Maurice Clarett Gets a Second Chance

by Ryan Isley (Originally posted 7/29/2010)

In 2002, a young 18-year-old nationally heralded running back by the name of Maurice Clarett accepted a scholarship offer to play football at Ohio State.

Eight years later, a 26-year-old Maurice Clarett enrolled in summer classes at Ohio State to resume his academic career after spending three and a half years in the Toledo Correctional Institution on convictions of robbery and weapons charges.

The names may be the same, but make no mistake, as these are two completely different people.

The 18-year-old Clarett ran for 1,237 yards and 18 touchdowns as a freshman despite missing three games due to injury.

The five-foot-11 freshman also had several key plays, including the winning touchdown in the second overtime, against the Miami Hurricanes in the 2002 BCS National Championship Game, helping the Buckeyes win the national championship.

The spectacular season had people around Columbus buzzing like very few times before and made Buckeyes fans start to believe that Clarett could join Archie Griffin as the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, if not becoming the first player to win the award three times if he stayed all four years.

Then the bottom fell out for the teenager at Ohio State when Clarett was suspended for the 2003 football season after he was charged with filing a false police report. Eventually Clarett plead guilty to failing to aid law enforcement, a lesser charge.

After his suspension Clarett decided, along with USC freshman wide receiver Mike Williams, to challenge the NFL’s eligibility rule and therefore be included in the 2004 draft, a challenge that was eventually denied.

Despite not having played football in 2003 or 2004, Clarett was unexpectedly taken in the third round of the 2005 draft by the Denver Broncos, despite a poor showing at the NFL Combine.

Clarett was released by the Broncos before playing in even a single preseason game and was never claimed by another NFL team.

Unfortunately that was only the beginning of a downward spiral for Clarett.

Shortly after the ringing in of the new year in 2006, Columbus police were on the hunt for Clarett in connection to an armed robbery outside the Opium Lounge club in Columbus.

When Clarett turned himself in the next day, he was charged with two counts of aggravated robbery and five weeks later, he was indicted by a grand jury on two counts of aggravated robbery with gun specifications and five other counts.

While awaiting trial, Clarett was again arrested, this time on charges that he made an illegal u-turn and led police on a chase, charges that resulted in his bail being set at $5 million.

After accepting a plea bargain, Clarett was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, but could be released after just three and a half years.

While in prison, Clarett started to write a blog entitled “The Mind of Maurice Clarett” on October 7, 2008.

Through his writings, it was becoming clear that Clarett was beginning to change, to see the wrongs he had done and that he wanted to do better.

His last post, on August 15, 2009, read:

“One thing that really frustrates me is that I have not been relevant to my family for the past four summers. That puts a chip on my shoulder. I have no one to blame but myself.  The thoughts just put me in a zone like no other. It puts me in my “One and only” mode. I know that there is no way for me to make up for lost time but hopefully my actions in the future will help them to forget all that’s taken place in the past. I never thought I’d once again be in the position of thinking how am I going to get out of this rut. I think that the longer I wait the more serious I become. I think it’s because I have a good understanding on what it means to be physically free.”

It seemed to be the beginning to a new Clarett, the one who just this past Monday at 26 years of age started classes again at Ohio State.

The new Clarett is in a position to turn his life around and make right for what he now knows was wrong, a spot that not everyone gets a chance to be in.

One person who has been by Clarett’s side is Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, who was instrumental in getting Clarett re-enrolled at the school.

In speaking with the Columbus Dispatch’s Ken Gordon, Tressel said that he had been working with Clarett and the school for the past few months to get Clarett enrolled and said that Clreatt is excited to be back in school.

In a statement from Clarett released by Ohio State, the former star athlete-turned-student showed that excitement.

“This is a surreal feeling to be back at Ohio State in such a supportive environment,” Clarett said. “I have looked forward to being back in school, and I’m doing my best to fit in with other students. I don’t want to be a distraction or nuisance to the football team or to students on campus.”

It seems that Clarett has found something this time around that he did not have in his first tour of Ohio State, a true sense of self and accountability.

