What Makes Clinton Portis Run?
The Redskins' Star Has Always Had Plenty on His Mind

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 14, 2008

W hen the days end and Clinton Portis climbs into his car at Redskins Park -- which, depending on the season or the day of the week or his mood, could be the Maserati or the Bentley or the Maybach, and don't think the choices stop there -- he winds his way back through the woods and up the driveway to his seven-bedroom mansion tucked into the Northern Virginia suburbs. Whether he has practiced or not, whether he has commented on the state of his health or his team or his coaching staff, he is in a cocoon there. "My home," he said last week, leaning on the back of the gold sectional couch that dominates his living room.

His mother, Rhonnel Hearn, may have cooked dinner if Clinton wasn't tending to the task himself, pork chops or catfish or fried chicken or all of the above. His baby son, born this offseason to Portis and his girlfriend, may be crying upstairs or preparing to wake him in the middle of the night. And his big brother, Gary Hampton, may be there to take it all in, the flat-screen television above the fireplace, the pool table. Portis has enjoyed such amenities all his adult life, but they are still new, still fresh to Hampton.

The superficial stuff about Portis is easy to grasp. People know about the 5,876 yards he has gained for the Washington Redskins, a total exceeded in franchise history only by John Riggins, the Hall of Famer. They know about the roughly $20 million he is guaranteed from the Redskins by the time his contract is up, after the 2010 season. They know what happens when he has something on his mind.

"I say it," he said, and that might be criticizing his offensive line in September and then praising it a few victories later, or this week delivering a crushing assessment of his rookie head coach on "The John Thompson Show." He seethed about playing sparingly in the second half of last Sunday's loss to the Baltimore Ravens and responded on the radio by sarcastically calling Coach Jim Zorn a "genius." It was Portis at his most combative and competitive. The target happened to be Zorn, but depending on how he's feeling about the team's performance, it could have been anyone.

The Redskins' season, featuring four losses in five games, is crumbling, and if they don't beat the Cincinnati Bengals today, they have little hope of reaching the playoffs. The 27-year-old man who could carry them there looked neither like workhorse back nor lightning rod Wednesday night, wearing black slippers, sweatpants and only a white T-shirt over his rounded shoulders, mumbling only a word or two as his family buzzed around him.

He had just endured the scrutiny that followed his incendiary comments, a meeting with reporters at Redskins Park in which the questions basically boiled down to: Are you on board? It is, Portis believes, a simple question about a complex issue, and there is likely no more complex Redskin than Clinton Earl Portis.

"People don't understand," Portis said. "People don't know. Everybody's opinions is their opinions. People don't know whole stories about a life."

People don't know that by the time Gary Hampton saw his brother play in an NFL game, in September against the New Orleans Saints at FedEx Field, he was 38. They don't know that when Portis scored the first of his two touchdowns that day and faced the front row of the stands in the west end zone, the kiss he blew was not only to his mother, but to his big brother, the first post-touchdown buss Hampton had ever received.

And people certainly don't know that later that evening, Gary Hampton returned from watching Portis play, entered his new home, the one owned by his brother, walked back into his new room, stepped into the adjacent bathroom and shut the door behind him. People don't know that when he did, he cried.

An Understanding of the Life

Clinton Portis saw all of it when he was 9, maybe 10. His mother worked at an electrical transformer plant from 6 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon, so Rhonnel Hearn's house in Laurel, Miss., was open for business whether Hearn endorsed it or not. Everyone knew that by 2:15 p.m., she'd be pulling her car back in the driveway, blaring her horn.

When his mother was away, Clinton would see the mounds on the kitchen table. Flour, he figured, in one pile. Sugar, he figured, in another. "Don't touch it," his older brother would say. It was nothing to see guns. Assault rifles. Pistols stuck in the bushes. Portis's eyes widen at the thought, even now.

"I had an understanding of it," Portis said. "I knew exactly what was going on."

Part of that understanding was of his brother's standing. Gary Hampton was T-H-E Man back then. Eleven years older than his baby brother, born to a different father, he lived the life, a cocaine dealer intoxicated not by the drugs he ran from Houston back up Interstate 10 into Louisiana and Mississippi, but by what they brought him. He had the drugs. He had the cars. He had the women. Most importantly, he had the rush.

