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He's the baggage handler

Clarett ready to run at Combine

INDIANAPOLIS -- Maurice Clarett travels with baggage that can't be checked.

Permanent carry-ons and other odd pieces make clearing NFL security checkpoints quite an ordeal, even for the most talented running backs.

* A little lie on a police report over one shoulder. (An oft-sore shoulder that cost him playing time in his lone college season more than two years ago.)

* A brief, scandal-plagued stay at Ohio State under one arm. (An arm Clarett said he routinely placed on the armrests of vehicles provided to him by Buckeye boosters as reward for his play.)

* A hanging bag weighted down by his lawsuit against the NFL challenging the league's rules governing draft eligibility in one hand. (A hand that was slapped by an appellate court that overturned a ruling that made Clarett eligible for the 2004 NFL Draft.)

* And worst of all, particularly for someone who would like to make a living as an athlete, Clarett has been known to have wrapped around his waist like a money belt -- make that a money-costing belt -- a layer or two of fat.

So why was Clarett smiling when he walked into an interview room with the media in tow yesterday at the first day of the NFL Combine?

"This is a big day I've been preparing for for a long time," he said. "This day has been on my calendar for a long time, coming here interviewing [with] everybody, kind of knocking off the kinks everybody had on me and the knocks everybody had on me.

"I've been real focused and ready for this day to come. It's kind of like a blessing I got a second chance to make a first impression."

And an impressive impression it was, as Clarett sauntered through the Indiana Convention Center sporting a chiseled 234-pound frame, appearing slim, trim, and ready to run. He also introduced an ear-to-ear smile that rarely had been seen in prior, typically confrontational, dealings with the media.

Clarett, 21, acknowledges bringing an item to this year's combine that he didn't have a year ago -- humility.

"It's a humbling thing being humble," he said.

With draft experts having Clarett slated to go anywhere from the middle rounds to not even being picked, the workouts and interviews over the next few days are critical to his hopes of repairing his reputation.

Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe was especially critical of Clarett's out-of-shape appearance at last year's combine, when Clarett chose not to work out for NFL teams.

"This is another opportunity," Donahoe said. "We'll see what he does with it. Based on what happened last year, maybe for once I was right.

"I think you have to approach it with an open mind and if you're interested in the young man, you have to talk to him and you have to give him the benefit of the doubt until you speak with him. But there are a lot of questions that need to be answered. Anybody that is interested in him will have to do their homework . . ."

Clarett, who hasn't played since Ohio State's national championship victory over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl Jan. 3, 2003, and hasn't taken a hit in practice since August 2003, said he knows it will take some time to get into game shape. His competition in a better-than-average running back class believes it will be difficult.

"It's hard to say, because we haven't seen him play in a couple of years," said Texas's Cedric Benson, who is considered one of the top running backs in the draft. "It's a tough situation for him. Regardless of what he's been through, somebody's going to like him, somebody's going to love him, somebody's going to pick him up. So we'll see."

Clarett sounds like someone willing to do whatever it takes to play at the next level.

"I just want to work, I don't care if it's special teams, anything, just get me on the field," he said. "I want to play for whoever wants me to play for them."

And answering questions about character, work ethic, and willingness to be a team player is part of the process.

"I had to take a look at myself from outside myself," Clarett said. "When I looked at myself sometimes I kind of looked like a joke to myself.

"I guess it was a part of growing up and becoming who I am today. I just looked at it like one of you all might [have looked] at me and be like, `He wasn't mature.' I did do some things I shouldn't have done. I've taken responsibility for all those things and I'm just ready to move forward."

Presumably, this time, without the extra baggage.

"Obviously, there's a lot of questions out there about him, and I think he has to be himself," Bills coach Mike Mularkey said. "Don't try to be anything different than what he is, or I think you would see right through it, and test well when he runs and everything he does on the field. I think he's got to show himself off because he's been out of football for two years.

"It will be interesting to see what he does."

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