Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

“Youngstown Boys” a Story of Hope, Redemption, and College Athletics

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Folks, over the past few weeks, I’ve been struggling with first something akin to strep throat, then a nasty sinus bug. While I’ve continued to edit and write as much as I can, I haven’t been able to be online much and I certainly haven’t been able to blog. It’s not a fun state to be in, to put it mildly.

What I do when I’m feeling like this is watch a lot of television. But in addition to watching the Milwaukee Brewers play baseball, which I do whether sick or well, I’ve been catching up with ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentaries. And one, in particular, I felt was quite memorable: Youngstown Boys.

Why? Well, this is a documentary of troubled running back Maurice Clarett, once of Ohio State University, and his college coach, Jim Tressel. Both were from Youngstown, Ohio (hence the name); both started at OSU at the same time. And while Tressel stayed involved in Clarett’s life, good things happened for both of them, culminating in a 14-0 season and a double-overtime win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl during the 2002 season.

Then Clarett ran into trouble. He’d gotten some help with getting a car and a cell phone. He admits to this in the film. The NCAA, in their infinite whatever, started an investigation — but before the NCAA could suspend Clarett, OSU suspended him instead . . . for the entire 2003 season.

And Tressel, the guy who had said he’d help Clarett when Tressel had recruited him, stood aside. (Possibly Tressel was in fear of losing his own job, or maybe Tressel just didn’t have the strength of character to intercede right then and there. But Tressel redeemed himself later on . . . more on that later.)

At this point, I was livid. I am a big proponent of players being paid, and think the way the NCAA forces athletes to live is utterly wrong. And the whole idea that a young man like Clarett, whose only goal in life was to play professional football, could get derailed like this was quite frustrating.

But it got worse. Clarett’s lawyers sued the NFL and tried to get him “draft-eligible,” as this was Clarett’s best shot at making a living. Clarett won his first-round court case, too . . . but lost later on.

So what’s a guy to do when he doesn’t have his scholarship, is poor, has tremendous athletic gifts, but has no direction? Clarett tried for a few years to ready himself for the NFL on his own, with indifferent success. And while Clarett was drafted by the Denver Broncos down the line, he never took so much as one snap in a preseason game before being let go by the Broncos.

After that, things just went into a downward spiral for Clarett. He ended up in prison, which could’ve broken him.

Instead, prison actually saved him — saved his life — as he started using his intelligence for good things. He started to read voraciously. He stayed in good contact with his girlfriend, calling her every day, and even started a blog (he’d read what he’d written to her, and she’d post it online). And he vowed to both redeem himself and to reform.

At this point, Tressel ran into trouble himself due to a recruiting scandal at OSU. Maybe because of this — the movie wasn’t clear — Tressel decided to involve himself again in Clarett’s life. And the two of them have become fast friends, working on behalf of improving other people’s lives. Reminding people that so long as you live, you can hope for better, dream of better — and you should do those very things no matter how badly the deck is stacked against you.

Mind, both of these men’s lives have not gone according to plan. Clarett, who had all the talent in the world to become a star running back in professional football, is now a motivational speaker and runs football camps. And Tressel, oddly enough, is now the President of Youngstown State University — a place where he won multiple national football championships at the I-AA level (now called the Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS) — and has retired from coaching college football.

But I venture to say that the detours both men’s lives have taken have made them better and stronger people. Clarett speaks to many, including former and current inmates, and his words have the ring of authority. He’s done some very strong and positive things since getting out of prison, and it’s possible that none of that would’ve happened if he hadn’t gotten into bad trouble — then clawed his way out of it. And Tressel is active in many charities and has stayed in contact with many of his former players, including a number of troubled ones, and his life has been deepened and broadened thereby also.

Youngstown Boys, in short, was a powerful film that affected me deeply.  It showed that no matter how long it takes, goals and dreams matter. Even if you don’t achieve one goal today, you can still achieve it tomorrow; even if you can’t do it tomorrow, you can do it the next day if you refuse to give up, you refuse to give in, and you refuse to take “no” for an answer.

I think many people — not just writers, editors, and musicians — can learn from these men. Because it shows that redemption is truly possible, and that you can, indeed, become a better and stronger person through adversity.

————

Quick note: I’ll be working on a couple of stories the rest of this week, so blog posts may be scarce. But I hope to finally get a review up of VICTORIES at Shiny Book Review later this week, so do stay tuned for that (computer connectivity problems kept me from it last week).

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