While the former Clarett was the one getting the cheers at Ohio Stadium as he broke tackles and ran for touchdowns, it is the latter Clarett that truly deserves the applause because the next time Clarett walks onto the football field at Ohio Stadium, it should be to get his degree.

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Braxton Miller Could Be The Next Big Thing In Columbus

By Ryan Isley (Originally posted on 9/19/2010)

When a player is ranked by ESPN as the second-highest rated overall quarterback in his recruiting class and then by Rivals.com as the top-ranked quarterback in the class, there has to be something special about him.

Ohio State’s top verbal recruit for the class of 2011, quarterback Braxton Miller of Huber Heights Wayne High School, is no exception.

Imagine Michael Vick at Virginia Tech, if only Vick had a better knowledge of the offense, a more accurate arm and no pit bulls.

Imagine Reggie Bush at USC, if only Bush could have combined his speed and elusiveness with the arm of 2006 Rose Bowl opponent Vince Young, and if he had not received improper benefits.

Imagine Ohio State’s 2006 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith, if only Smith were a couple inches taller and had the skills as a college freshman that he developed as a junior and a senior.

Those are the kinds of comparisons that the 6-foot-2, 200-lb senior from Huber Heights Wayne High School is facing.

“The comparisons are an honor, but I just gotta keep improving and get better,” Miller said.

Lately though, it has been more of his arm than his athletic ability that has Miller looking more like Young and wowing those in attendance.

“Running is an example of being an athlete, but I only run if I have to,” Miller said. “I always like to stay in the pocket and pass.”

Miller showed his running ability in Wayne’s season-opening loss to Cincinnati Moeller, running a 27-yard touchdown and then an electrifying 75-yard run for a touchdown that made the comparisons to Vick and Bush seem legit.

After missing the Warriors’ loss to Canton McKinley two weeks ago with an ankle injury, Miller returned last week to lead Wayne to a 31-7 win over Seneca as he was 10-for-23 for 92 yards and did not have any rushing plays called for him as they tried to rest his ankle.

Friday night, Miller proved to all doubters that he can indeed be more than just an athlete playing quarterback, as he was 9-for-21 for 133 yards with one touchdown and one interception in a 21-7 win over Trotwood-Madison at Heidkamp Stadium on the campus of Wayne High School.

While the numbers may not look like those of a quarterback who was in control, most of his damage came in the first half as he was 8-for-14 for 130 yards and the touchdown. Miller’s second half numbers are skewed by at least four dropped passes, including one to a wide-open receiver in the third quarter that would have been a long touchdown pass.

Despite being more of a pocket passer Friday night, it was Miller’s legs that provided the backdrop for the play of the night in the second quarter.

With the ball at their own 36-yard-line, Miller took the snap and was chased immediately. He scrambled around and stopped just short of the line of scrimmage on the dead run and fired a 40-yard strike to Armani Miller, leading to a 45-yard gain and eventually a Warriors touchdown.

“They were coming hard from the backside and blitzing, so I just rolled out to my left and looked downfield,” Miller said. “I did (think about running) but my ankle said no so I let my arm do the work.”

One of the other impressive things about Miller at such an early stage in his career is his maturity to bounce back when a receiver drops an easy catch, as happened a few times Friday night.

Even though Miller is just a verbal commit right now, there is no worry that he will back out of that commitment and sign elsewhere on signing day, as he went out and got an Ohio State tattoo on his left bicep.

“I have always been committed to my team,” Miller said. “Right now I am committed to Ohio State.”

Once he is on campus and wearing the scarlet and gray. Fans will be just as committed to Miller as he is to the Buckeyes.

Follow me on Twitter: @isley23

Kipnis Working Out The Kinks In Akron

By Ryan Isley (Originally posted on 6/23/2010)

The top of the Cleveland Indians draft class of 2009 keeps making their way through the organization as second-round pick Jason Kipnis has been in Double-A Akron for the past two weeks, joining first-round pick Alex White.

Kipnis was drafted as an outfielder out of Arizona State but after playing at Short-Season Class-A Mahoning Valley following the draft, the Indians decided to move him to second base, a transition that has not been easy.

