Students at Farmington and Central schools received a visit from a former football star-turned mental health advocate on Monday, hearing a message of avoiding the pitfalls of substance abuse and the power of promoting mental health.
Maurice Clarett was a star high school football player who went on to win a national championship with the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2002. Clarett’s bright future was hindered, however, by personal struggles with depression, crime and substance abuse.
Clarett’s speaking engagements at Farmington and Central High School on Monday was made possible by the Helping Hands of Southeast Missouri Mental Health Center. During Clarett’s first stop at Farmington High School, Michelle Ramirez of Helping Hands said the hope was for Clarett’s story to inspire mental health advocacy and the elimination of harmful stigmas.
Before Clarett spoke, former Knights football player Jordan Hampton briefly spoke to students about his experience with similar circumstances.
“After I left school, I was looking to channel that same desire I had with sports,” Hampton said. “What I found was a lot of brokenness and a lot of emptiness, which resulted in depression. I went from being the captain on this field, to seven years later being in a psychiatric unit at the hospital across the street.”
After describing his own experiences, Hampton then introduced Clarett, who talked about his roots in Youngstown, Ohio.
“Growing up in Youngstown in the 90s — there were a bunch of homicides, a bunch of robberies and a lot of domestic violence,” Clarett said. “I come from a broken home and am the youngest of three brothers.”
Having witnessed the physical abuse of his mother and three murders by the time he was 8 years old, Clarett said he had no clue how his experiences early in life would impact him.
“In most inner-cities, just like in rural towns, there’s not a ton to do,” Clarett said. “So what I found myself doing was getting in trouble just to get attention, to be cool and one of the guys.”
Clarett found himself in juvenile detention on three occasions, for joyriding, fighting and finally for burglarizing a home with a friend. While in detention the third time, Clarett was approached by a correctional officer and high school football coach who told the young Clarett that if he focused on athletics, he could find a way to escape his neighborhood.
“I didn’t take him seriously because I had never seen anyone in my life go to college or the professional level for sports or athletics,” he said. “I just thought he was trying to encourage me.”
Clarett was placed on house arrest, with permission to leave throughout the summer to attend weightlifting and conditioning with a high school football team. After showing great promise during his freshman year, Clarett began playing for Warren Harding High School his sophomore year. In his junior year, he began playing teams from across the country.
“I started seeing that I wasn’t just good in Ohio, but that I could compete against anybody throughout the country,” he said. “I thought I was pretty talented.”
His success in high school followed him to college, when he began attending Ohio State University and quickly made a name for himself.
“Imagine you go from being a senior in high school, dominating high school, then you go to a division I college and you’re dominating there too,” he said. “It’s a lot of success very fast.”
After tasting success on the field, Clarett first started to feel the pressure to drink, use drugs and party. He said his motivation was no longer to do well for the sake of the game, but to do well in order to have reason to celebrate afterward.
After playing a key role in Ohio State’s 2002 national championship, Clarett was investigated by the NCAA and summarily suspended. Finding himself stressed and depressed, he took to an increased usage of marijuana.
Midway through his sophomore year, Clarett moved to California and spent two years partying. Then, in 2005, Clarett said he was called and asked to come to the NFL combine in Indianapolis to show coaches what he had.
“In my mind, I thought that just from adrenaline alone, I’d be able to be successful,” he said.
Instead, Clarett found himself frustrated and walking off the field, headed for home. To his surprise, he later received a call from the Denver Broncos head coach, asking him to play. While he was happy, he said he felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety because he knew he wasn’t prepared.
After refusing assistance from the Broncos staff, including sports psychologists, Clarett was cut from the team and he returned to California, broke and without a clear idea of what to do next.
“It’s one thing to get embarrassed in high school, but it’s another to get embarrassed on national TV where the whole world sees your failure,” he said.
After returning to Ohio, Clarett said he realized that while the athlete inside himself had grown up, the kid from Youngstown had never had the chance to grow up. Football had always been there for him to rely on in life, he said, and with it gone, it was the Youngstown kid who found himself adrift in the world.
In August 2006, Clarett was arrested after committing a robbery. The following year, he was again arrested after a pursuit with police resulting in several weapons charges.
The judge in his case ordered he receive a psychological evaluation, which revealed Clarett’s struggle with stress, anxiety and depression. Sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, Clarett received months of therapy and took up the habit of voraciously reading daily.
After getting out of prison and taking up playing minor league football in Omaha, ESPN produced a series titled “Youngstown Boys,” which prominently featured Clarett’s story. Clarett also began speaking to a wide variety of audiences about the importance of mental wellness and the dangers of substance abuse.
“The Red Zone” is an agency that provides therapy services to youth and adults in need in Ohio, which Clarett began in 2016. The Red Zone currently serves more than 1,500 children and adults.
Before opening the floor to questions from Farmington staff and students, Clarett summarized several key points from his story, finally stressing the importance of fostering friendships with individuals with positive outlooks on life.
“You will be a reflection of these people,” he said. “If you hang around with people who set goals, who talk about college or about what business they want to open and who they want to become, aspiring to do great things in life — if you’re around those people, your life will improve.
“If you’re around people who complain all the time, who talk about what the world isn’t giving them, gossiping or talking about depressing stuff, who never pay attention in class — you’re going to be like that person.”
With his remaining time, Clarett took questions from students about his experiences in collegiate and professional football, incarceration and as an advocate of mental wellness.