Continued from Part I
We put the film on hold to button up all the legal and contractual stuff with ESPN Films.
While we waited for that to be sorted out Jeff and Mike explained to me exactly how they wanted to approach this 'Maurice Clarett documentary' project: They wanted to be analytical, examine my circumstances and take a more comprehensive look into where I came from and where I went to.
They wanted depth. It was so refreshing. I’ve always thought that if only my life could given the proper context, people might understand me better.
Jeff and Mike wanted to take the stories, the background, big-time college football, broader social problems - and put a face on them. My face.
THE TRIUMPHANT RETURN OF CONTEXT
I got caught up in so many things that a news blurb cannot really capture. The film they made transcends me and my school to the point where I almost become a secondary component. You watch it and you realize it's so much bigger than me, or Tressel or Ohio State.
I watched Favela Rising and The Two Escobars to learn more about how Jeff and Mike work, and I was blown away. These guys are artists. They're original. They also knew very little if anything about Ohio State football so they approached everything with fresh eyes.
They knew nobody involved, which means all of the information they discovered they put together without bias or preconceived notions to create a storyline reflecting how they felt, not how they were told to feel.
Name association time: OJ Simpson. Ever heard of him? Sure you have, and you already have an opinion. The Zimbalists entered into their Maurice Clarett project with willful blindness, learning about him as they went. Everything was new to them.
It was a complete departure from how Clarett was approached by the original producer, first on the phone and then abruptly showing up in Columbus prior to the 2002 team's 10th anniversary. Instead of a TMZ-like tabloid affair trying to validate Internet stories, the Zimbalists just wanted to learn.
“There were certain areas of his story that were already well-covered by the media," Michael said. "One of the nice things about working with ESPN and the 30for30 series is they don’t ask us to come in with a 400-page outline of what the documentary is going to be."
"However, there were other areas - his time in LA, for example - where there was a black hole in the news media. Josh Luchs had written about it. Tom Friend had gone out there as well - but it wasn’t nearly as well covered as the rest of his story.”
the Zimbalists followed Clarett from Youngstown to Columbus to Los Angeles to Denver and ultimately back to prison.
So the Zimbalists followed Clarett's history from Youngstown to Columbus to Los Angeles to Denver and ultimately back to prison. But they found that no matter where his life took him, Youngstown was always there.
"I think that we knew there was very powerful material about his relationship with Tressel all along, but we didn’t know how it would evolve," Michael said. "One of the interesting threads is a 'parenting scene’ that runs through the film that we never anticipated happening."
"We knew Maurice came from a broken home and didn’t have much of a father figure in his life, but it really shapes into an interesting thread where Tressel becomes that father figure to him. His reflections - and (Clarett's mother) Michelle's on him not having that father figure...and he has a child - he was not at all prepared for it and it sort of floored him."
Becoming a father led up to the infamous high-speed chase that ultimately landed him in prison. But his incarceration also directly resulted in his reflections on becoming a batter parent, encouraging others like him to take more accountability. It's become the central mission of his life.
And from a far more personal standpoint, incarceration also resulted Clarett reconnecting with his old college coach.
TRESSEL JOINS THE STORY
As filming and development progressed, it became evident to the filmmakers Tressel had to be involved. Clarett knew that his former coach would be happy to help, because as he put it - "Tress is always happy to help."
He was getting acclimated to his new position at Akron as VP of Strategic Engagement when Clarett called him to see if he would be willing to get involved with the project.
I called him and said, "Tress, I know you've dealt with media your whole life, but these guys are different. They're looking at the two of us from a psychological standpoint. It's all analytical. Also, they don't really know much about us or Ohio State football."
So he agreed to talk with them for a half-hour based on my request. Man, that 30 minute meeting ended up lasting three hours.
We made fun of each other and joked the whole time. I called Tressel "Jimmy T" and he called me "Reecie." That made everyone in the room more comfortable.
I don't like being "Maurice Clarett" all of the time. I'm most comfortable just being Reecie. That means I'm somewhere people know me. That means I'm with people I can trust.
During those three hours, story after story spilled out. It was all captured on tape and everyone who witnessed the energy of the room stared in amazement as what had been set up to be somewhat of a forced interaction took on a life of its own.
Once it wrapped, Jeff put it bluntly: "Well, we now have our story." It was to be about two guys who will always be connected to both each other and the town where they first met.
Jim Tressel's parenting philosophy is not always aligned to the NCAA rule book.
"We look at the contradictions of the NCAA and how they exist," Michael said. "We had read Tressel’s books heading into the project - he has quite a bit of thinking and philosophy about what it takes to be a coach and how it is similar to parenting philosophy."
"And Jim Tressel's parenting philosophy is not always aligned to the NCAA rule book."
