Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tale of Two Running Backs

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH

What do Tennessee Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher and Ohio State Buckeyes boss Jim Tressel have in common?

They've earned my respect by showing compassion for two running backs that have had difficult pasts who still want to play pro football.

A year ago, the Oregon Ducks opened their 2009 season with a 19-8 loss to the Boise State Broncos. Shortly after the game, Boise State defensive end Byron Hout taunted LeGarrette Blount and touched him on the shoulder. When Broncos Head Coach Chris Peterson attempted to intervene, Blount punched Hout in the jaw, knocking Hout to the ground.

After apologizing for his actions, Blount was suspended for the rest of the 2009 season but was allowed to retain his scholarship and practice with his team. Later in the year, Oregon Coach Chip Kelly allowed Blount to play against in-state rival Oregon State as well as in the Rose Bowl after being encouraged by Peterson figuring the young man learned from his mistakes.

Blount would get an opportunity to play pro football with the Titans as he was signed as an undrafted free agent. During training camp, Blount got in a fight with a teammate during practice and once again his fists were flying.

But this time, the discipline was much different.

There was none!

Fisher downplayed the entire situation after practice.

He didn't care about Blount's past.

Coaches respect a youngster's feisty, aggressive, hungry, hard-nosed competitor attitude, who has talent and figure that Super Bowls are won in the second and third day of the draft.

If you sign a successful undrafted free agent, you're a hero in your owners and fans eyes.

Fisher said he liked Blount's powerful running style and knows the kid is fighting to earn a spot on the Titans roster. Fighting in training camp is expected with all the competition to make the 53-man roster.

Blount, who was born on December 5, 1986 in Madison, Florida., received an early birthday present Saturday. He made the 53-man roster.

As he wakes up Sunday morning, he'll not only realize that Oregon blew out New Mexico 72-0, the day he officially became a paid employee of the Titans, but on Labor Day, No. 3 Boise State will face No.10 Virginia Tech Monday night.

I'm sure when he sees Peterson on the Broncos sidelines, he'll smile and thank him for the assist in making his pro career a reality.

If Blount has a productive career with the Titans, then Fisher will also look like a genius. Although, with a 141-116-0 record and a trip to the Super Bowl with the Titans, Fisher already looks great by giving the 23-year-old, 6-0, 241 pounder an opportunity.

Giving Blount a chance should let folks know that Fisher does believe in underdogs.

After all, in 1981, he entered the NFL as a seventh round pick of the Chicago Bears, 177, overall.

What do Blount and Tressel have in common? Tressel was born on December 5, 1952 in Mentor, Ohio.

I'm sure Blount could have played for Tressel.

However, the Ohio State head coach had another big challenge to deal with. That player led him to a national championship against the Miami Hurricanes in 2002 by rushing for 1,237 yards and 18 touchdowns.

His name was Maurice Clarett.

The Buckeyes were the first team ever to go 14-0 defeating the Hurricanes in double overtime 31-24 to win the 2003 Fiesta Bowl as OSU ended a 34-year championship drought.

Since that national title, Clarett was suspended for the entire 2003 season for taking gifts and lying to the NCAA. He later lost a court case challenging the NFL's rule requiring a player to be out of high school three years before becoming eligible for the draft.

The Denver Broncos drafted Clarett in the third round in 2005, but he was hindered by a groin problem, never played in a preseason game and was cut before the regular season.

Things would get worse for Clarett as he spent 3 1/2 years in prison for having a hidden gun and holding up two people outside a Columbus, Ohio, bar in 2006. To Clarett's credit, he worked out in prison and stayed in shape. Being in prison gave him a chance to sort out his head and he was recently released from prison.

He did take classes at Ohio State and Tressel proceeded to give him a Letter Of Recommendation so that he could pursue another opportunity to play pro football again.

That opportunity came on August 30, when he signed a one-year contract with the Omaha Nighthawks of the United Football League (UFL). The average salary in the UFL is $50,000.

Former Green Bay Packer Ahman Green, a native of Omaha and four-time Pro Bowler will act as his mentor. The Nighthawks feature Pro Bowl Quarterback Jeff Garcia and several other players with NFL experience.

Despite the embarrassment that Ohio State had to deal with while Clarett was there, to Tressel's credit, he saw the young man paid his debt to society and went to bat for him when he needed him.

Clarett, 26, who is listed at 6-0, 220, will wear the No. 13 he wore so well as an Ohio State freshman eight years ago.

Tressel has compiled a 95-21 record at Ohio State. His overall collegiate record is 230-78-2 and is 5-4 in bowls.

But because of Clarett's one dynamic season, to win a national title at a top-flight university like Ohio State, where the name Woody Hayes is etched in the minds of Buckeye nation, you can rest assure that Tressel is grateful to Clarett for helping him build his legacy in Columbus.

Winning does a lot and Tressel knows that if he can still mentor one of the best athletes that has ever played for him with the irony that he was born in Mentor, Ohio, this has to make him feel good inside.

Unlike coaches that followed Hayes like Earle Bruce and John Cooper, Tressel does seem to beat the Michigan Wolverines and his teams compete for a national title every year.

Ironically, the Miami Hurricanes will face the Buckeyes next weekend in Columbus and then make a trip to South Florida a year later. I wonder if the TV Announcers assigned to these games will bring up the Fiesta Bowl, National Championship and Clarett.

You can count on it! It will be played up big-time.

Whether Clarett attends the game is anyone's guess. But if he doesn't, he'll be preparing for his UFL pro career and there will be some communication between himself and Tressel as a reminder of the good old days.

As I've written this story, starting with the ironies of birthdays with Blount and Tressel, the year after Blount's infamous punch, Blount making the NFL the same day that the Ducks won a football game, seeing Boise State on Labor Day night and the long awaited rematch between the Miami Hurricanes & Ohio State Buckeyes, this brings all of these events full circle.

Yet, because Fisher and Tressel, they were classy enough to give these "Tale of Two Running Backs" the chance to pursue their dreams.

If there is an ideal continuation of this story, it would be amazing if one day we could see Clarett and Blount playing for the Tennessee Titans working in the same backfield for Jeff Fisher.

This would be the closest thing to another "Music City Miracle."

Right now, it's just a miracle that the fans can see two flamboyant talented, gifted performers play to realize that not only have they come along way off the field, but are still young enough to gain many more yards on the field.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at scottsports33@aol.com and his blog can be seen at www.scottsports33.com.


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