In the movies, there are good guys and bad guys–two circles that very rarely touch, let alone cross. There’s James Bond and there’s Auric Goldfinger. It’s basic storytelling, really. There’s a protagonist and there’s an antagonist and the narrative develops as the struggle unfolds. We learned it all in grade school.
However, the stories that we relate to (books, movies, etc.) often delve deeper into the human conscience–into the reality that not everyone is either good or bad. In the Venn diagram of life, there’s actually quite a bit of overlap.
Sports, in a lot of ways, are similar to your standard movie. There are good guys and bad guys. There’s our team and that team, and there’s not a lot of room where the circles touch. But, like a movie, when we do find the two intersecting, it often makes for something even more awe-inspiring.
“Youngstown Boys”, ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 installment set to air on Saturday night after the Heisman Trophy presentation, is both a good movie and great sports. Because at the intersection of good guys and bad guys (or vice versa depending on which way you look at it), we have a relationship that ultimately shapes one man’s life for better and worse and better again.
Maurice Clarett was a highly touted running back out of Youngstown, Ohio. At a time when LeBron James was scoring Sports Illustrated covers as a high school junior and seemed destined to become the athlete of our generation, Maurice Clarett was the biggest star in Northeast Ohio.
After all, “Ohio is football,” as ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski says in the film.
Northeast Ohio is especially football. It’s violent and blunt and unforgiving.
In Youngstown, when the steel industry failed in the 1970s, the once-prospering city fell with it. Since 1960, over 60% of its population as evaporated, and the ones who stayed, in many instances, are the ones who couldn’t afford to get out.
Maurice Clarett never really knew his father, and “Youngstown Boys” explores at length how attempting to fill that void ultimately influenced Maurice’s life. Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, who directed ESPN’s most acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary to date, “The Two Escobars”, attempt to examine how Maurice’s need for guidance led him to Jim Tressel–another son of Youngstown (hence the title)–and Ohio State, to prison and ultimately (hopefully) to salvation.
In real time, Clarett’s rise to prominence happened rather quickly. Yet, in the movie, his single season as an Ohio State Buckeye takes up the first 45 minutes of the film. It sets the precedent for just how high the peak was, in an effort to add perspective to the depths to which Clarett plunged.
It thoroughly details his fight to win the starting job as a freshman and his first game where he was a series away from being relegated to the bench. Then it goes on to show a lengthy montage of a season’s worth of highlights, capped with his game-winning touchdown plunge in the BCS National Championship Game.
However, when the movie pivots, it pivots harshly. Clarett’s fall from grace starts with what could have been a relatively harmless NCAA inquiry, but it becomes decidedly more morose the further he plunges.
Depression, Alcoholism and so many more serious topics are discussed, making it one of the more gripping 30 for 30 installments to date (certainly of this year, which has been decidedly average by 30 for 30 standards).
The story of Maurice Clarett is one that most college football fans are familiar with, but what “Youngstown Boys” sets out to do throughout the second half of the movie is tell Maurice Clarett’s story. The former superstar running back turned convict speaks poignantly about his life and the decisions that led him from surefire NFL star to where he’s at today.
While the first half of the movie showed glimpses of the intellectual capabilities Clarett always had, it’s not until he’s in prison that his mind is harnessed and you get the impression that, despite all the darkness he’s endured in his life, he’s certainly on a better path.
The final portion of the movie circles back to the relationship between Tressel and Clarett. It details Jim Tressel’s own fall from grace following the scandal that eventually forced him out at Ohio State and depicted a rekindled relationship between the two kindred spirits from Youngstown.
However, that relationship’s revival comes with a caveat–the realization that, “Tressel tried to provide some of the values fathers instill, but Tressel can never be his father,” as stated by Maurice’s mother Michelle.
At the end of the movie, Maurice Clarett, having endured the highs of being the star of a national championship team in one of America’s most football-crazy states and the lows of a four-year stretch in prison, wept openly about never reconciling with his own father.
Now, as a father himself, Maurice Clarett (and hopefully the viewer) seems to understand the value of a relationship between a father and a child. It’s not one that you can replicate, and I think that’s exactly the heartstrings that Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist were trying to tug at.
“Youngstown Boys” certainly got a hold of mine.