"There's an addiction that comes along with it," Hampton said. "Once you start to make certain moneys, do certain things, you no longer want to let it go. My addiction was getting from Point A to Point B with the drugs, with the money, and living life in between that. I lived that life.

"It's like diving out of an airplane. I knew my parachute is going to open. That rush. That's what I became addicted to," he said. "I was never a drug user. But I was addicted to selling drugs."

Hampton left Laurel for Houston, a better spot from which to conduct his business. But he was still around enough to see his baby brother grow, to watch him get switched from one Pop Warner football team to another, then vow to take it out on the team that let him go. Even then, that's when Clinton Portis was at his best, with a slight -- perceived or otherwise -- pushing him. Hampton paid Clinton $1 for every yard he gained, $5 for every touchdown. He'd tell his friends and associates, "My little brother's going to the league!" and they'd laugh at him, because kids from Laurel didn't go to the National Football League.

"You know, growing up, the top job you can have is being a foreman at a plant," Portis said. It was, in fact, the same plant where his mother worked for a time, where his father made his living. "I remember that," Portis said. "That wasn't the life I wanted to live. A trip was going to New Orleans, and that was exciting."

His voice turned incredulous. New Orleans? "That was an hour and a half away," he said. "A vacation? If you went to Atlanta, your family was doing it. Where I come from, you tell somebody you're going to the Bahamas, they're like: 'Where is that? Man, that one of them countries over there? That Iraq?'

" 'No, man, it's underneath Florida.' "

Portis sat up, rolling his eyes at the notion.

"I just remember not wanting to be confined, wanting to do more."

Doing more could easily have involved slipping into his older brother's life. Portis's mother "was never no dummy," Portis said, and she knew the source of Hampton's largesse. "He was a grown man," Hearn said. Clinton, though, was the baby, the one everyone protected. Even, and maybe especially, his brother the drug dealer.

"I made him understand: That life wasn't what he saw," Hampton said. "He saw a lot of the money. He saw a lot of the women. He saw a lot of the things that I had. I could do what I wanted to do.

"But still, at the same time, I was watching the police, watching other people that was watching me. The one thing that I kept him knowledgeable about was: This life wasn't fun. From one day to the next, I didn't know if somebody was going to kick my door in."

When Portis was just 11, one of his cousins, Harold Hearn, was shot and killed. Drugs. That was about it for Rhonnel Hearn in her home town, in Laurel. She was with a new man by then, a trucker named Ty Pearson. She took the family on a trip to Disney World, scouting out a new place to live. They settled on Gainesville, Fla. Clinton would come with them.

Hampton stayed behind. He had been arrested once but was back on the street, back doing business. The rush was still there, still pumping through him.

"It was like Russian roulette," Hampton said. "I knew the gun was loaded, but I played with it anyway."

'Living Right on the Edge'

When Portis, his mom and new stepdad arrived in their new home, Clinton, about to enter seventh grade, wanted no part of it. He was years from those outlandish news conferences with reporters in Washington, dressing up in characters of his own creation, "Sheriff Gonna Getcha" or "Dolla Bill" or "Southeast Jerome." But the same characteristics that can lead a grown man to wear a mask can lead to a kid holing up inside his house, playing video games, interacting with no one.

"I was real shy," Portis said. The kids he boasted to outside the laundromat back in Laurel wouldn't guess it. "I'm gonna be famous!" he'd say, within earshot of his mama. That attitude rolled right on into Gainesville, once he became more comfortable. He was, in those early days before high school, "living right on the edge," he said, running with kids who carried pistols to school, wondering if he might be next, toting one himself.

In eighth grade, he remembers being called to the principal's office one day, the same day the tough guys from his school, Lincoln Middle, had a brawl scheduled with rival Howard Bishop. As Portis received his punishment -- his pants were sagging below the permissible line -- he heard the rumble beginning outside. Once released, he joined the fray. His crew chased the kids from Bishop off Lincoln's property. Portis stopped at the end of the block. His friends kept running. And as he turned to walk back, he heard it: "Pop! Pop!"

"They were just shooting into the air, just to scare them," Portis said. "But at that time, I realized that, really, I don't want to be the tough guy. I don't want to be that. I'd rather be the pretty boy. I'd rather be the ladies' man."

