- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2004

The new centerpiece of the Washington Redskins’ revamped offense stands less than 6 feet tall. He weighs a shade more than 200 pounds, is seven months shy of his 23rd birthday and freely admits to being a mama’s boy.

At first glance, Clinton Portis might not look like the kind of player an NFL franchise builds its team around. But as the Redskins’ new feature running back has proved every stop along the way to Washington, he is more than capable of handling the responsibility.

“I know a lot is going to be expected of me, and a lot is going to be placed on these shoulders,” Portis said yesterday while being introduced at Redskin Park. “The thing is, these shoulders are not that big, so I can’t carry everything. But I will try to carry my share of the load.”

If he comes anywhere close to the 1,550 yards and 15 touchdowns he averaged the last two seasons in Denver, Portis will have done his part and justified his hefty price tag: $50.5million over eight years, plus the trade of Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round draft pick to the Broncos.

The Redskins, who had no running back with more than 600 yards last season, certainly felt Portis was worth it.

“I think we’re all a big fan of production, somebody that actually gets it done,” coach Joe Gibbs said. “You can see the stats kind of speak for themselves.”

Do they ever. In two NFL seasons, Portis has emerged as one of the league’s most explosive rushers. In addition to the impressive yardage and touchdown totals he piled up in Denver, he also averaged an astounding 5.5 yards a carry, ran a 4.29-second 40-yard dash before entering the draft and brings a streak of six straight 100-yard games to town.

Fancy stats aside, Portis’ true value runs much deeper, say those who know him best.

“First of all, he’s very smart and very tough for his size,” said University of Miami running backs coach Don Soldinger, who recruited Portis out of high school. “You’ll find out that anything he doesn’t do well, that’s what he works on until he gets it up to the level of his running. He’s really special in that way.”

Asked what stood out about Portis to him, Gibbs replied, “His body language. To me, that’s super important. This guy plays aggressive and tough. He’s trying to put it right in the middle of someone.”

To his credit, Portis yesterday said his best skill as a football player is “my heart.” Others might say it’s his swagger. Over the years, Portis has developed a reputation as one of the most confident — perhaps even cockiest — players in football.

Upon arriving at Miami as a 180-pound freshman, Portis found himself fourth on the depth chart at running back, behind upperclassmen James Jackson, Najeh Davenport and fellow freshman Jarret Payton. He immediately told Soldinger he thought the coaching staff was holding him back.

Upon arriving at his first Broncos training camp in 2002, Portis heard coach Mike Shanahan call for his first-teamers. The fearless rookie stepped forward, only to be promptly yanked back by running backs coach Bobby Turner.

Simply put, Portis is good, and he knows it. He walks around in garish, colorful suits. He drives around in vintage automobiles. He was spotted on the sideline late during a game last season wearing a jewel-encrusted, professional wrestling championship belt and proclaiming, “I’m the heavyweight champion of the world!”

“He has a tremendous amount of confidence, and it started early,” Soldinger said. “Some guys might get upset with that, but I never did. That’s why he’s so good, I think.”

For all his outlandishness, deep down, Portis is a sweet 22-year-old who loves his mother. Really loves his mother. How else do you explain Portis’ decision to take Mom, Rhonnel Hearn, to his senior prom in Gainesville, Fla.?

“I’m his mom, I’m his wife, I’m his girlfriend — it’s just great,” said Hearn, who also served as her son’s date to the ESPY awards last year. “He confides in me, I confide in him. There’s nothing in his life that goes on that he can’t call me and talk about.”

Portis also seems to have a soft spot for his teammates. Without any prompting from Gibbs or anyone else associated with the Redskins, Portis yesterday rattled off the names of his new offensive linemen like he’d been playing with them for years.

He also made a pitch for Dan Snyder to add even more pieces to the team’s ever-changing roster. Portis said when word of his mammoth new contract with Washington got out, he received calls from about 100 other players wanting to know how to land comparable deals.

When Gibbs jokingly asked if any of them were still available, Portis fired back that the Redskins had already lost one of them to Philadelphia (obviously a reference to defensive end Jevon Kearse, who signed with the Eagles on Wednesday).

He did put in a good word for fellow Miami Hurricane Sean Taylor, a Ronnie Lott-type safety who is expected to be a top pick in next month’s draft and would fill one of Washington’s biggest needs.

Perhaps Portis speaks so glowingly about his teammates because he realizes the role they’ve played in his success. In Denver, he ran behind one of the league’s best offensive lines, a fact that some have noted.

Portis is just one of four running backs to surpass 1,000 yards under Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, and the offensive mastermind has made it known that he believes the player is secondary to the system.

When Portis was threatening to hold out of training camp last May unless the Broncos gave him a new contract, Shanahan shot back that “if he decided he didn’t want to play, we’re going to have another back run for 1,200 to 1,500 yards anyway.”

Portis yesterday thanked Shanahan for all he did for him and said the two parted on good terms. Make no mistake, though — Portis wants to prove his first two NFL seasons were a product of his own abilities, not the coach he played for.

“I put my heart into every game,” Portis said. “My teammates know that when the chips are down, I can inspire them with a big play.”

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Shawn Barber, who had the misfortune of playing against Portis twice a year in the AFC West, understands Shanahan’s argument and those who believe it. He also understands that Portis is a rare talent and that folks in Washington might not yet realize what they’re about to see.

“He has all the things great running backs have,” said Barber, a former Redskin. “It’s a matter of time for him to put a couple years together and be another household name as far as great backs. … I think he’s going to do great things in the NFC. I think he’s going to be the next Marshall Faulk.”

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