ESPN documentary dazzles, deceives with look at Ohio State football

2-hour piece that chronicles Clarett, Tressel to debut Saturday night

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  • COLUMBUS — Maurice Clarett’s tortured descent from the toast of Columbus to more than three years of confinement at Toledo Correctional Institution is known well.

    The new ESPN documentary Youngstown Boys — a look at the intertwined journeys of former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and his most important star — is most compelling for its chronicles of what happens next.

    Can the man who said he rebuilt his mind, body, and soul live the redemptive second act he covets?

    “This story is about a young man, football, a relationship with his coaches, his teammates, tough times, but hanging on to hope,” Tressel said this week in an ESPN conference call. “I’m anxious to see what he does in the next 50 years of his life. I don’t know if I'll be there for all of it, but I’m anxious to see what he does with the rest of his life to make a difference in other people’s lives.”

    Youngstown Boys, which debuts at 9 p.m. Saturday after the Heisman Trophy ceremony, is part of ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 series and the latest work of award-winning brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist (The Two Escobars).

    The two-hour film offers a gripping look at two local stars vaulting from Youngstown — Tressel, the championship-winning coach at Youngstown State, and Clarett, the troubled but dazzling running back at Warren Harding — to the outsized stage of Ohio State and the complications that follow.

    Some will find flaws, including a sense at times that one side of the story is being told. Former OSU athletic director Andy Geiger, for instance, is cast as a villain out to get Clarett, without mention if Geiger was contacted for comment. And in a review copy of the documentary, deceptive editing threatens to undermine the credibility of the work.

    Among the examples: The score on the ABC broadcast is changed to make it seem as if Clarett — not Maurice Hall — scored the game-winning touchdown in the 2002 OSU-Michigan game; a celebratory shot from after the 2011 Sugar Bowl is passed off as the ’02 national title celebration — current safety C.J. Barnett and former linebacker Etienne Sabino are in the foreground; and two quotes taken out of context.

    As the film builds up to Clarett’s hyped first game in 2002, Tressel is shown talking to reporters.

    “It will be exciting because everyone’s been talking about him so much,” he said. “He’s a great kid. He’s trained hard. He’s nervous like any freshman. I’m sure he didn’t sleep last night. I’m anxious to see him out there. We’ve got 103 other guys out there if you want to talk about them.”

    Problem was, the scene was from 2008, when Tressel spoke about Terrelle Pryor’s debut. Yet those with a soft spot for comeback stories will enjoy the film.

    Clarett now cringes at the younger version of himself, from the college player consumed by fame and a “Maurice the Beast” persona to the adrift soul sentenced to prison for aggravated robbery and carrying a concealed weapon in 2006.

    “I don’t even know if I would play football now if I had the mindset I have now,” said Clarett, who was released from prison in 2010. “ ... I don’t have anger toward anybody. I used to have anger toward a lot of things when I was younger, and I’d just channel it.”

    Since leaving Toledo Correctional, where he said he devoured books on philosophy, Clarett has indeed so far enjoyed a fulfilling second act. He re-enrolled in undergraduate classes at OSU and is a regular guest speaker, including at prisons, where he hopes his story inspires others.

    “While it’s not the path that any of us would have written or the script any of us would have written, what’s exciting is what lies ahead for this young guy,” said Tressel, 61, who resigned his OSU position in May, 2011, and is now an administrator at Akron and a close friend to Clarett. “I’m just excited to watch all the extraordinary things he does down the road.”

    Contact David Briggs at:, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.