Since the moment he first stepped onto a football field, Clinton Portis has made the world take notice. He won a national championship at the University of Miami, earned rookie of the year honors with the Denver Broncos and broke the Washington Redskins single-season rushing record, all before he even turned 25.
While no one else has seemingly been able to stop Portis, we were able to slow him down long enough to chat with us about everything from playing for a Hall of Fame coach to growing up with the toughest mom in the NFL.
Where are you originally from and what was your childhood like?
Laurel, Mississippi, and it was filled with getting whuppins’ every day for something I didn’t do. I was the baby in the family and growing up if one of us got a whuppin’, all of us got it. I think some of my cousins would dispute that claim and say I never got a whuppin’, but I got more of them than anybody.
How many brothers and sisters are we talking about?
I got two older brothers, but cousins … I got a heap of cousins, you know. It was just one big family vibe.
How early did you start playing football and how many other positions did you play when you were younger?
I played football as a shortie. We played a lot of football out in the yard and in the church parking lot because they had a big open area up there. As far as organized football, I tried to play pee wee one year and they didn’t play me because they said I was too young to play. So the following year I went out and I ended up punching a little boy in the stomach for messing with my cousin. My momma wouldn’t let me play again, so I really didn’t play organized football until high school, in the ninth grade.
Are you naturally athletic, or did you have to work harder to get to the highest level of competition? What other sports, if any, are you good at?
I think it’s natural, but you know, the older you get the more work you gotta put in. Back in the day I never worked out, I never did anything, I’d just come out and play football. I think now that I’m getting older the athletic ability is still there – I still make some moves that are amazing to myself and make me wonder “Damn, how did I just do that?”
The athletic side of it comes from my upbringing – playing basketball, football or anything else. I can shoot, I can hoop a little bit. I ran track and did the high jump. I can play volleyball. I’m pretty sure if we get a kickball game going I could play kickball. I really want to work on playing tennis. My hand-eye coordination ain’t that good to play baseball, but I’m really just a sports fan.
Weren’t you a pretty accomplished track and field guy coming out of high school and college?
Yeah, we still have the high school state record in Florida right now. We ran the 4×100-meter relay team in 40.8 seconds. Most colleges don’t run that fast, and we ran it in high school. Coming out of high school, I competed in the 4×100, the 4×400, the high jump, the long jump and I actually medaled at state in five events – that’s the most you can compete in. So, I did alright.
You went to the University of Miami and were the second true freshman to start at running back for the Hurricanes since 1975. With the insane amount of talented running backs to go through Miami we gotta ask – how were you able to start so quickly when so many others had to sit and wait their turn?
It was just the right timing. Najeh Davenport went down the first game of the season and I really think they wanted to red shirt me or move me to defensive back. We had myself, Jarrett Payton, James Jackson, Najeh Davenport, and we were all competing. Because of all the people who doubted me and said I can’t do it, I was eager to go out and prove myself and I prevailed.
In 2001 you were able to experience something most college athletes only dream of, winning the national championship. How stacked was that Hurricanes squad and what’s your favorite memory looking back on that season?
I tell people about all of those players to come out of that team and some of the players I had the opportunity to play with. You go back to Bubba Franks, Dan Morgan, Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow, William Joseph, Sean Taylor, Ed Reed, Phillip Buchanan, Mike Rumph, Nate Webster, Jonathan Vilma, D.J. Williams, Rocky McIntosh, Frank Gore, Willis McGahee … the list goes on.
It was really exciting and looking back at those times and seeing how everybody competed back then, it’s no wonder they’re successful now.
You were drafted by the Denver Broncos with the 19th pick in the second round (51st overall) of the 2002 NFL draft. Talk to us about what it felt like to finally get drafted to play in the NFL. Were you happy to be drafted or were you disappointed you weren’t picked in the first round?
I was so mad I actually left the draft. After Carolina picked DeShaun Foster in the second round, I didn’t watch anymore of the draft. I was actually on the highway, going to Tallahassee, when I got the phone call telling me I had been drafted. I was really disappointed that I wasn’t an earlier pick. I swear, I thought I was a top ten pick after my pro day. I ran a 4.27 in the 40, didn’t drop a pass, my vertical jump was a 38 or 39. I had an unbelievable pro day, but then all of the sudden it was that I was “too cocky” and people questioned my attitude. People didn’t think I would pan out, and didn’t think I could take the pounding of being an every-down back in the NFL. A lot of people thought I was going to be too wild, but to this day I’ve never gotten into trouble.
