Clinton Portis staggers off the Virginia Tech field toward the Miami locker room nearly two blocks away from Lane Stadium, clutching his helmet in one hand and three short-stem roses in the other. A UM cheerleader, all tanned thighs and bleached teeth, offers a squeal-filled hug. A TV guy aims a minicam in Portis’ face and babbles about the upcoming national championship. Portis keeps walking, his cleats slowly clicking against the sidewalk.
About 50 feet from the locker-room door, Portis stops, leans against a giant air conditioning unit and drops his head. Sweat gathers near his bloodshot left eye, trickles toward his chin and splashes upon the cement. “I have to catch my breath,” he says. “I’m tired.”
Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey half-limps around the corner, spots Portis and reaches out to shake his hand. Dorsey, the stick-figure pretty boy from the affluent San Francisco Bay Area, and Portis, the small-town Mississippi kid whose brother is in federal prison in the Florida panhandle and whose mother worked every day since she was 16, were part of the same UM freshman class three years ago. Back then, Portis took one look at the pencil-thin Dorsey and thought to himself, “Man, we trippin’.”
Now Portis stares at the grinning Heisman finalist and clasps his hand. Portis has just gained 124 hard yards on 34 carries against a Tech defense that routinely crammed eight players in the box. Some of the yards came on sprints around the corners (Portis ran the 100 in 10.6 at Gainesville High). But plenty came after running off tackle, and running off at the mouth, leaving defenders both physically and verbally abused. Portis, listed generously at 5'11", 201 pounds, squirms through and past defenses as if it’s rush hour and he’s late for his bus. His moves are smoother than the bright yellow ’74 Chevy Impala he’s been cruising for the last six years. He also has soft hands, but against the Hokies he purposely ignored swinging out of the backfield as Dorsey’s last resort receiver. Instead Portis stayed put to help cover the quarterback’s blind side.
Dorsey knows what Portis did. He sees the grass and blood stains on Portis’ No. 28 jersey and the weariness on his face. Dorsey also knows what Portis has done all year. In tight games, Portis gets the rock -- simple as that. So before Dorsey lets go of his teammate’s hand, the usually Hallmark Card-sensitive quarterback blurts out, “You’re f--ing unbelievable!” Then he disappears into a small sea of backslaps that swells the Hurricanes’ dressing area.
Portis follows, but slowly. His legs cramped up during the game and he can’t begin to count how many hits he’s taken. There also was the one turnover, which started the Tech players talking noise. “Oh, you want to fumble?” they said. “We got your number.” Not smart. Portis is the closest thing to that old-time, Warren Sapp-woofing, it’s-a-Cane-thing-you-wouldn’t-understand, Miami attitude. Portis scowled back at the Tech players. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “You can’t hold me down. Bring it.”
Now Portis just wants to shower and dress. But most of all, he wants a hug, a kiss and a smile from his mom, who is waiting in the parking lot as usual, with a small contingent of Miami parents and boosters. After all, she’s who he runs for -- no one else. Not for his brother, Gary Hampton, who got pinched for conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute. Not for his cousin Harold Hearn, who was shot and killed when he was 18. Not for the video-game maker, who doesn’t even have him in Miami’s starting lineup, or the recruiters, who insisted he was a defensive back waiting to happen.
He runs for his mom, Rhonnel Hearn, because she never doubted him, because he can tell her anything, because, he says, “that’s my heart, my baby ... she’s everything to me.”
Maybe that’s why Portis’ voice turns cold when he mentions that his mom is a certified nursing assistant working in a Gainesville, Fla., nursing home. “In other words, that’s wiping people’s butts,” he says. When he left for Miami in the late summer of 1999, Portis told his mom that she only had to work for four more years, until he was playing in the NFL. “Then if she wants to work,” Portis says, “she can work for me.” And then he promised her a house and a Jaguar, her choice of model and color.
Every day is Mother’s Day with Portis. He calls daily. He insists she wear his lug nut of a Big East championship ring. He even asked her to his high school senior prom. She accepted, just as she had done 10 years earlier when Gary asked.
Without her, who knows? Portis might be in the same cellblock with Gary, 31, at the Federal Correctional Institution in Marianna, Fla., where his sentence ends in April 2008. Says Rhonnel, “In the area where we stayed (Laurel, Miss.) there was a lot of drug activity going on and stuff. But I always told my kids that honest money is the best money.”
