“I don’t even know if I would play football now if I had the mindset I have now. I don’t have anger towards anybody. I used to have anger towards a lot of things when I was younger, and I’d just channel it and I’d channel all the energy or channel that toughness or that pain and I just deliver it onto people.”
“At one point, Jim Brown says, ‘This is ‘bullshit.’ When Jim Brown says, ‘This is bullshit,’ one, it’s usually bullshit and two, everybody stops. Jim Brown is a god in Ohio.”
—Alan Milstein, Youngstown Boys
“It was a real sad time. It just created depression throughout the area. Those who could, left, others that did not have that flexibility to leave were just forced to make the best of a bad situation.” Michelle Clarett was one who did not have that flexibility. And so, even after Black Monday, the day in 1977 when the steel mills closed, she stayed in Youngstown, Ohio, and raised her sons.
Michelle doesn’t dwell on how hard this might have been for her. Instead, in Youngstown Boys, Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s new film for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, she focuses on the difficulties facing one of her sons, Maurice. He’s probably best remembered today as the kid who fought the NFL and lost, the onetime superstar running back for Ohio State who was arrested one night in 2006 with five guns in his car. His mother suggests he overcame adversities to achieve such success, but it’s possible too that his toughness and determination as a player were a function of early experiences. “We grew up around car thieves, we grew up around drug dealers, we grew up around killers,” says Maurice’s brother Marcus. “Back on our street, we probably got around seven or eight people shot and killed.” Michelle remembers a particular incident, when someone shot at the house. Little Maurice “was laying down in front of the television and the bullet came in, it just missed his head.” The frame around her shifts, her face luminous and hovering against a background styled to look like a set of windows with the blinds drawn, with only slim slats of light peeping through darkness. “I mean,” she says, “how do you erase that from a child’s mind? How do you erase or dispel everything he has seen?”
This questions looms over all of Youngstown Boys, which goes on to tell several stories that, like Michelle’s, all circle around Maurice’s. As she describes her son’s own early run-ins with the law, you see what looks like footage of young Maurice in a cell, pacing under a camera angled at him from above. “Why did you have to do it?” she says she asked him. “He had to make up in his mind how he wanted to live and would it be, going up and down the streets creating havoc, looking over your shoulder in and out of the JJC? What do you really want?” At first, it appears that Michelle’s questions prevailed, that she had her boy in line. And while the “Clarett boys,” as one corrections officer calls them (that would be Maurice, Marcus, and Michael) went into the systems early, Maurice found an outlet in football.
He was, perhaps, born for it. ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski, early on impressed by Clarett’s skills and mind, says he’s intimidating for any defender: “He had kind of like a square cinderblock head, the quintessential football neck and the squat muscular upper body, and his thighs were built like beer kegs.” He worked hard at developing his instrument, indicated here by archival footage and announcers’ narrations, interviews with admiring coaches and teammates, and sometimes, with artfully blurry reenactments of his drills.
He had help in this development from the other titular “Youngstown boy,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. Like Clarett, Tressel is probably best remembered today for something he’d rather forget, that is, his suspension and eventual resignation in 2011 for not reporting NCAA violations by several of his players. While this infraction is minimal or even mundane compared to those of other coaches who have been caught out, the film barely notes it, and instead uses Tressel’s interviews primarily to bolster Clarett’s story. The kid was an athletically brilliant, intellectually curious, and mostly fearless, and like most coaches, Tressel rode his stardom until he didn’t.
The film hints at the imbalance and self-deception inherent in such a high-stakes relationship in a few clever sequences that suggest Tressel’s versions of events don’t always jive with those of others. Following his declaration that “If you talk to players, they’ll tell you [Maurice] raised the level up,” former OSU quarterback Craig Krenzel says pretty much the opposite, that when a cocky player like Maurice comes along, “You gotta set him back a little bit,” followed in turn by Michelle’s assessment, that “The negativity is what drove him to push to the top.”
All this is to say that even if Maurice had insight into the game of football, he might not have understood the larger game. Wojciechowski suggests as much when, after respecting Clarett’s insights into NFL money and players’ risks, he says of Clarett’s decision to challenge the NFL’s rule that players must be three years out of high school to enter the draft (a rule that serves the college system), “I’m not sure he understood the impact of those words, I’m not even sure I understood the impact of those words.”
His effort to be a one-and-done was represented variously as courageous and ungrateful. The pushback began with Clarett being accused of NCAA violations that led to excessive punishments by the school (in particular athletic director Andy Geiger, whose press conference snippets here make him look vengeful and petty, the very embodiment of a system determined to protect itself), the NCAA, and eventually, the NFL, whose pact with the Farm-System-That-Must-Not-Be-Named (the NCAA) depends on no one and dones, not ever.
That Tressel didn’t defend Clarett back then is a major plot point granted minimal attention here. In part, this narrative decision allows for Tressel’s film’s-end redemption as Clarett’s friend and (late) defender. It also allows for a vague criticism of the larger but faceless forces assailing Clarett, the NCAA and NFL. What it doesn’t do is explain the costs Tressel either represented or acted out. While the film makes clear that Clarett understood then that Tressel was looking out for his own job, the moral costs of that job, of the industry called football, are a little fuzzier.
This is too bad, because the many and diverse costs of that industry are Youngstown Boys‘s most vital story. To be sure, the film includes interviews in Clarett’s defense, with ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski (who points out that “Much of the economy in Ohio is directly linked to OSU football”), Jim Brown (who called the NCAA and OSU “slavemasters” for banning Clarett in 2003), and Michelle, again, who observes, “All jerseys indicating number 13 were taken off the shelves. It was like he was to be erased from the university. They just took a piece of him, however they could set him up for failure, he was slowly dismantled.”
As heart-wrenching as his mother’s outrage might be, Maurice’s coach’s part in all that remains off-screen. The film focuses on Maurice’s many mistakes, his bad choices in friends, his long-undiagnosed depression and alcoholism, his failures with the Broncos and at the 2005 NFL Combine, his weapons and his rages. Tressel’s mistakes aren’t associated here with his background (which was, of course, not at all like Maurice’s, as he grew up in a Cleveland suburb with a football coach dad and a mother who worked as an athletic historian)—led inevitably to an inability to see outside the NCAA’s corruptions or its insidious arrangements with the NFL. It is to say that the film misses opportunities to be another film, to expose connections between systemic and personal stories with the same vividness as did the Zimbalists’ previous film, The Two Escobars.
Instead, Youngstown Boys gestures toward such connections, which are sadly both alarming and familiar. To the extent that the film is about Clarett, it rehabilitates him, at least a little, pushing back against the massive media machinery that made him seem ungrateful, arrogant, or monstrous. Here, years later and out of prison since 2010, he’s thoughtful and self-aware. As such, he offers another way to think about the processes by which hard bodies and fearful mindsets are forged in impoverished neighborhoods and exploited by the NCAA and the NFL. That it premiered on the night Jameis Winston won the Heisman might be tragic or ironic. But, no matter what else was sloppy or still might be imperfect about it, Youngstown Boys does this much: it reminds us that systems that make young men need watching.