The Zimbalists, in total, conducted 31 interviews that were in the 3-5 hour range each time - more comprehensive than than in any of their previous projects. There was so much material that eventually they were forced to whittle a lot of it down just to keep the film under 100 minutes.
One of the subjects they approached who declined involvement in the project was Andy Geiger, the former Ohio State Athletic Director was served the post during Clarett's time at Ohio State. Overall, the participation was robust, which helped aid the Zimbalists' fresh perspective to telling Clarett and Tressel's stories.
"We stepped into something with an emotional history and controversy, working with subjects who have a lot at stake with how the story is told," Michael said, of Clarett, Tressel and Ohio State.
"There’s something nice about having somebody who doesn’t really have a horse in the race to be the one who drives it forward. It helps with objectivity and perspective.”
This dynamic between the Zimbalists and the stories of the film was not lost on its subjects.
"You were right, Reecie," Tressel told him following that three-hour meeting, "these guys are for real."
FROM 2002 TO ETERNITY
Tressel's thinking process is amazing. He just really knows how to lead a conversation. He took it into an organic direction about societal issues.
The ESPN guys had never seen Tressel like this before - they're accustomed to a certain style, how he is with media and at press conferences. They didn't know who he really was like I do.
Those guys emerged from the meeting and said to me, “wow, Jim Tressel has a personality.”
To their credit, they could have taken the interviews and our conversation and manufactured it into some crazy narrative but instead they stayed true to the vision. Often times someone will say something, the media will take one line out of it - and then that becomes the story. They didn't do that.
They stuck with their vision. We just helped them color it in.
"Tressel just happened to be bringing back (Youngstown State football) when Clarett was growing up," Dahl said. "Then their lives intersect and come together because Maurice was familiar with Tressel. He knew him. He wanted to play for him. Then what happens to them afterward..."
His voice trailed off. Filling in that blank wasn't necessary.
"He made such an impact, though," Dahl continued. "That game against Miami - not just rushing, but stripping the ball from Sean Taylor. There's plenty of football in the film, but you also get to know Maurice as a person. You don't just see him as a commodity."
"He won a title for himself and for Ohio State. You see the experiences that shaped him, the lack of a father, how he landed where he did and what really happened through that - and you come understanding that Youngstown is where it all started for both of them."
"Youngstown is where Maurice and Tressel first made their names. It's where they found their values and beliefs. And coming out of Youngstown, you get a better understanding of what happened and why."
You get it all - the good and the bad. But you do get the good.
"You get it all - the good and the bad. But you do get the good, through his own words, his mother’s words, - the film delivers a complete portrait of him. It’s not a biography, either – it’s a portrait of both him and Jim Tressel. And to this day there's a closeness they have the the film really captures."
ESPN 30for30 documentaries vary in length; there are hour-long presentations and a few 90 minute ones as well. Youngstown Boys is 100 minutes long, which makes it among the longest in the catalog along with The Fab Five, Catching Hell, The U and The Two Escobars.
There have been a few lengthy presentations, but not that many. A lot of ground is covered in Youngstown Boys, but not all of it takes place off the field.
"Yes, there's plenty of football too," Dahl said, laughing.
The guys working on this film aren't from Ohio. They didn’t know who I was, so they couldn't help but bring fresh eyes and fresh perspective.
I was happy with everything they captured and put together. I know better than anyone that I've made good, bad, ugly and awful decisions in my life. Everyone does. I'm happy with the way I was portrayed, because it's accurate.
Who knows what I've experienced better than me?
What ESPN came up with here really transcends football programs and NCAA rules. And I get that I'm biased about me, because I'm me.
Tress speaks about me honestly. Look, he came from the same destitute place I did. We spoke my entire freshman year behind closed doors and he told me repeatedly that I didn't understand the consequences of what I was doing. He tried to manage me with me, not out in front of everybody.
And he was right. He was right every single time. Nothing he did for me - nothing - was part of his job description.
You think that as a kid everything should go your way and you can do whatever you want to - but you don’t have any idea that life does not work that way. When you’re a kid you just don’t know - even when people tell you right to your face, you still don’t listen.
So you go through some stuff. I went through some stuff. Some things happened to me; some things I did to me. You live, you learn - but you have to learn.
Good, bad or indifferent - the film shows a lot of things that I wish didn’t happen. They’re in the film. I take responsibility for them.
I was worried about only three people after the film was made: Myself, my mother and Tress. They're happy with out it turned out. If they're happy, I'm happy.
I'm not happy I got cut, I'm not happy I went to prison. I'm not happy about a lot of the choices I made. But I also made some great choices too. I chose to participate in this film. That was a good choice.
And I chose to come to Ohio State. That was a great choice.
Acknowledgements: Maurice Clarett, Mike Zimbalist, ESPN PR, Jennifer Cingari, John Dahl.
Preview based on Directors' Cut of Youngstown Boys, which may differ from the final version that airs.