By Mike Wise
Monday, August 7, 2006
If a zealot of a Washington fan like Major Bynum Jr. had the money to buy the NFL jersey of only one football player, for whose replica number would he plunk down the cash?
"Twenty-six," said Bynum, standing in a FedEx Field tunnel Saturday afternoon, clad head-to-toe in burgundy and gold. "Clinton Portis. If I had $120 to spend on one jersey, by all means, Portis. He's the crowd favorite. He's doing the costumes every week, everybody is talking about him. He represents that team."
Congratulations, Clinton Portis. You're the new face of the franchise. By a 2-to-1 margin in a highly unofficial poll, you're Washington's most popular football player. The Guy, as it were.
C.P., are you with me?
"Me, face of the franchise?" Portis said, when informed of the results of the poll taken during a scrimmage against the Ravens at FedEx Field. "I don't know about that stuff. It's nice and everything, but it's not something I seek out."
Well, sure, who would want the face of the franchise title? The last F.O.T.F. titleholder, LaVar Arrington, vacated the belt after the organization treated him like a used gauze bandage for most of last season. Arrington eventually decided to join Antonio Pierce and the New York Giants, who now have two-thirds of Gregg Williams's old linebacking corps.
Although most observers say the day Joe Gibbs returned he again became the face of the franchise, there are only so many hats one redeemer can wear. Since Gibbs gave the defense to Williams two years ago and the offense to Al Saunders this season, he will gladly defer in the popularity department to Portis.
According to Reebok retail, his was the ninth-highest selling jersey in the league more than a year ago, just ahead of -- get this -- Peyton Manning. When Portis walked into Verizon Center several times last season for Wizards games, a buzz made its way around the arena -- as if a dignitary and his family were being seated courtside instead of an NFL ballcarrier and his peeps.
Portis is not just the biggest name on his team, he is probably the most popular athlete now in greater Washington. His biggest competition in the marketplace comes from Gilbert Arenas, the Wizards' all-star and NBA's fourth-leading scorer, the Nats' Alfonso Soriano, United's Freddy Adu and the Caps' Alex Ovechkin, whom most people would not recognize if he walked down K Street swinging a hockey stick.
Arenas comes close and might be more of an extrovert than Portis, a man-of-the-people player who connects with fans like few modern athletes. But Arenas is an NBA player in a region with deep allegiances to its pro football team. It's just fact -- more than 45,000 fans will never pay to see the Wizards scrimmage the 76ers.
So it's Portis. The most popular player and visible mug belongs to that cat-daddy running back who can get into uniform -- and costume -- in a blink. Portis's dress-up aliases during last season included Coach Janky Spanky, Dollar Bill and Sheriff Gonna Getcha. The class clown in Portis concocted these playful characters and skits, replete with hilarious outfits, as Gibbs's team rebounded from a 5-6 start and embarked on a playoff run.
But the act became more than slapstick comedy; during the militaristic game-week preparations, Portis's antics broke through the veneer of the conservative head coach, some of his type-A assistants and several of his uptight teammates. The player who made the offense go also brought a sense of much-needed levity to the locker room. As Portis went, so did Gibbs's fortunes. He became as popular off the field as he was important on it.
Entering his third season with the club, Portis, who turns 25 Sept. 1, beat out teammates Sean Taylor, Santana Moss, Mark Brunell, Marcus Washington and Chris Cooley for the honor. Though Cooley said, "The face of our franchise might as well be the Miami group," referring to where Portis, Taylor and Moss played in college. "It's the U. Those are guys people think of when they think of this team."
Several fans -- some rabid, others merely warped and frenzied, participated in the unofficial polling Saturday, along with two grown men dressed as female pigs.
"Portis is a gimme," said Mike McCartney, whose game-day "Hogette" pseudonym is Big Matt.
"Yep, I'd have to go with Southeast Jerome," Dave "Spiggy" Spigler said of Portis and perhaps his most well-known alias. "He's only getting better and he's the player most people associate with the team now."
Portis said if he had to fork over cash for a jersey, he would buy Taylor's No. 21. "He's a beast, man. If I had to buy a jersey of one player on this team, it would be Sean Taylor."
And after that? "My jersey," Portis said, smiling. "Don't get me wrong. That's a nice crowd to be associated with. All my teammates, Gilbert, Soriano, the rest. I'm a fan of them all. But I don't mind being the fan favorite."