By his freshman year at Gainesville High, he was on the varsity football team, and for the first time, he had a rush that rivaled the one his older brother got from selling drugs. He was ripping off runs on Friday nights, and when he walked through the halls, the other students knew who he was. "You're on top of the world," he said, and he began hanging with the older kids, shooting dice in the hall, gambling, coming home with $300, $400 on a good day, he said. The more he developed athletically, the more his shyness wore off.

"Braggadocious," said his freshman English teacher, Eddy Moore. A former football player at the University of Florida, Moore knew enough about the sport to recognize a talent. Clinton Portis, he knew, was a talent. Portis knows now, "I was balancing a thin line." But back then, it took Moore to see the line for him, to watch all that potential being wasted in the hallways. He hauled Portis in for a talk. He pulled out Portis's work from the previous year, showed him the poems he had written, showed him the papers that stood out.

"He was announcing to anyone who would stand still how great he was going to be, how many touchdowns he was going to catch, how famous he was going to be," Moore said. "I sat Clinton down and told him he wouldn't be setting any records or catching any touchdown passes or much less even playing high school football if he kept hanging with the guys he was hanging with."

The message, at the time, was jarring. Two years later, as part of a class assignment, Portis wrote a letter to Moore. "I understand now," he wrote. "I appreciate it." The kids Portis had been running with were around him no more.

Neither, though, was his older brother. Hampton would frequently make trips to Miami, living his life. He'd drive from Mississippi, through south Alabama, across the Florida panhandle. Interstate 75 runs right past Gainesville. Never once did he drop in on his little brother or his mama. He was still addicted to the rush, but the rush made him paranoid. What might happen if, one day, he pulled in? Who might find out where his loved ones stayed?

"To get to me," Hampton said, "maybe they'd hold them hostage. Maybe they'd think that my mom would have two, three, four hundred thousand dollars. Maybe . . . "

He kept driving. By 1997, he said he was done with the life, done with the rush. But a cousin called him from Shreveport, La. "Bring me a couple kilos," the voice said. Hampton rode to Shreveport in a limo. When he arrived, it was not the cousin, but the FBI who awaited him. He was arrested, tried, locked up. Federal prison for conspiracy to distribute narcotics.

"At that time, it was a clouded vision for me, very cloudy," Hampton said. "I had to clear my vision."

Visits in Prison

It didn't matter in which prison Gary Hampton awoke, be it Marianna, Fla., or Lexington, Ky., or the outskirts of Raleigh, N.C. His approach was always the same. He would read a daily newspaper, perhaps another, then Sports Illustrated or ESPN the Magazine, then Newsweek or Black Enterprise. Prison life brought no rush of its own, only situations one wouldn't want to talk about even now. The fight, each day, was not to make prison life his life. So he read. And each day, no matter the prison, he would look out beyond the walls, beyond the fences and barbed wire, "to free my mind," he said. Each day, he would walk the track, spend time in the yard, just to glimpse the sky, to remind himself and assure himself that there was a world beyond the walls.

"My body was incarcerated," Hampton said. "But my mind wasn't."

During the decade he was locked up, two things happened. First, his little brother became not just a star at Gainesville High, but the kind of star who could return a kickoff for a touchdown, have it called back because of a penalty, then return the next kickoff for a touchdown as well.

"I looked at that tape," said Butch Davis, then the coach at the University of Miami, "and said: 'Who is this kid? Let's get a number. Let's call him tonight.' "

There, then, was Hampton's glimpse of the sky. Locked up in Marianna, outside Tallahassee, he would boast about his kid brother to the other inmates, and they would gather around to watch the Hurricanes when they were on local television. Portis played as a freshman, was featured in some of those magazines Hampton read and helped lead Miami to a national championship as a junior.

"Just to see him do his thing just kept me focused that I had to come back to my family and not get caught up in that life," Hampton said. "There was a better life waiting for me out there."

That realization was not always easy. Just as Portis talked to his mother every day from Miami, Hampton spoke to her from prison. Hearn's philosophy on her son's incarceration was simple. "You make your bed," she said, "you lie in it." But she would not abandon her boy.

