red Zone, which provides counseling for both children and adults in Youngstown, Ohio, and is looking to build a facility for college athletes dealing with substance abuse, mental health problems or other issues.

“Just a great resource for the guys,” Hurley said. “He’s awesome.”

It may seem like an odd fit, a football player from Ohio helping a college basketball team from Connecticut, but to Clarett it was a no-brainer. He connected with Hurley through a common friend of UConn assistant coach Kimani Young after Hurley heard him on a podcast and thought he would be a strong choice to speak to his players.

Clarett had spoken to plenty of teams before, but he has never been offered a regular gig, an opportunity he believes to really make a difference and create relationships. He gets plenty out of his trips to Storrs, Conn.

“It’s meaningful work,” he said. “You can’t beat meaningful work. If you’re not making a difference in somebody’s life, you’re really not living.”

One of the players Clarett has worked with is James Bouknight, the impressive rising sophomore and All-ACC freshman selection. The Brooklyn native was in a car crash in which he was charged with driving without a license, driving too fast for conditions, evading responsibility and interfering with police and was suspended for three games as a result. Clarett helped him get past that mistake, imploring him to own it while not let it define him. Errors happen. Moving past them is more important. He’s offered similar lessons to other players. He’s walked in their shoes and saw it all collapse. His goal is to make sure they don’t repeat his errors and not take college for granted.

“One little mistake it can all go downhill,” Polley said.

“I’ve built a trust I think with the guys. We’ve been able to get together and work one-on-one and have started to explore what does life look like outside of basketball, what encourages and motivates them,” Clarett said. “At the state that America is in right now, I’m pretty sure a lot of what I said to these guys resonates. Life is a lot bigger than basketball. It’s a lot bigger than going out there and getting in shape, running and dunking and jumping. It’s about the impact you have on people. The impact you have on the world.”

Clarett played basketball in high school and told Hurley he still can play. The UConn coach joked that he would be an old-school undersized power forward. He has yet to play with any of the current UConn players, though. He has more important work to do with them.

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