INDIANAPOLIS (Feb. 19, 2004) -- The story is much more about fascination than it is about football.
If you address Maurice Clarett's unprecedented situation strictly from a football standpoint, you very well might not address it at all.
There simply isn't enough football in his background, the kind needed to gauge his validity as an NFL prospect, to have a meaningful discussion about where he belongs among the 300-plus draft-eligible college prospects at the combine. He is only 20 years old. He has had all of a single season of major-college experience, and not even a full one at that. He is here only because a federal judge ruled that the NFL rule requiring players to be out of high school three years before entering the draft violated antitrust laws.
And, thus, the fascination that attracted the largest gathering of reporters when the former Ohio State running back met the media covering the combine.
For the most part, Clarett's news conference is likely to stand as the highlight of his combine experience. That's because he has decided not to work out. He is saving his running, jumping and other athletic activity for an individual session on the Ohio State campus during the first week of April. Clarett's combine "action" is limited to undergoing physical examinations and one-on-one interviews with coaches, general managers and other club officials.
"This guy hasn't played, and now he comes to Indy and he's not going to work out," Buffalo Bills president/general manager Tom Donahoe said. "Somebody's going to have to explain that strategy to me, because I don't get it."
Donahoe and other people with ample experience evaluating and coaching NFL players also don't get why Clarett is in such a hurry to begin his pro career -- why he doesn't wait at least another year to do so. The people who view Clarett from a football perspective have serious doubts about whether he has the physical or mental maturity to play in the NFL.
The concerns are legitimate. Any number of athletes who have spent five years (counting a redshirt season) as college players have struggled with making the transition to the highest level of football competition.
Statistics released by the NFL Players Association paint a fairly discouraging picture of the task Clarett and other underclassmen face. In the past 11 years, more than 360 underclass players have received draft eligibility. Among them, two thirds were drafted and slightly more than 10 percent signed contracts as undrafted free agents. But almost one out of every four underclass players never even received an NFL contract.
The numbers don't take into account the chances for success of a player whose only college season was shortened by injuries. Sure, Clarett set Ohio State freshman records rushing for 1,237 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2002. Sure, he played a major role in helping the Buckeyes win a national championship.
And while it might seem impressive that he did all of that despite missing three games and parts of two others because of knee surgery and a shoulder injury, the fact is he has missed vital preparation to deal with the larger, stronger and faster athletes he will encounter in the NFL.
Several NFL players have been outspoken in their disapproval of Clarett's decision to turn pro so soon. Some linebackers have actually talked publicly about planning to place extra-hard hits on him to send a message that essentially says, "Kid, you're not ready for this."
The 5-foot-11, 237-pound Clarett seems unfazed by such talk. He anticipates rough treatment -- but only for his rookie season.
"I'm sure I'll be marked just like every other rookie," Clarett said. "But I think I'll be tested a little bit more during training camp and during the games, mentally and physically, to see where my head is at. Once I can get over the first-year hump, I think I'll have a normal career."
Sorry, Maurice, but "normal" is unlikely to ever be a word anyone else will use to describe your career.
As it stands, no one can be absolutely certain when that career will actually begin. The court case is under appeal, and the judge's decision could very well be reversed.
One gets the distinct impression that coaches, general managers and scouts would be relieved if that were the case, because they hardly seem ready to assess the skills of sub-juniors. They say they will do it if they have to, but projecting what sort of NFL players that would make is something they would clearly prefer to avoid.
"The longer guys are in school, the safer your projection is and the better you project," Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "You have fewer of what we could call mistakes with seniors than you do with juniors. It's a proven fact."
"I hope it doesn't get to that point," Donahoe said. "If it does, you adjust to it and adapt to it. But we have a good system. Why destroy it?"
Donahoe made what was considered a risky projection last year when he used a first-round draft pick on Willis McGahee, despite the fact the former University of Miami running back had undergone major reconstructive surgery less than four months before the 2003 draft. McGahee never played as a rookie, but the Bills expect him to make an impact in 2004.
"There's no comparison," Donahoe said. "McGahee was hurt, but he played a whole season. You had something to go on."
Clarett insists he has all of the maturity necessary to overcome what he readily acknowledges is a "huge challenge." He insists he doesn't see himself as a "groundbreaker," although for now, public perception seems to disagree.
Clarett also insists he has learned to not allow negative comments about him in the media get the better of him as was sometimes the case during his brief time at Ohio State.
"Once I just learned how to stop turning on the TV or reading the paper," he said, "I was cool."
Given that his is much more of a story about fascination than football, avoiding such distractions is going to be much more difficult. But if Clarett ends up on an NFL roster this fall, that figures to be the least of his worries.