CLINTON PORTIS is seated on the balcony of his apartment in Miami, 21 floors up, staring at the sea. Inside, a group has gathered. Two friends by the pool table, two more on the couch. John Legend is playing through the speakers. In past years, during the Washington Redskins' bye week, Sean Taylor might have stopped by too. But not today. ¬∂ Taylor, the former Redskins safety, has been gone nearly a year now. Portis watches the last of the fading sky over Biscayne Bay, listening to the wind. "You feel like you're carrying on a legacy," says Portis, the NFL's second-leading rusher and the face of the resurgent Redskins. "All of a sudden people looked to me as the voice of Sean, even if I didn't know if I was the person for that. I didn't want attention from a tragedy, but with the spotlight being on me, people are always going to think about Sean. We had the same image and the same character. Me and Sean were a different realm."
That Portis, 27, is having the best season of his seven-year NFL career in the wake of Taylor's death last November is not a coincidence. They were teammates at the University of Miami and roommates when the Redskins drafted Taylor four years ago. One time they even went rogue together, both wearing socks that didn't match their Redskins uniforms, incurring fines from the league.
If a balky knee doesn't keep Portis out of this Sunday night's NFC East showdown with the Dallas Cowboys, when he lines up behind quarterback Jason Campbell at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., he will be, in a way, going rogue once more. In every game since his friend's death, Portis has worn two uniform numbers, his own 26 on his Redskins jersey and Taylor's number 21 on a T-shirt underneath.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 26 last year, Taylor was shot in the leg by intruders at his South Florida house, the bullet tearing through his femoral artery and causing massive loss of blood. While Taylor was fighting for his life at a Miami hospital, Portis was at a nearby hotel, alternating between optimism and despair. Around 5 a.m. on Nov. 27, he heard a banging on his door. Portis had a bad feeling. The Redskins' owner, Dan Snyder, was on the other side.
November 17, 2008
"I just put my head back down on the pillow like, Damn," Portis says. "When I got up to go open the door, Mr. Snyder was there crying."
BEFORE TAYLOR'S death and its somber aftermath, Portis's outlook had been lighter. Three years ago, during a trip to the Borgata hotel in Atlantic City, he found a costume store and went on a shopping spree—wigs, hats, the works. A longtime jokester in the Redskins' locker room, Portis now had the goods to become a kind of latter-day Flip Wilson, holding press conferences in the guise of an assortment of oddball characters in goofy costumes, the way he used to dress up as a kid in Laurel, Miss.
"My little cousin would always pretend to be from Dallas, and I was always from Chicago, New Orleans or Miami," Portis says. "We would change our names all the time and pretend we were someone else."
Says Deiric Jackson, Portis's teammate at Gainesville (Fla.) High, "He's always been a big comedian. I always told him that when he gets through playing football, he needs to do that." Jackson recalled a night when the two of them went out together. He had an earlier curfew than Portis, who kept extending the evening. "It was funny to him," Jackson says. "As soon as we got home, I'm scared to walk through the door. I start tiptoeing toward the door, and he just honks his horn and yells, 'See you, D!' and speeds off."
While Portis was a known prankster at Miami, it was the curious personalities he created with the Redskins that cemented his reputation for silliness and made him an Internet sensation. There was Southeast Jerome, a character with a black wig and fake gold teeth; Dolemite Jenkins, a take on Napoleon Dynamite (instead of a VOTE FOR PEDRO T-shirt, Jenkins wore one with VOTE FOR SANTANA on the front); Sheriff Gonna Getcha, who sported goofy oversized glasses and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt; and Coach Janky Spanky, a pot-bellied defensive coordinator with an oversized headset who insisted that the only way to slow down Clinton Portis was with 13 defenders—two extra Sean Taylors.
Soon Portis was receiving costumes in his locker from fans and even the team's p.r. department. While taping an off-season segment for the NFL Network, Portis introduced four more characters, including Prime Minister Yah Mon, who briefly considered running for president.
While he may get into character later in the season, so far Portis has played it straight. "I really would love to [dress up again]," Portis says, "but it was in such high demand that it was taking the fun out of it."
Portis says Taylor's death forced him to think more about his own legacy. He's having an MVP-caliber season, rushing for 995 yards in nine games (his career high is 1,591 in 2003, with the Denver Broncos) and averaging 5.0 yards per carry. That productivity has helped Campbell's emergence and is a key reason why Washington's coaching transition from Joe Gibbs to Jim Zorn has gone so smoothly. After Zorn took over last February, he was so impressed by film of the Redskins running game from 2007 that he has barely touched Gibbs's rushing game plan.