“It is a work in progress now still,” Kipnis said. “There are still some ground balls that scare the crap out of me, I am not going to lie about that and as soon as one gets hit hard at me I might have the yips or I might question it but I just have to keep my feet moving and stay down on the ball.”

So far this season Kipnis has committed 11 errors in 63 games between Class-A Kinston and Double-A Akron.

While his defense leaves much room for improvement, it is his offense that has Kipnis moving up the organizational ladder.

After hitting .306 with Short-Season Class-A Mahoning Valley last season, Kipnis started this year with Class-A Kinston, where hit .300 with six home runs and 31 runs batted in while playing in 54 games before being called up to Double-A Akron on June 10th.

“I came up here with the glass completely empty and ready to soak up a lot of stuff,” Kipnis said. “There are a lot of guys who can teach you a bunch of things.”

Through his first 11 games for the Aeros, Kipnis is hitting .333 with three home runs and seven runs batted in and started his stint in Double-A with an eight-game hitting streak.

“I am just kind of riding the wave right now,” Kipnis said. “It’s really just been putting my head down and playing. I have been fortunate enough to come on a hot streak.”

Kipnis had to adjust quickly from playing in college to playing in the pros and the biggest adjustment is going from using a metal bat to a wooden one which changes the way pitchers work.

“What I have really concentrated on this year is being fastball efficient,” Kipnis said. “Up here, it’s a smaller strike zone so they are going to try to get ahead with fastballs. You are not going to see your college metal bat curveballs and changeups galore which is all they throw (in college).”

While transitioning through the minors may be tough, it is not unlike the one Kipnis faced in college.

After playing one season at the University of Kentucky, Kipnis transferred to Arizona State to play for head coach Pat Murphy, whom Kipnis calls a big influence on his baseball career.

“Coming from Kentucky, I was still very immature as a person, as a baseball player, everything,” Kipnis said. “(Murphy) really kind of sat me down, taught me the ways about the game, just completely changed my outlook on how to go about the game, how to handle my business in life, how to handle my schoolwork,  handle everything.”

When the San Diego Padres made Kipnis their fourth-round selection in the 2008 draft, it was Murphy who gave him the advice he remembers to this day.

“He was like when you are ready to leave and you are ready to move to the next level you will know,” Kipnis said. “Whether it is college, high or low (Class)- A, Double-A, you will know when you are ready to go on.”

With those words ringing in his head, Kipnis knew what he had to do, returning to Arizona State for one more season, where he hit .384 with 16 home runs and 71 runs batted in for the Sun Devils en route to becoming the Pac-10 player of the year.

“It was a risk,” Kipnis admits. “I looked at my first year at ASU and I looked at how much I matured over that season in just one full season with them and what another year with (Murphy) could do for me. I sat down and thought about it and I still had a lot to learn so I wasn’t ready to move up yet so I gave it a shot and got lucky with it.”

It was during that final season at Arizona State that Kipnis and faced White in the College World Series, a game that White pitched for North Carolina but Arizona State won 6-2.

“We still jaw back and forth now and then,” Kipnis joked. “I got a hit off him in my first at-bat and that is all I needed was one. He struck me out later, so I will give him credit for that. He pitched lights out in Omaha but we were lucky enough to come up with the win in extra innings so I got that on him.”

With the two teammates having so much success so early, the obvious thing everyone wants to know is when Kipnis and White will be playing for the Indians.

“It is something you try not to think about too much,” Kipnis said. “You start to realize how far away you are but how close you are at the same time and the only way you can get there is by not thinking about it, by putting your head down and playing the game.”

As for White, Kipnis is impressed with what he has seen from his one-time foe turned teammate.

“(Alex) has pitched tremendously,” Kipnis said. “He might have had a bad outing but he has rebounded in the next one. It wouldn’t be too long I am sure before we’re going to see him (in Cleveland).”

With the rate Kipnis is going, it would not come as a surprise if he were on the move again soon as well.

He has been so good in his first two weeks with the Aeros that the only negative so far is that he did not win the team’s pool for last weekend’s U.S. Open.

