OMAHA, Neb. – Wearing the same No. 13 he wore so well as an Ohio State freshman eight years ago, Maurice Clarett began his bid to return to football Monday night on a high school field where the minor-league Omaha Nighthawks practiced before a handful of onlookers.
Clarett signed a one-year contract with the United Football League team earlier in the day after meeting with team officials and UFL commissioner Michael Huyghue, who gave his blessing.
It was Clarett's first football activity since he was a bust with the Denver Broncos and spent 3½ years in prison for having a hidden gun and holding up two people outside a Columbus, Ohio, bar, in 2006.
"I am humbled by the opportunity the Omaha Nighthawks have given me and will dedicate myself on and off the field to prove that I can be a valuable member of the team and the Omaha community," Clarett said in a statement. "I am committed to working hard to earn the right for a second chance in football and more importantly in life."
Clarett, who is not scheduled to meet with reporters until Wednesday, went through a private workout and physical Sunday. The Nighthawks list him at 6-foot and 220 pounds, 10 lighter than his playing weight at Ohio State.
"The things you can't coach you can see were there — footwork, hands, those types of things. And he's in really good physical condition," general manager Rick Mueller said. "Those were the things that jumped out more than anything else. He's done a pretty good job getting himself in condition to play football."
Clarett, 26, needed a judge's permission to leave Ohio to work out for the Nighthawks. He was allowed to be out of state for 30 days. Mueller said he's confident Clarett will be allowed to stay the entire season in Omaha and that he won't be barred from traveling to road games.
Clarett ran into trouble after that sensational freshman year at Ohio State, where he rushed for 1,237 yards and 18 touchdowns, the last one clinching a victory in the national title game against Miami.
He was suspended the entire 2003 season for taking gifts and lying to the NCAA. He later lost a court case challenging the NFL's rule requiring a player to be out of high school three years before becoming eligible for the draft.
The Broncos drafted Clarett in the third round in 2005, but he was hindered by a groin problem, never played in a preseason game and was cut before the regular season.
His downward spiral continued with the robbery, which landed him in prison and then, for the last 4½ months, in a community-based lockdown dormitory.
"I was as skeptical as anyone when we first started talking about Maurice," Mueller. said. "Once you do the research and you dig in and spend time with him, you realize he has his head on straight. He made his mistakes, he acknowledges that. He deserves an opportunity to show people he's changed.
"I'm 100-percent comfortable that Maurice is not going to do anything to hurt this football team or city."
Huygue had said that he wouldn't allow Clarett to sign with the Nighthawks unless the team provided a strong support system. Ahman Green, a native of Omaha and four-time Pro Bowler with the Green Bay Packers, has agreed to serve as Clarett's mentor.
"He's a grown man. He paid his debt to society. Right now he just wants to play," Green said.
The Nighthawks practiced in shorts, helmets and shoulder pads, and Clarett walked through a few plays at the start. When he stepped the wrong direction on a play, defensive tackle Hollis Thomas bellowed, "Hey, new guy!"
Clarett went through station drills with the running backs, then watched from the sideline with his helmet off as the team ran seven-on-seven plays. He spent much of his down time with wide receiver Roy Hall, an Ohio State classmate and friend of Clarett who also signed Monday.
Hall played coy when it was suggested that the Nighthawks signed him to be part of a support system for Clarett.
"I don't believe in coincidences," Hall said wryly.
Clarett and Hall have been working out together for about seven weeks at Ohio State, since Hall was released by the New Orleans Saints.
"He's a good friend of mine," Hall said. "Going through the ups and downs with him early, and watching what happened, it was exciting for me to be able to help him and embrace him. We're brothers, and we preach that."
Clarett plays in a league where the average salary is $50,000. Besides Green, the Nighthawks feature Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia and several other players with NFL experience.
"We're going to be patient with him," Mueller said of Clarett. "We have to be smart about it and so does Maurice. This kid is anxious to get out there and show what he can do, but it's no good if he's hurt.
"He's done everything he can personally, legally and physically to put himself in condition to be successful. Now we have to find out if he can get back."