Talk Gets Under This Skin

Clinton Portis, center, watched last month's preseason game against the Titans from the bench. He hasn't played in a game since November, and will share carries this year with Ladell Betts.
Clinton Portis, center, watched last month's preseason game against the Titans from the bench. He hasn't played in a game since November, and will share carries this year with Ladell Betts. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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By Mike Wise
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Clinton Portis celebrated his 26th birthday on the rooftop of the Kennedy Center on Saturday night. Mingling with the dignitaries were Ray Lewis and some of Portis's friends from the Ravens. "Nice, real nice," Portis said. The evening was an opulent gala befitting one of pro football's preeminent running backs, which is how Portis still sees himself.

But does anyone besides his immediate family feel the same way? The more he reads and hears, Portis wonders himself.

"What I know and people think are so different," he said outside the Redskins' locker room in Ashburn on Monday. "I get hurt one time in my whole career by going out and trying to sacrifice" my body.

"Somebody else in this same position, going through the same thing, they glorify the guy. 'This guy played hurt. He comes back. He go down again.' It's a sob story. But being that it's me -- I don't know what they got against me. I don't know if it's personal. I don't know if they want to see me fail."

He paused and shook his head in disgust: "My feeling is, 'What the [expletive] do I got to prove to you?' "

The camouflage is gone. For the moment, he's not hiding behind Southeast Jerome, Sheriff Gonna Getcha or any of his made-up alter egos from 2005, when he was last healthy. No humor mask. Portis hears the chatter about whether he is still the combustible back that has rushed for 6,453 yards and 52 touchdowns since his rookie year in 2002, and he doesn't like it.

Sports Illustrated listed its top 500 player rankings for 2007, in which Portis was deemed the 202nd most important player on an NFL roster. He was the 17th running back named, behind, among others, Frank Gore and a Buffalo rookie named Marshawn Lynch. Portis was ranked three spots ahead of Ladell Betts and 199 spots behind LaDainian Tomlinson, the NFL MVP with whom Portis said he compares statistically.

Did we mention Champ Bailey, the player traded to Denver for Portis, was No. 6? Peter King's comment: "Skins rue Bailey-for-Portis deal, big-time."

Yeah, it was one of those subjective, self-indulgent lists. But it got inside Portis's head.

"They got rookies ahead of me," he said. "I laugh about it because we're always looking for the next somebody. Besides LaDainian, besides Edgerrin [James], besides Shaun Alexander, there's nobody even close to my production."

Therein lies the divide: Portis sees himself 16 games away from snatching Tomlinson's MVP trophy. Meanwhile, Joe Gibbs said yesterday he expected Betts to see more of the early workload against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday than Portis, who will start the game.

The message was clear: If his body is not right, Portis can forget reemerging as a Pro Bowler; he might be the No. 2 back on his own team.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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