Finding Life After Death

By Mike Wise
Monday, December 31, 2007

When the game was almost over, London Fletcher handed Clinton Portis a terry-cloth towel with the No. 21 on it. Beyond Portis's two touchdowns, the sand-blasting through Dallas linebackers, turning little gains into big plays, Fletcher couldn't think of another player who deserved it more.

Portis tucked that towel into his shirt collar as if it were a bib as the clock ran out on the regular season, a season that will remarkably continue Saturday in Seattle in a playoff game no one outside Coach Joe Gibbs's locker room believed possible. When an NBC reporter asked Portis to reveal his undershirt, Portis proudly lifted his jersey to reveal a collage of Sean Taylor photos against white cotton.

In sports, as in life, this is called playing for two.

It's why Phillip Daniels's wife printed out a fan's photo, signed by Taylor, which encouraged the Redskins to beat Dallas. It's why Portis punched the cold night with both arms after he mowed down the Cowboys.

How much the death of Taylor last month turned this moribund team into the toughest out in the NFC at the moment is unclear. But Portis believes it is tangible in his mind and body. He was, after all, Taylor's best friend on the team. And that's all that matters to the running back who's suddenly as healthy as he is hungry.

"I feel every time I step on that field something is carrying me," he said in a corridor outside the team's locker room after last night's three-touchdown victory over Dallas .

"All of the stuff you step on the field thinking about is gone. I don't step on the field worrying about being hurt. I don't step on the field worried about anything. When I step on the field, I think, 'Man, I got the strength of two people. And it's going to be so hard to stop.'"

Raise your hand if you owe Portis an apology for believing his days as a durable, explosive back were gone. Go ahead, there are more than a few out there. Let's start with Peter King, who said the Redskins rued the Champ Bailey deal "big time" and his magazine, Sports Illustrated, which listed Portis as the 202nd most important player on an NFL roster when the season opened. The man was the 17th running back named, behind, among others, Frank Gore and rookie Marshawn Lynch.

Sports Illustrated wasn't alone. After last season we all had doubts about the durability of Portis, how he seemed to be headed down the road of other young backs whose beaten-down bodies led to dwindling production or early retirement. Priest Holmes, who nosedived after rushing for 1,420 yards in 2003. Terrell Davis, who played only seven years, and dropped off the face of the earth after rushing for 2,008 yards in 1998. Jamal Anderson, remember him? By age 29, he was done.

Portis had shoulder surgery and hand surgery last season and battled knee tendinitis into the last days of training camp, of which he missed almost every practice. There were persistent rumors that he was dogging it and Gibbs took a good amount of criticism for creating double standards for Portis in the same way he used to have double standards for John Riggins. Except, the thinking went, Portis had no Super Bowl ring to back up such preferential treatment.

Sixteen games later, just two backs rushed for more in the NFC, and Portis concluded his sixth season over 1,000 yards in a league that is becoming less run and more pass every day.

He was a workhorse yesterday, rushing for 104 yards on 25 carries and opening the scoring with a sensational run off left tackle, smashing through two Cowboys defenders en route to a 23-yard touchdown and a subsequent front flip that hilariously ended with Portis on his back -- the part of his body he has used to carry the Redskins this past month.

"I think people failed to realize how I got hurt, I got hurt on some fluke [expletive], throwing myself around, trying to figure out how to help this team win a preseason game," Portis said of his shoulder injury last season. "All of a sudden I'm not durable. I never worried about being hurt or injury prone. When I get dinged or banged, I'm going to deal with it. I run off for a play or two and I'm right back out there. Other players come off and they're out for the game. I feel like I'm the toughest player on the field and that's how I'm always going to feel."

Let's not forget about the player who called his teammates with the news of Taylor's death, the man who helped shepherd the Redskins through grief as much as Gibbs.

After his 104-yard outing last night, he was asked if he felt like he silenced his critics.

"When I really speak my mind and shut 'em up, let me get a Super Bowl ring," he said. "Then I'm goin' to show you all the real me. I got a lot of [expletive] to say."

After his second touchdown, Portis lifted his jersey to reveal the images of Taylor on his undershirt. He then sprinted toward the bleachers.

"Sean and he were just like brothers," said Rhonnel Hearn, Clinton's mother. Her torso was leaning over the railing of FedEx Field behind the end zone where the players exit the field. She had just finished her postgame ritual for the past four years here, bear-hugging her son as he left the field.

"We would have Sean over for dinner when he first came here," Hearn said. "They were so close. It just seems like he's still here, if you want to know the truth. I feel like Clinton is playing for both of them. I feel like Clinton feels that way too."

Portis's mother stood in a burgundy rain slicker, smiling through the droplets. Her son wiped his hands on his mud-caked pants and began walking toward the home locker room for the final time this season, a season that somehow, miraculously, became redemptive for the Redskins. It now goes on, in the memory of Clinton Portis's best friend.

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