Portis listened. Gary didn’t.
“Gary ... he’s smart,” Rhonnel says. “The principal at his school told me he could be the next president if he tried for it. But he ended up moving down to Texas, and there’s fast money out there, too.
“Someone wanted Gary to bring a package to Louisiana,” Rhonnel recalls. “When he got over there, they told him to wait and wait. Then they had the FBI there. He knew right from wrong. That’s not the way he was raised.”
It was Rhonnel who decided it was time to leave for Gainesville and a new life. Clinton, then in seventh grade, knew it was time too. “I was at the age where I could go down this road and be a nobody in life, or I could go down another road and do something,” he says. “I never did drugs. I never sold drugs. I never hurt anybody. But I’ve seen it, I was around it. I knew a lot of people who didn’t have anything to eat, who had to hurt people to get things.”
Portis kept to himself in Gainesville. He shot baskets by himself for hours at a time. He played video games by himself and dreamed of his image on the PlayStation screen. At night he could hear his mom in her room, crying at the thought of one of her boys in prison. In the morning he would hear her alarm ring by 5:30.
Portis developed his supreme self-confidence as a three-year starter at Gainesville High, but he seldom showed confidence in others. He still trusts his family, his team and almost nobody else. Although Portis ran for more than 2,000 yards as a senior, Florida recruiters ignored him. Gator coaches eventually called, but only to see if Portis would switch to defensive back. They weren’t the only ones. In the end, Miami was one of the few programs that promised Portis a shot at tailback.
So Portis arrived at Miami with his mom’s advice still fresh in his ears: “Don’t let anybody tell you they can do anything better than you.” And shortly after the first workouts started, the freshman Portis informed junior James Jackson (who now lines up for the Cleveland Browns) that his days as a starter were numbered. Jackson told him to enjoy the last five minutes of blowout games. “It wasn’t like it was personal,” says Portis. “I was a freshman. I was supposedly not good enough to do anything. That was my motivation.”
After Jackson sprained his right ankle in the 1999 season opener, Portis got 143 carries as a freshman, enough touches to lead the Hurricanes in rushing with 838 yards and eight touchdowns. Stuck behind Jackson again as a sophomore, he broke three bones in his right foot, but returned in time to gain 485 yards for the season. The last 66 came in the final period of Miami’s Sugar Bowl victory against the Gators, who learned the hard way that Portis doesn’t get mad, he gets even.
No slight is forgotten by Portis. Ask him about the video game where FB Najeh Davenport, not Portis, is the starter in Miami’s one-back offense, and he sneers. “Other people leave Najeh there,” he says. “I put myself in. You can’t stop Clinton Portis.” Ask him which team he’d prefer to play against in a perfect bowl world and he chooses UCLA: “I’d rather go up against DeShaun Foster, running back to running back, just to find out who’s the better back.” Before this season started, Portis wanted to know why he didn’t get more publicity from Miami. They told him he would if he consistently showed up when it counted. Will this do? 164 yards against Penn State, followed by 131 (Pittsburgh), 122 (Florida State), 160 (Boston College), 132 (Syracuse), 105 (Washington) and 124 (Virginia Tech); a total of 1,200 yards for the year, the third-best total in school history. “Take my televised games, when the lights are on,” he says. “You look at my stats, it’s 100-yard games. That’s it, that’s me. Big games and competition.”
Portis was a no-show on the postseason awards circuit. Not enough yards. Too much Dorsey. But All-America safety Ed Reed says Portis is as important to UM’s success as anyone on the team. “He’s Superman for us,” Reed says. “He’ll take everybody on his back and he’ll carry them.”
That’s because, to Portis, they’re all family: Reed, Dorsey, even Davenport. But ask him whether he’ll carry the Canes next season and Portis gives a let’s-not-talk-about-that-now answer before revealing that, if he did leave for the NFL, he’d blow his bonus on something wild, “like putting a house in front of Niagara Falls.”
Zoning could be a problem. And Portis still has that promise he made to the woman who drives anywhere to see his games, who still washes and irons his clothes, who happily fixes his favorite meal of pork chops, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, corn bread, rice and gravy and banana pudding. Just one more big game under the brightest lights could leave Portis with an easy decision and a simple plan: two-week notice to the nursing home; contact the real estate agent; pick out a Jag.
This article appears in the January 7 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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