By Mike Wise
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Upstairs in Ashburn, the pageantry for the well-coiffed man in the suit was about to begin. Downstairs, away from the Jason Taylor Show, beneath the steps that lead to the weight room and out to the practice field, Clinton Portis slung a green terry-cloth towel over his sweaty head.
He understands the void Joe Gibbs, the franchise's most recognizable mug, has left. What if Taylor morphs into that guy, taking the spotlight away from the player who leads with his shoulder and, occasionally, his mouth?
"That don't bother me at all," Portis said, shrugging. "Jason Taylor is someone who is going to come in and help the Redskins out tremendously. I would love for him to come here and be the star power. I don't care about the star power.
"I want wins in the playoffs, that's what I care about. I want to get a ring put on my hand. I want to hold up a trophy with my teammates and say, 'We did it.' That's what I care about. If Jason Taylor can bring me that, yes, Jason Taylor is my favorite player. Let him be the face of the organization."
At 26, four years after his first Washington training camp, lessons have been consumed and digested. Gibbs's bumpin'-helmet offense, for instance, painfully showed Portis his body isn't indestructible.
Sean Taylor's death made him take personal and spiritual stock of his life. Portis also found out that the extrovert in him -- the locker room prankster whose alter egos change costumes and moods -- is okay coexisting with Portis the adult.
Especially since Sheriff Gonna Getcha now has a little deputy who needs Pampers.
"It's exciting to be a father, to have that luxury," Portis said of his infant son, born this offseason. "You never think a child will change you or you can get that much appreciation out of a child. But you look over and see a baby smiling, waking up in the middle of the night, you have to get up and change diapers and all that, it makes you appreciate being a father so much more.
"It makes you understand what your parents went through or the people who kept you went through, how many requirements it takes to maintain a child and let you know it's really not about you anymore. You have a mouth to feed now."
Portis declined to release the baby boy's name or the mother's name, citing privacy concerns. "Just put I enjoy being a father, you don't have to put nothing about the child's name out there. Then people are going to be searching for the child's name all of a sudden."
Thoughts of Taylor still tumble through his head daily, Portis said. He can't get away from the memory of his slain teammate; Portis's locker here in Ashburn still sits next to No. 21's encased cubicle. He doesn't mind, he said.
"You goin' always think about Sean," Portis said. "And now being a father, you realize what changed him. You realized what he saw, how his passion all of a sudden became lovable, it became enjoyable, it became a delight to go home and check on his child."
Portis had a list of injuries that ruined his 2006 season. Entering last year, he had somehow become viewed as a brittle superstar who could break down at anytime. In a league where explosive, young backs with big contracts have become disposable (see Shaun Alexander), Portis was a monstrous question mark. But he played all 16 games last season, rushing for nearly 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns. Just as he predicted midway through an awful stretch of losses, he put the Redskins on his back and moved the pile forward. Surprising, no? Another 1,300-yard season, and John Riggins will be the only running back in franchise history with more yards than Portis.
He's not done; he never was.
"They write me off every year, thinkin' there's a new hope," Portis said. "Adrian Peterson got more hype than anybody in the NFL right now after a rookie year where he had 1,300 yards.
"He ran hard," he said of the Vikings' rookie last year. "He played great. But my rookie year I had 1,500 yards. My stats was way better than Adrian Peterson's. Adrian Peterson is playing behind the best line in the NFL right now. But it's what the outside world thinks. Reggie Bush had all the hype in the world. He probably still got all the hype in the world."
Portis said he has no career regrets, adding that the injuries to his shoulder and a broken hand two seasons ago were "the best things that could have possibly happened to me."
"At the time I was tired of football," he added. "The passion for football really wasn't there. The energy for football really wasn't there. So it took me being away from the game to get that appreciation and realize what it meant."
He's been talking up his new teammates and Jim Zorn's offense since training camp began, sounding like a player who was liberated from counter-trey captivity. "Over the past five years I have been playing tough-man football and probably knocked six years off my career," he said.
"I don't think people really watch football," Portis added. "Because what we did as a football team was tough. It was tough on all of us. People don't understand how it beats up on your body. They understand the yardage total. They understand how it look. I did what I was asked to do.
"They asked me run into a brick wall with 11 people standing there, I ran into a brick wall with 11 people standing there. Now I got the opportunity to change the scheme. I feel good, I look good and I'm excited about it."
The sacrifice to play in Gibbs's offense, he said, also helped him understand something about himself.
"What Coach Gibbs did for me was to make me grow up and understand everything in life ain't goin' be fine and dandy," Portis said. "There's going to be hard times, there's going to be battles and you got to fight through them. You not going to win every battle, but you going to fight every battle. What that instilled in me is the confidence to know I never gave up and I never would give up.
"I think my tougher years are behind me," he added. "I really do think that, because every week it was, 'We're going to battle, this is a war.' It's not a tactic to shoot over their heads and out. It's, 'We goin' line up, you goin' buckle your helmet, put your mouthpiece in, get your chin strap fixed and we goin' mano y mano.' I did that."
He also dismisses the notion that Gibbs and the organization catered to the wishes of a prominent skill-position athlete. "I do abide by the rules of this team," Portis said. "I never thought I was bigger than the Washington Redskins and tried to make myself a coach's pet . . . and be Mr. Snyder's friend or Vinny's friend," he said. "You know, I sit down and talk to Mr. Snyder and say something to Vinny. I respect them as men and I think they respect me as a man. It's really just living life.
"A lot of people live life on the edge, scared about tomorrow. I don't know if I'm going to be here tomorrow, so I'm going to get my enjoyment out of today."
"I go to church and pray," he said. "I'm not the best Christian. I'm not a James Thrash or Antwaan Randle El. I still do wrong. I don't go out to strip clubs and chase women and be out drinking and driving out in public.
"But at the same time, I live as a 26-year-old. I'm not married. I'm not disrespectful. I live my life as a young guy who don't know what tomorrow will bring. I would hate to offend anybody or rub anybody the wrong way. I have a girlfriend. I do. I love her dearly. But at the same, at 26 -- I mean, I'm livin'."
Portis also said he's more "accepting and knowing."
"Now most of the time I think about things: 'Is this me playing around, playing a practical joke? Or is this me hurting somebody's feelings? Should I say this?' I think about my actions. I don't want to affect the person next to me. I don't ever want the person next to me feeling like I'm putting them down or belittling them."
Taylor's passing, the years under Gibbs and fatherhood have undeniably changed Portis. But in other ways he remains the same kid whose father would drive from his native Mississippi home to take his son to Jackson State or Mississippi Valley State. Or Saints games in New Orleans, where Dalton Hilliard became his first athletic hero.
Before he went to a Pro Bowl and the NFL playoffs and rushed for 7,715 yards, he was the child of Rhonnel Hearn, the ultra-supportive mother who came to see him play as a kid, the mother who still comes to see him play.
"After every game, whether I got 30 yards or 200 yards, I'm going to get the same hug, I'm going to get the same speech, I'm going to get the same love and I'm going to have the same meal that I want her to cook when I go home," Clinton Portis said. "And it's going to be that. It's going to be no more C.P. the football player. It's going to be, 'Clinton, my son.' "