"Me being a grown man, sometimes my pains and frustrations would set in, and I couldn't say it," Hampton said, and here, he began to cry. He would not have sobbed over the phone to his mother in those days, but Rhonnel Hearn knew what he needed, knew how to deliver.

Hampton collected himself. "I would want a hug or a kiss," he said. "And even though I wouldn't say it, she'd say, 'I'll be there in the morning.' "

Before dawn, Hearn would pull into the prison lot, waiting for the gates to open at 8. Hampton was locked up with men whose families didn't come, wouldn't come, didn't write, wouldn't write. "They were lost souls," he said. Not him. No matter where Hampton was transferred, someone was always available to drop in, to share some time.

"That was something that made me feel that I had to do better when I came back to society," Hampton said, "to respect the rules and the laws of the land."

Portis watched his older brother, the outside looking in. But he saw things Hampton couldn't. He saw the outside moving on without him.

"I knew my brother was the man when it came to women," Portis said. "I knew my brother was freshly dressed and had the fashion sense. I been seeing where he was the most popular man to everybody, to everybody wanting and needing him and depending on him, to all of a sudden, he gone. People forget about him. People ain't accepting your calls. People who used to be your right-hand man, all of a sudden . . . "

And here, Portis pulls his head back, closes his eyes halfway and lets out a suspicious growl. "Mmmmmmmmrrrrrrrr," he said, skepticism squeezing from his lips.

He opened his eyes wide. "They all turn," he said.

People don't know about all those Tuesdays, days off for NFL players, that Clinton Portis spent flying from airport to airport or driving through the countryside to meet with his locked-up brother. That when Hampton was transferred to a prison outside Augusta, Ga., Portis bought a place in Atlanta, so he'd have a base nearby. That last October, when Gary Hampton walked out of the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C., he was greeted by his mother, her husband, his aunt. As they walked to the waiting car, tears streamed down their cheeks.

"I was coming out the way I went in," Hampton said. "In one piece."

People don't know that when his older brother needed a home, Clinton Portis provided it, no questions asked.

Coping With Injuries

It has been Clinton Portis's goal for this season to remain in one piece, and the means by which he accomplishes that end were particularly scrutinized last week. The reality, though, is that this issue lingers not just from earlier this season, but from the course of Portis's entire career.

Two weeks ago, Portis's stance at Wednesday practice -- the first true workout of the NFL work week -- was much the same as it had been every Wednesday dating back to Oct. 8, the Wednesday before the Redskins faced the St. Louis Rams. In the weeks between that practice and those leading up to the Redskins' game at Baltimore last weekend, Portis injured his hip flexor, sprained his knee, strained his neck and strained his hip again. One afternoon, he sat in front of his locker wearing a black T-shirt that read, "Courvoisier: Earn It." He slowly pulled a bandage from his left elbow, revealing a sore that had not yet scabbed over, one deep enough that a topographical map of his arm would have shown peaks, valleys, plateaus.

"That [stuff] hurt, man," he said, and the underside of the bandage was blotted with blood.

Portis's injuries are legitimate. "A lot of people don't seem to understand that," Mike Sellers, the Redskins fullback who is frequently Portis's lead blocker, said this month. "Other guys, they'd be sitting out, missing three, four weeks. He just plays."

But in a league in which numbing shots are nearly as prevalent as the bumps and bruises they seek to minimize, Portis does not take painkillers. "Drugs and all that crazy [stuff]?" he said. "Not for me."

But given all his ailments, why? "I pride myself on being different," he said.

Wednesday night, as he shuffled through his house, he lamented having to go to his massage therapist's office for treatment. "Normally, she comes here," he said. Either way, he receives massages three, four, five times a week. If he gets a prescription for pain medicine -- even if it's filled by the team -- he turns it over to his mother. She lets them expire, then throws them away.

"You can't hardly get Clinton to take an aspirin," Hearn said. "He will suffer."

Portis, though, has not suffered through practice very often, instead standing to the side, watching. On the Wednesday prior to the Redskins' game against the New York Giants, Portis nursed his knee as his teammates went through drills, chatting with team owner Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerato, executive vice president for football operations. He then leaned against a goalpost as backup backs Ladell Betts and Rock Cartwright dropped to the ground, on all fours, and smashed into a blocking sled, the drudgery of a week of practice.

