Maurice Clarett carries the ball

The latest entry in ESPN’s 30-for-30 series, Youngstown Boys, directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, will premiere on Saturday, December 14, at 9 p.m. ET after the Heisman Trophy Presentation on ESPN. Youngstown Boys is the second effort in the documentary series from the Zimbalist brothers, with their previous entry, The Two Escobars, standing as one of the most celebrated films of the collection.

Via ESPN official release:

Youngstown Boys explores class and power dynamics in college sports through the parallel, interconnected journeys of one-time dynamic running back Maurice Clarett and former elite head coach Jim Tressel. Both emerged from the working-class city of Youngstown, Ohio—Tressel as the head coach who turned around the football program at Youngstown State—before they joined for a magical season at Ohio State University in 2002 that produced the first national football championship for the school in over 30 years.

Shortly thereafter though, Clarett was suspended from college football and began a downward spiral that ended with a prison term. Tressel continued at Ohio State for another eight years before his career there also ended in scandal.

Youngstown Boys instantly sets itself among the top tier of the 30-for-30 series’ films. Fans of films like The Two Escobars, The Best That Never Was, and Once Brothers will be satiated by the story’s powerful portrayal of relationship dynamics, success, struggle, and redemption.

We spoke with co-director Michael Zimbalist about making the film, its themes, Clarett and Tressel, and the NCAA.

Scott Lewis: Youngstown and Ohio State were a bit of departure for you setting wise compared to your other film projects. What drew you to the stories of Maurice Clarett and Jim Tressel?

Michael Zimbalist: My brother and I are originally from Massachusetts, and we grew up playing sports and following sports. Our interest, and when we do tackle a sports story, is always in how sports affect society off the slopes or an individual. In this case we were really interested in the psychology of how a kid coming from the inner city in Youngstown who was thrust into ‘Buckeye Nation’ and big time college sports, and how does that affect his life afterwards. Then on top of that we were interested from the onset in the parallel journeys and relationship with Jim Tressel and Maurice Clarett. You have two guys from opposite sides of the tracks in Youngstown, Tressel obviously wasn’t born and raised in Youngstown, but he was a seminal figure there while Maurice was growing up. They both spoke to the community at large and brought hope to that community. We wanted to look at how their relationship formed and, in particular, the father figure ties. It was a story that had potential, but I don’t think we really knew the ins and outs of it, as often you don’t, until we really got to Ohio and sat with Maurice and talked to him. We wanted to understand his perspective of the story. We wanted to explore how Maurice “The Beast” came to be and how college football, and really just the sports world, had given him an identity, asked certain things of him, and then just sort of swept the rug out from under him.

SL: Youngstown Boys is a very relevant story, as it seems criticism of the NCAA, its sanctions handed down, and treatment of athletes is coming to a head. Was that something you were conscious of in your approach?

MZ: We were conscious of it and we were interested in it. In some ways I’m sort of surprised how little we focused on it in the final cut of the film. There was a part of us going into the story that was really interested in seeing how his story did speak to the larger situation and dialogue that’s out there about amateur athletes in the NCAA system. It turned out that there was a more powerful storyline in this film. I think Maurice’s story does have a lot to say in that dialogue, and I think there’s a lot that can be probably drawn from his story and this film that can add that discussion. I also think it’s unique in many ways, what Maurice went through sort of goes beyond that. In the end, with the father figure connection to Tressel, it’s just about parenting to us. I don’t think I knew that until just last week, but that’s where the emotion really hit home for us in this story. Jim Tressel, both in the film and in his writing, talks a lot about how he sees coaching as being parent. He values developing the human over the football player. So I think with Maurice growing up without a father figure and his gravitation towards Tressel, in addition to his feeling of abandonment later and a continued search for a father figure, to becoming a parent of his own, then going to prison and reconnecting with Tressel when he came out, and now his new journey with parenthood, it’s about parenting.

SL: The amount of video footage from Clarett’s life away from the football field is astonishing. How did you go about obtaining all the archival footage used in the film?

MZ: We did 31 interviews and we had 46 archival sources. This is in addition to the footage we shot, of course. It was interesting, during the 2002 OSU season they gave Maurice and all the players on the team camcorders to document the season. The players had filmed a bunch of stuff themselves. The stuff from Clarett’s childhood and from Youngstown was acquired through a lot of digging and asking from interview subjects and family friends. Standard processes, I don’t think there was anything special in the archives. It was something we appreciated, though, to bring the story to life through the archival footage.

SL: Former Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger is central to the story of Clarett’s downfall with the Buckeyes, was there an effort to get him on camera to tell his side of the story?

MZ: Yes and yes. We contacted Andy Geiger and he declined to participate.

SL: Clarett’s successful rehabilitation is presented as an uplifting moment in the film. Was there a conscious effort to present a theme of rehabilitation as opposed to punishment?

MZ: That’s interesting. I think the word rehabilitation has other connotations to it here, but I can see how you could tie that in. Again, I think this applies to philosophical differences on parenting. Put college football aside, and it’s an internal question on parenting. How do you choose to use positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement? Or how do you encourage the use other processes of questioning and rehabilitation? I think that there’s quite a bit of that in the film. Maurice Clarett’s mother talks about how the first time he was picked up for breaking and entering how she didn’t use a belt, or punished him that way. Instead she asked him to ask himself, “why did you do these things?” so he could try and understand. I try not to posit too much as a filmmaker myself, but I think that it’s similar to what Jim Tressel would say he believes is the more effective way of developing a human, instead of flat-out punishment.

SL: While you were researching and throughout the filmmaking process, was there anything that really surprised you about Maurice Clarett or Jim Tressel?

MZ: I was impressed with Maurice getting up every day at 5:30 AM and working out for two hours. I still think that’s quite remarkable for somebody who’s no longer playing football. We were talking with Roy Hall, one of the interview subjects, who played Maurice at OSU. He was working out with Maurice when he came out of prison. Roy was still in and out of football, but Maurice was out of the game after he had played a year in the UFL. Roy would jokingly ask him, “what are you working out for?” So I found Maurice’s discipline, which he imposed upon himself, to be admirable.