At Florida's Gainesville High, Clinton Portis was a toothpick-thin sophomore wide receiver who had never played running back. But in the spring of 1997, the Purple Hurricanes needed another runner so that the offense could switch to a two-back system. On the practice field, behind the school and near a creek, Coach Ed Janes asked Portis to give it a go. During a 15-minute goal-line drill against the team's stingy defense, Portis stepped into the backfield behind reserves with mediocre blocking skills.
His Houdini-like moves weren't that much of a surprise. But Portis stunned teammates and coaches with runs packed with punch as much as pizazz and exhibited a relentlessness that belied his diminutive frame. His uncanny vision left defenders grasping at air.
"We couldn't stop him," Janes recalled, chuckling during a telephone interview from Gainesville this week. "He'd stick his head in there and run tough. That shocked us. He was making those runs where he'd get more out of them than we thought he could. It didn't take a genius to put him at running back."
Portis, 22, is now one of the NFL's elite running backs -- the best, he claims -- and the third player in NFL history to rush for at least 1,500 yards in each of his first two seasons. After being obtained March 3 in a blockbuster trade with the Denver Broncos for Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round pick, the 5-foot-11, 205-pound Portis is slated to become the linchpin of the Washington Redskins' offense under Coach Joe Gibbs.
Gibbs's run-oriented offense is best served by a power running back, such as John Riggins, who helped the coach capture his first Super Bowl title in 1983. Nonetheless, after extensively reviewing film of Portis against top NFL defenses, Gibbs gave his approval to the rare star-for-star NFL trade because he saw the same attributes that won Portis the job at Gainesville High.
"There were no big holes there. He earned every yard," said Gibbs, whose Redskins teams averaged 122 rushing yards on 33 carries during his first stint, excluding the strike-shortened 1982 season. "And I liked the way he finished the runs: He's twisting and turning and trying to get every inch. His body language was super important. The guy plays aggressive and extremely tough.
"Just like quarterbacks come in all kinds of packages, running backs come in all kinds of sizes and shapes and speeds."
Unlike other runners his size, Portis usually gets his yards running straight up the middle. He seems to run with violence -- often driving forward with the momentum of a Mack truck -- and delivers almost as many hits as he absorbs.
Gibbs expects his tailback to make decisive moves, maximizing runs by squirting through any available space and, just as important, protecting the ball. "What you do after that is a bonus," said Earnest Byner, a tailback under Gibbs from 1989 to 1993 and now Washington's running backs coach. "Clinton has a lot of ability to get the bonus."
Portis, who has averaged 5.5 yards per carry in his career, fumbled three times last season and lost the ball once. He cradles the ball with two hands while going full speed on inside runs. Most tailbacks lose speed or momentum when protecting the ball with both hands. "It's amazing," Byner said of Portis's two-handed sprints.
Gibbs is often defined by his three Super Bowl victories with three quarterbacks. Often overlooked is the fact that he won the titles with three tailbacks: Riggins in 1983, Timmy Smith in 1988 and Byner in 1992. Each tailback brought a distinct style: Riggins was the quintessential power runner; Smith was an unheralded scatback who set a Super Bowl record with 204 rushing yards; and Byner was a versatile tailback whose size put him in between.
"What you're looking for," Gibbs said, "is just a real good running back."
Gibbs produced six runners who reached 1,000 yards, topped by Riggins's 1,347 yards in 1983, but several former Redskins say Gibbs has never had a tailback as complete as Portis. During his first stint, Gibbs often used a running back-by-committee approach because he lacked star tailbacks. Portis, who has averaged 9.5 yards per reception, is considered a good pass catcher. (Monday, he joked that Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner, the team's top two wide receivers, have no shot at the Pro Bowl because he will catch 101 passes.) Perhaps Portis's most overlooked skill is his pass blocking, particularly his knack for picking up blitzes.
Gibbs coached top runners George Rogers, Byner and Riggins after each had established himself. Gibbs gets Portis in his third season.
Portis was named rookie of the year in 2002 after rushing for 1,508 yards and 15 touchdowns. Last season, he proved it wasn't a fluke by amassing 1,591 yards and 14 touchdowns to earn his first Pro Bowl appearance. He enters his first Redskins season with a six-game streak of 100-plus yards rushing.
Portis, with a similar performance this season as in his first two, threatens to break Stephen Davis's Redskins record of 1,432 yards, set in 2001. After carrying the ball 290 times last season, Portis is expected to get more attempts under Gibbs. After missing three games, including the final two of the regular season because of knee and ankle injuries, he must demonstrate that he can handle the workload.