“We drew (golfers) out of a hat,” Kipnis said. “I got Retief Goosen, (Nick) Watney and (Jason) Gore who I think all finished at like plus-14. It didn’t bode well for me.”

Thankfully for the Indians, they were more successful in pulling names in the beginning of the 2009 draft than Kipnis was for the U.S. Open.

Follow me on Twitter: @isley23

Tomlinson Passes Brown, Gets Pat On Back From Boyhood Hero

By Ryan Isley (Originally posted 12/6/2009)

Most kids in America grow up emulating their favorite athletes while playing pick-up games in the backyard and San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson is no different.

“As a kid playing football in the yard I looked up to all the great running backs but there were a lot of days I was Jim Brown out on the football field,” Tomlinson said.

This, however, was no regular Sunday.  This was the day in which Tomlinson realized that boyhood dream of being Jim Brown.

With an 11-yard run in the fourth quarter of San Diego’s 30-23 win over Cleveland, Tomlinson surpassed Jim Brown for eighth on the NFL’s all-time career rushing list.

As if passing Brown was not special enough, doing it in Cleveland where Brown played from 1957-1965 made it even more memorable.

“To do it here in Cleveland is extra special,” Tomlinson said.  “I can’t even tell you what it means because it seemed like it was supposed to happen being here in Cleveland. I’m just excited we were able to get it done.”

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said that Tomlinson’s teammates were aware that he would be able to pass Brown in this game.

“I think he was within nine yards or something at one point,” Rivers said. “I kinda told a few of the lineman ‘hey our guy has a chance to pass Jim Brown in Cleveland.  Let’s go get it’.”

Norv Turner, who has coached Tomlinson the last three seasons, is impressed by what Tomlinson has accomplished.

“You go by Marshall Faulk and you go by the guy who many consider the best ever in Jim Brown, to do it here in this stadium in terms of career yards, it’s a thrill to coach him and I think our players feel the same thing with the opportunity to play with him.”

Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, who hauled in eight catches for 167 yards in a career day, agrees with Turner’s assessment.

“I have been blessed to play with a guy for the past seven years that has done some spectacular things in his career and he is just adding to that,” Gates said of his teammate.  “To me he is going to go down as one of the great running backs of all-time regardless of milestones or who he passes or what yardage he breaks.”

To Gates, it is not just about LaDainian Tomlinson the football player, but also about LaDainian Tomlinson the person.

“Being around him the person solidifies that things happen to good people and I am just excited for him and happy that he was able to make that milestone,” Gates said.

Despite Tomlinson’s struggles at times this season, Rivers knows that having No. 21 in his backfield is is an important part of their offense.

“This year has probably been one of the toughest he has had for a lot reasons, but he’s still a huge, huge part and continues to make plays for this team and this offense,” Rivers said. “Just being on the field with a guy that continues to break some of these records and move pass guys on those lists it’s a lot of fun.”

Along with passing Brown, Tomlinson also became the fastest player in NFL history to score 150 career touchdowns.  He accomplished the feat in 137 games, besting the previous fastest of Emmitt Smith by 23 games.

“It’s pretty special because I have always really enjoyed scoring touchdowns more than anything,” Tomlinson said of the record.  “Part of the reason is because that’s how you win the game, scoring touchdowns.  I have always said that if I am scoring touchdowns it means we’re winning.”

While the touchdown mark was special it did not take long for Tomlinson to decide which of the two feats meant the most on this day.

“I really think it was passing Jim Brown. He transcended generations and I can remember my father talking about Jim Brown as a kid and he loved him,” Tomlinson said.  “Everyone loved Jim Brown and rightfully so. Even today when you talk about great running backs the majority of the people say Jim Brown is the best ever.”

Immediately after passing Brown, Tomlinson looked up to where Brown was sitting.  He then pointed up, tapped his chest and gave a salute to the man that many still consider the best running back to ever play the game.

“That was just appreciation I had for him giving a kid but also a young man something to strive for on the football field,” Tomlinson said of the tribute.  “He gave me something to shoot for and I just wanted to show my appreciation.”