He has also given Portis the latitude to contribute his own ideas. In Week 2 against New Orleans, Portis was struggling to gain yards out of the I formation behind fullback Mike Sellers; Portis kept running up on Sellers's back before Sellers could set up his block. On the sideline Portis suggested to the coaches that he line up a few yards deeper behind Sellers, giving the fullback a head start on the block. After gaining five yards on his first four carries, Portis finished the game with 96 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.
Against Philadelphia on Oct. 5 Portis felt comfortable enough with Zorn to suggest a draw play on fourth-and-one late in the fourth quarter. Zorn went with that call, Portis gained three yards, and the Redskins won the game. "As we ran the play, he willed his way for the first down," Zorn said. "I had a great view of his grit and our offensive line's grit on that play. He called it, he ran it and he got it."
Not every conversation between Zorn and Portis has gone well, though. The two had words during the Redskins' 25--17 win on Oct. 26 in Detroit, after Portis had left the game to fix his equipment, then tried to reenter for running back Shaun Alexander without informing Zorn or running backs coach Stump Mitchell. "In my mind Shaun is in there until Clinton goes to Stump or Stump comes to me and says Clinton's ready to play," Zorn said afterward.
Zorn and Portis later said the incident was a miscommunication, but it also brought to light Portis's pride and his sensitivity to questions about his durability, one of the issues he faced coming out of Miami in 2002. At 5'11" and 195, he was considered by some too small to be a complete back. The Broncos drafted him in the second round, 51st overall. "The knock on me was attitude, size, questionable hands, not being able to get it done," says Portis, who's now 220 pounds. "T.J. Duckett, William Green, DeShaun Foster. Those are the guys who [were drafted] in front of me. You combine all three guys' careers, it's nowhere close to me." And it's not just yardage. Portis has earned a reputation as one of the best blocking backs in the game. "I didn't just start blocking this year," he says. "All my career I've been blocking. You watch film, I could always take a pounding."
Portis's yards per carry dipped from 4.3 in 2005 to 4.1 in '06 (when he missed eight games with a broken right hand) and 3.9 last season. It was fair to wonder if his body was beginning to break down. Instead of spending the off-season in Miami, Portis chose to work out at the Redskins' facility in Ashburn, Va., lifting weights alongside teammates only steps from the coaches' office. Says Zorn, "What he did in the off-season, he's benefiting from and we're benefiting from."
Even though Portis is thriving, he hasn't forgotten the critics who've questioned him throughout his career, those who called him a product of the talent around him at Miami and, later, of the complex blocking schemes of the Broncos' offensive line.
After beginning his NFL career with two 1,500-yard seasons in Denver, Portis and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, sought to renegotiate his contract to bring it in line with the league's other topflight backs. Instead, the Broncos gave Rosenhaus permission to shop Portis. Washington, in the market for a running back, traded shutdown corner Champ Bailey and a second-round pick to Denver for Portis, a deal met with skepticism in a D.C. market accustomed to the power of John Riggins and Stephen Davis. Eyes opened wider after the Redskins signed Portis to an eight-year deal worth $50.5 million.
"My first year in Washington, it wasn't really doubt, but I began to let [media criticism] leak in and to feel like, Damn, can I do this?" Portis says. "I had 1,300 yards, and they talked about me like I had fallen off the face of the earth. I really felt bad, like I didn't do what these people brought me here to do. After that I stopped reading articles. I stopped listening to the outside world. I said, 'I'm going to go about my business and leave it on the field.'"
THAT'S ONE more thing Portis learned from the loss of Taylor: Get the most out of today, because you can never count on tomorrow. As the sky darkened around him, Portis rose from his seat on the balcony, opened the sliding glass door and walked inside to find a few more visitors, including Rosenhaus. The light in the living room was low but for the glow of the television set and a large aquarium.
On the TV, a sportscaster announced that the Redskins had just signed DeAngelo Hall to shore up a secondary once dominated by Taylor. Moments later the announcer said Broncos back Ryan Torain had sustained a serious knee injury, the latest of five Denver runners to go down this year. Rosenhaus shouted to Portis across the room, "They still haven't been able to replace you."
As Portis knows, it isn't easy to replace the good ones.
"We had the same image and the same character," Portis says of Taylor (on shirt). "Me and Sean were A DIFFERENT REALM."
"I STOPPED LISTENING to the outside world," Portis says of his critics. "I'm going to go about my business and leave it on the field."
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