COLUMBUS, Ohio – After 3½ years in a prison cell, the sound of people cheering and rooting for him has helped Maurice Clarett make the transition back to a routine life.
"I'm doing something that I love," the former Ohio State tailback said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters. "I think that goes for anybody in the world anywhere: If you're doing something you love and you're having fun doing it, I don't think a person can ask for too much more."
Clarett, a month into a stint with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League, said it has taken him time to get back into playing shape after not playing competitively since he led the Buckeyes to the 2002 national championship. He was suspended by the NCAA for taking improper inducements, failed to make it in the NFL, then spent 3½ years in prison for having a hidden gun and holding up two people outside a Columbus bar in 2006.
In the Nighhawks' two games — both wins — Clarett has seen only limited action.
The 26-year-old Clarett declined to address questions about his past. He said he had learned to deal with only what is in front of him.
"I take things day by day. I don't get too far ahead of myself; I don't look behind myself," he said when asked if he hopes to someday make it to the NFL.
"I understand my responsibility and where I'm at right now. I'm sort of living in the moment," he said. "Some personal goals, I keep them private and I keep them to myself. I put in all the work I need to be putting in, to contribute to the team and become a better player. I try every day. It's a day-by-day process. I focus on the moment."
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel wrote a letter to the presiding judge asking for Clarett to be permitted to leave Ohio to try out with the Nighthawks.
"I think it's probably something that he thought about and that he missed and that he knows it's short-lived," Tressel said earlier this season. "The older you get, it's even shorter-lived."
Clarett worked out at Ohio State while attending classes there this summer.
"He wanted to be in a positive environment and all that," Tressel said. "All of a sudden people started calling us and I would take him his phone messages. And I think he kind of felt good that there was some interest."
Clarett was granted permission to travel to Omaha for the tryout, and made the team.
The 6-foot, 220-pounder said he was fortunate that he was able to stay in shape while he was in prison and this summer while attending classes and living in a lockdown dormitory in Columbus. But even though he felt he was in good condition, it took a while to come around to being physically able to play professional football.
"It's been like any other transition," he said. "It's had its points of difficulties, but right now I'm good. I've been away from the game for a while, so starting off things were moving kind of fast. I had to get everything under control. But I've been here now five or six weeks, so I kind of understand what's going on with the playbook, what the coaches expect out of us: getting back in football shape, sprinting and stopping, taking care of my body, taking care of my mind, just doing the things we need to do to win."
He has carried only five times for 12 yards, and has one catch for 6 yards. He is listed on the Nighthawks' depth chart as the third-team tailback behind NFL veteran Ahman Green and Shaud Williams.
"That's definitely enough to keep me busy," he said of the light workload so far. "The coach, he tells us pretty much before each game, how many carries he expects us to have. And we go from there."
Clarett said he continues to follow college football. He was a sensation at Ohio State, starting at the glamour position of tailback before he had attended his first college class.
He rushed for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns for the Buckeyes in his only season, capped by a glittering performance in the Fiesta Bowl where the Buckeyes beat top-ranked Miami 31-24 in two overtimes. In that game, Clarett rushed for two touchdowns including the game-winner. He also made one of the biggest plays of the game when he ran down the Hurricanes' Sean Taylor, who had just intercepted a pass, and stole the ball away to help set up a field goal.
"I pay attention. The big games that they have on TV, they have a lot of Nebraska games out here or regional games out here," he said. "I talk to a couple of players back at Ohio State. I pay attention to Ohio State."
The Omaha fans have been good to Clarett, cheering for him and rabidly supporting his team.
"It feels good," he said.