Portis is helped by his knack of seeing a play before it develops and his ability to avoid would-be tacklers from his blind side. Redskins tight end Walter Rasby compares Portis to NBA point guards such as Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson, known for their remarkable peripheral vision. Consequently, Portis runs patiently, allowing teammates to make their blocks and making split-second reads before picking a hole.
"It's something you've either got or you don't," said Rasby, who has blocked for top tailbacks Barry Sanders (1998-2000 in Detroit), Davis (2001-2002 in Washington) and Deuce McAllister (last season in New Orleans). "He makes you look good. All you have to do is really hold your block. If you get in contact with your man for one or two seconds, Clinton is gone. As a blocker, that's the kind of guy you appreciate."
Portis said: "I've got to have something extra being that I don't have the size and some of the things other running backs have. If someone is throwing a punch from behind, I've always had the vision to see behind my head."
Another asset is his lower body: tree trunks for thighs and thick, muscular calves that don't seem to fit with his relatively slim upper body. ("I've always had a nice set of legs," Portis said, smiling.)
Nonetheless, when Portis is asked to name his best attribute, he doesn't mention any of these things.
"It's heart," said Portis, pointing toward his. "Everybody puts their pads on the same way. You can't have too much more heart than I can. People's heart seems to wear out before anything else. You can have all the strength in the world, but if somebody keeps going at you, going at you, going at you, it's going to wear you down eventually."
Portis must also show this season that he can maintain his production without the benefit of Denver's offensive line, considered one of the NFL's best. The unit is known for its zone blocks; using quickness and synchronicity to create holes from side to side. Most NFL teams, including the Redskins, use a variety of blocking schemes, including man-to-man.
Last season, Washington's line was criticized as quarterback Patrick Ramsey was treated like a tackling dummy, and the club finished 20th among 32 teams in yards per attempt (3.9). No tailback collected more than 600 yards in Steve Spurrier's pass-happy offense.
"We never knew what we could really do in the running game," right guard Randy Thomas said. "Let Denver throw as many times as we did and see what kind of line they would be. That's a line's dream, to run the ball."
Asked whether no longer being behind Denver's line would diminish his production, Portis didn't even bother to respond. He exudes confidence if not cockiness, a characteristic he possessed in abundance well before becoming an NFL star. Portis was born and raised in Mississippi with two older brothers and several older cousins who constantly picked on him. Because of Portis's size, he wasn't recruited by many top colleges as a tailback. (Most schools courted him as a defensive back, which he played part time in high school.)
When University of Miami running backs coach Don Solinger traveled to Gainesville High to recruit Portis as a running back, Portis sat waiting in Janes's office with feet propped on a desk. As Solinger walked in, Portis tossed Solinger a highlight tape of himself.
"He said, 'Take a look at this,' " Solinger recalled Wednesday, laughing heartily. " 'You don't have anybody like this.' "
Portis, who also considered accepting a scholarship offer from Maryland, had enough self-assurance to take his mother, Rhonnel Hearn, to his high school prom, where they danced the night away. When Portis arrived at Miami as a 180-pound freshman, fourth on the depth chart, he constantly complained the coaching staff was holding him back. In his first Broncos practice in 2002, Coach Mike Shanahan called the first team onto the field. Standing next to Terrell Davis, Portis stepped forward.
But Portis's most famous example of hubris occurred last season, on Dec. 7, after he led Denver to a 45-27 victory against the Kansas City Chiefs by rushing for 218 yards and a franchise-record five touchdowns. On the sideline, he donned a faux jewel-encrusted heavyweight championship belt given by his pal, rapper Pastor Troy. Portis flexed his muscles for a national television audience and declared himself the best running back in the NFL -- "the heavyweight running back of the world."
After joining the Redskins, Portis printed T-shirts that show him above the U.S. Capitol with a banner reading: "Clinton: Eight More Years." Such actions could alienate some teammates, but Portis is generally well liked because of his dry humor and outrageous remarks.
And though Portis's physique doesn't evoke memories of a classic power runner such as Riggins, he certainly matches Riggins's flair. Last season in Denver, the running back drove a lemon-yellow 1974 Caprice Classic. Portis attended his welcome party to Washington in white leather shoes, and once wore pink capris and designer women's hat.
But one week of training camp has confirmed what Gibbs saw on game film before trading for his new running back: The Redskins are impressed with the nitty-gritty substance behind Clinton Portis's style.