That respect was not lost on Brown.  Moments after Tomlinson spoke with the media, he returned to the locker room where shortly thereafter he was greeted by Brown.

“Congratulations,” Brown told Tomlinson as they shook hands. “You are a great, great player.”

“Thank you,” Tomlinson replied as you could by the look on his face the great respect he has for Brown. “I appreciate you giving a young kid and then a young man something to strive for. Obviously I have looked up to you and wanted to be like you.”

“Here you are,” Brown said as Tomlinson soaked in every moment with his boyhood hero.  “You are a fantastic player and person.  Keep up the good work.”

After meeting with Tomlinson, Brown explained why he felt the need to talk with Tomlinson on this day.

“I came to the locker room because I do respect him that much,” Brown said. “I love the young men because most of them give me great respect and one-on-one we can relate and I like that. There is no jealousy because it is so difficult to reach the level of greatness that he has reached. How dare I not give him all the compliments I have in my heart because he had to do that himself.”

Brown knows that many fans, especially in the Cleveland area, regard him as the best running back to ever put on an NFL uniform but he has tried to downplay that.

“What I am regarded as is a guy that played many years ago that satisfied the fans,” Brown said. “My position in history does not matter to me but the respect I get and the respect I give is highly important to me.”

Just the way that Tomlinson was Jim Brown on the playground in the days of his youth, there are kids today who are LaDainian Tomlinson when they play those games of backyard football.

“To me that’s what kids aspire to be – their heroes,” Tomlinson said. “That’s how it should be. Obviously we are role models because a lot of kids look up to us and a lot of kids shoot for the stars and want to do the things we have done. It brings me great pride to have kids look up to me and want to be like me on the playground.”

It looks like Jim Brown summed it up best LaDainian – “Here you are”.

Follow me on Twitter: @isley23

Browns Fans Still Asking ‘What If’ Over 2003 Draft

By Ryan Isley (Originally posted on 12/4/2009)

Browns fans continually ask themselves two words: ‘What if?’

What if Marty Schottenheimer never went into the prevent defense to allow John Elway to orchestrate ‘The Drive’?

What if Earnest Byner would not have fumbled?

What if the city would have built Art Modell a new stadium?

One such ‘what if’ will be on display this Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium when the Browns host the San Diego Chargers.

That instance is ‘what if’ the Browns had selected running back LaDainian Tomlinson of Texas Christian University with the third pick in the 2001 NFL draft?

Instead of picking Tomlinson, Butch Davis and company took defensive tackle Gerard Warren from Florida and took their running back, James Jackson of Miami (whom Davis coached in college), in the third round.

The Browns were the worst offensive team in the league in 2000, averaging only 10.1 points per game.

The running game was non-existent as the leading rusher, Travis Prentiss, rushed for just 512 yards for the season.  Combined, the Browns running backs ran for 915 yards on the season, which was less than 23 individual players in the league.

With all signs pointing towards taking the game-changing running back that the franchise desperately needed, the Browns did what they always do and flipped the script by taking Warren.

Warren lasted four seasons in Cleveland, accumulating 116 tackles and 16.5 sacks in 60 games.  Before the 2005 draft, the Browns traded Warren to Oakland for a fourth round draft pick.

Jackson would run for just 1,082 yards in four seasons for the Browns.

Enter Tomlinson.

He had just come off a senior season in which he led the NCAA in rushing with 2,158 yards while scoring 22 touchdowns.  He won the Doak Walker Award which is awarded to the nation’s best running back and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Chris Weinke of Florida State, Josh Heupel of Oklahoma and Drew Brees of Purdue.

While some experts expected the Browns to take a player on the offensive side of the ball, Tomlinson was not sure if that was when his name would be called.

“I didn’t know. I had no idea.” said Tomlinson, thinking back to that April day.

The San Diego Chargers took Tomlinson with the fifth pick (following the Browns, the Cincinnati Bengals also passed on Tomlinson, taking Missouri defensive end Justin Smith with the fourth pick) and he immediately made an impact.

Tomlinson rushed for 1,236 yards on 339 carries in 2001 as a rookie, including a 102-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Browns.