"Football's football," Portis said that day. He was merely repeating himself. "The outside world makes it a big deal," he said the previous week. "Football don't change."

Portis believes he knows what's best by now, because he is in his seventh year in the league. Even Zorn said, "He really understands his body." In the fourth quarter of the Redskins' only victory in November, over Seattle, they protected a three-point lead and were backed up on their 4. Zorn gave Portis the ball, and Portis basically won the game. Nine yards on first down. Eleven more on second down. Twenty more on the next play. The outcome came in doubt only when Portis went to the sideline and was replaced by Betts, who fumbled.

But there also are the long runs that might have been longer, the plays on which only a safety stands between Portis and an endless stretch of green grass. What if he had been able to work out during the week? Would he have reached the end zone? "I'm old-school," said offensive coordinator Sherman Smith, a running back in his playing days. "I think you need to practice. I think he can be better. I always think a guy may be underachieving. He may go out and play a good game, but I just think," and here, he slowed down, exaggerating each word, "you -- have -- to -- practice."

A week ago, Rhonnel Hearn was in the stands at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, bearing the brunt of the cold, while her baby sat on the bench for much of the second half of the loss to the Ravens. Afterward, in the family visiting room underneath the stadium, Hearn heard his frustration. On Tuesday, when it was time for his interview on the radio, the whole family listened in.

"I always taught him to speak up for himself," Hearn said Wednesday night. "Ain't nobody speak for yourself better than you."

On Thursday, rain poured down on Redskins Park, moving workouts from the afternoon to late morning. And there was Clinton Portis, back at practice for the second day in a row.

A Home for His Brother

By 6 p.m. Wednesday, Portis and his family had polished off an evening meal. His new son made some noises in the kitchen, where the radio played. Gary Hampton stood and ate cereal from a bowl. It is now his home, too, because when he was released from federal prison, he had to establish a stable place of residence. The family talked about where might be best. Portis insisted: stay with me.

So there they are, two grown men coinciding not only with each other, but with an endless stream of family, not to mention lifelong friends who are welcome anytime. Yet it is Portis's house, Portis's pool table, Portis's picture from his grade school days in the living room, Portis's magazine covers that line the wall of the small office behind the massive fish tank that marks the main entrance.

"You got to understand," Portis said. "The man who ain't been on the ground for 11 years, who ain't have his freedom for 11 years, I think he's still adjusting."

When Hampton went away to prison, his baby brother was a skinny running back who had more confidence in himself than anyone else had in him. When Hampton got out, his baby brother was a multimillionaire who could provide for his entire family, and then some. There are times, Portis said, when Hampton will look at the array of cars that line the circular driveway or sit back by the garage, and pick the Maybach, an ultra-high-end Mercedes, for a trip to the store.

"Man," Portis will say, "let's take this Tahoe," a utilitarian vehicle for a utilitarian trip.

"It seems to me he want to do too much," Portis said. "But that's something I got to get used to, also. It's new for him."

Watching his brother in public is new for Hampton, too. After he returned from that first game watching his brother play, Hampton cried because, as he said, "He was this NFL superstar, and he was my little brother, and I was just so proud." Yet at the mall, at a meal, Portis is often approached for autographs, and when Portis declined a couple of requests, Hampton rode him. "He's a knucklehead at times," Hampton said, and he told Portis: "You didn't choose this life. This life chose you."

"I can see how it became such an annoying part of his life," Hampton said. "He can't do anything. I just want him to stay grounded."

How grounded he is could affect the rest of the Redskins' season. Friday morning, Rhonnel Hearn and her husband climbed in their car and began their road trip to Cincinnati. Saturday night, after the Redskins arrived, they had plans to dine with Clinton, a ritual for the road. This morning, they will see the team bus off to the stadium. This afternoon, they will watch the game, and they will almost certainly be the last folks in the family room visiting afterward, whether Portis carries once or twice or 30 times.

And back in the woods in Virginia, Gary Hampton will plop himself onto the couch in his brother's house, flip on his brother's television and watch the Redskins play the Bengals. People don't know what that means to a man. They don't know whole stories about a life.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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