Following the crowning of Florida State freshman quarterback Jameis Winston as the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner, ESPN ran another brilliant film in its “30 for 30” series, “Youngstown Boys,” describing the rise and fall of both Maurice Clarett and Jim Tressel.
As always is the case in this series, the documentary was expertly done and brought new perspective to a highly publicized story. It certainly cast things in a new light for me, a lifelong Penn State fan and alumnus who always heard of the shady side of Ohio State under Tressel.
“Youngstown Boys” particularly hit home for me because the man who helped break the Clarett scandal story for ESPN The Magazine, Ryan Hockensmith, is a Penn State graduate, and as fate would have it, Hockensmith came in and spoke to my sportswriting class back when I was in PSU’s Center for Sports Journalism. Our teacher, Mike Poorman, had taught Hockensmith back during his PSU days, so he invited him in to speak to us, and he shared a lot about his reporting for the story. One thing that has always stood out about that day was Hockensmith saying his editors wouldn’t even allow him to print half the stuff he learned in interviews with former Buckeyes and those close to the program due to requests for anonymity, and he gave off the impression that Tressel wasn’t exactly a great guy — or at least the most ethical of coaches.
I cannot really speak to Tressel’s character beyond the fact that he ultimately lost his job by lying to the NCAA, though I have to admit that watching this documentary gave me a new perspective on him. Whether he was more shady than he lets on or not, it’s pretty evident that he really was a coach who cared for his players and would try to help them no matter what.
But the biggest takeaway from “Youngstown Boys” for me was just how remarkably intelligent Maurice Clarett came off in it. When you think of a former athlete turned alcoholic criminal, you typically think of the stereotypical uneducated jock who turns to a life a crime because he’s not smart enough or capable enough to do anything else once his athletic career is in the rearview mirror. And given the armed robberies and epic fall from grace, that’s what I think I expected watching “Youngstown Boys,” even if I had read some of Clarett’s eloquence when he was behind bars and then again when he was attempting an NFL comeback.
“Youngstown Boys” blows any preconceived notions of Clarett to smithereens. He is not only remarkably bright, but he details his emotional struggles and hurt and desperation along with his struggles with drugs and alcohol. Few other athletes have ever come off more thoughtful, more contemplative, more intelligent and more human than Clarett in this documentary. While he was not shy in discussing the way his turmoil was handled by Ohio State, he also does not make excuses for any of his actions. Clarett takes full responsibility and displays the kind of thoughtfulness, forgiveness and humanity that makes it impossible to root against him.
So if you haven’t watched “Youngstown Boys” yet, make it a top priority during your time off this holiday season. You just might learn that Maurice Clarett is not the person you thought he was.