The Browns running backs in 2001, meanwhile, rushed for 1,169 yards on 372 carries, led by Jackson who gained 554 yards on 195 carries.

That trend continued in 2002 and 2003 as Tomlinson compiled back-to-back 1,600+ yard seasons while the Browns running backs ran for 1,411 and 1,496 yards respectively.

In 2003, 200 of Tomlinson’s yards came in a game at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

In 2006, Tomlinson outrushed the Browns running backs by 792 yards as he ran for 1,815.  His 28 rushing touchdowns (three against the Browns) were four times as many as the seven combined rushing touchdowns for the Browns offense that season.  The only players to score on the ground for the Browns were running back Rueben Droughns with four touchdowns and quarterback Charlie Frye, who added three rushing scores.

Against the Browns, Tomlinson has rushed for 585 yards and seven touchdowns in four career games.

The games against Cleveland were more of a credit to his team than they were a statement of revenge.

“They were just really good games,” Tomlinson said.  “We were doing a great job of moving people off the ball, creating a lot of lanes for me. I was able to get an open field and make people miss.”

All total in his career, Tomlinson has rushed for 12,257 yards on 2,805 carries.  In that same time, Browns running backs combined have run for 11,871 yards on 3,143 carries.

But just for a minute ask ‘What if’.

What if the Browns had taken Tomlinson? How would his career, and the Browns fortunes, have changed?

Tomlinson is not really sure.

“I don’t know,” Tomlinson said. “I wouldn’t of had as many playoff appearances as I have now, looking at the last 9 years. I don’t know if I would’ve had the same type of success.”

The thing we will never know is how the Browns history would have been changed that day had Butch Davis selected Tomlinson.

The one thing we are all sure of is that Browns fans on Sunday will be looking at No. 21 on the other team and asking themselves those two famous words: ‘What if’.

Follow me on Twitter: @isley23

Time For Akron North To Lose Football

by Ryan Isley

This is my plea to those in charge over at Akron North High School – please just disband the football program.

That is right – I said disband it. Get rid of it. Find something else for the fans to do for the rest of this fall.

Why?

Because I went to Cuyahoga Falls High School Friday night to see the North Vikings take on the Cuyahoga Falls Black Tigers and what I saw for those two-plus hours was embarrassing as a North alum.

It was not just the final score of 34-0 (which could have been way worse by the way) that made me hang my head in shame as a Viking.

There were missed tackles, lots of them, and missed blocking assignments.

There were plenty of plays where players had no idea where to be on the field, with one player even heading to the wrong side of the field for a kickoff.

There was a boneheaded play on a punt fair catch in which a Vikings player hit the return man after he caught the ball.

Those things, however, are not what made me sit there in embarrassment as the night unfolded.

It was not even the fact that I counted no more than 24 players in full uniform on the North sidelines that made me glad I was not wearing any gear showing that I was an alum of the school.

It was what was happening on those sidelines that made me bury my head in disbelief.

There were assistant coaches arguing with each other. When they were not arguing, they were laughing and joking with each other and with fans in the stands despite trailing 34-0 late in the third quarter.

How about some of the players who were on the sidelines in a jersey and jeans, not active for one reason or another? Instead of cheering on their teammates, they were talking to fans and each other, paying no attention to what was happening on the field.

One of those players was frequently playing with his cell phone during the game. Yes, playing with his phone on the sidelines.

Then he went one step further and actually took a phone call in the fourth quarter, again on the sidelines.

Then, he did the unthinkable.

He walked over to a teammate who was in full uniform, handed him the phone and the player took his helmet off to talk on the phone.

All of this occurred during the fourth quarter of a game in which they were getting trounced.

I had to laugh when one of the parents was saying that the coaches told the players that this season was more about discipline and less about winning football games, that winning would come in time.

Seems that might have been the most ironic thing that could have possibly been said all night after seeing what happened on that visitor’s sideline.

So please, those in charge over at the school I used to attend, do something.

Tell the football program that they need to either shape up or that they are no longer needed.

Follow Me on twitter.com @Isley23.