Using that as motivation, you immediately made your presence known by earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and joining Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James as the only rookies to rush for more than 1,500 yards in each of your first two seasons. What enabled you to make such an instant impact at the NFL level?
You know, I told Coach Shanahan when he called me, “I really appreciate this and you’ll never regret it. I will be rookie of the year and I will give you everything I’ve got.” Coach Shanahan gave me an opportunity and I am grateful for it. To win rookie of the year and go to the Pro Bowls each of your first two years in the league, that’s pretty amazing.
Then, to come out and be the highest-paid back in the league in my third year and have the expectations of the world be placed on my shoulders, I had 1,300 yards and for the longest time I beat myself up about it. But now, any time I get 1,300 yards I’m going to be glad and take it in stride because most of the people that they give all the credit to or are all excited about never even did that. So if I was a 1,300-yard back over my career, that’s a nice average for me.
One of our favorite moments in your career occurred when you torched the Kansas City Chiefs for 218 yards and five touchdowns. What inspired you to celebrate the moment by breaking out a wrestling-style championship belt and where is that belt today?
I still got the belt, but it’s put up. That’s the attitude that I need to get back to. When I did that there was a lot going on, and I knew I wanted to be a feature back, a big-time back. I was going against the league’s hottest back at the time, Priest Holmes, and with the rivalry between Denver and Kansas City being as big as it is I was ready to play. Shannon [Sharpe] and Rod Smith came at me like, “C.P., whatcha gonna do? We gotta do something, we’re at home.” So that week I put it all on the line. That same week I went out and bought two new cars – an SL500 and a G-Wagen 500 – because if I’m going to make my money, I’m gonna make it this game.
At halftime I had like 12 carries for 52 yards. But the third quarter, man, was one of the most spectacular quarters ever. I didn’t even play in the fourth quarter of that game, which people fail to realize. But in the third quarter I had something like 150 yards on six carries, and three consecutive carries for touchdowns. You’d really have to be a stat freak to know that, but to this day I look back and have conversations with people and they say, “Man, you had 100 yards rushing in a quarter, let alone a game, and to get 100 yards in a game is kind of tough.”
I remember when Jamal Lewis broke the single-game rushing record. We were playing in San Diego and Sharpe asked me if I had seen what had happened and told me I needed to top Lewis. I was like, “Let’s go get it.” The first quarter I had seven carries for 121 yards and ended up hurting my sternum on a fluke play. I got caught in the clay and was falling on the play while my chest was left open; I got hit and couldn’t finish the game. I had seven carries for 121 yards in the first quarter and think I would have broken the record, but that will forever be unknown.
In March of 2004, the Denver Broncos traded you to the Washington Redskins for Champ Bailey and a second-round draft pick. What was your reaction to the trade and, looking back, which team got the better end of the deal?
I think it panned out for both. I think Denver got what they were looking for and Champ is a helluva player, probably the top DB in the NFL. And for myself, coming to Washington to gel with these guys, bringing that attitude, bringing that character and bringing my style to Washington, I think this was a perfect fit. I got the opportunity to be around guys who I came up with in Santana Moss and Sean Taylor and I was excited about getting them here. Just having the opportunity to come here was major.
I think Champ wanted to make a move and I did too, and to this day I’m still excited that Denver got Champ and a draft pick, which was Tatum Bell, out of the deal and Washington just got me.
Talk about making a strong first impression, on your very first carry for Washington you earned the love of every Redskins fan when you busted out for a 64-yard touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
(Redskins fullback Mike Sellers walks up and asks Portis, “Who made that block for you though?”)
I don’t know because I didn’t follow my block on that one.
(Both players crack up and Sellers heads to the locker room.)
What’s it been like for you playing in Washington for a Hall of Fame coach and with such a diehard fanbase cheering you on every Sunday?
That’s been my greatest experience, playing for Coach Gibbs and playing for the Washington Redskins, which may be the biggest sports franchise in any league. The fans come out and support them, week in and week out – win, lose or draw. When I was in Denver I really didn’t think it got any bigger or better than the Denver Broncos fans, but then I got here and realized that everyone you run into is a Washingtonian or a Redskins diehard who remembers this time or remembers that time.
I would love to help this team get back to prominence and the level of dominance from that era, especially for Coach Gibbs. You really can’t find a better person, not just a coach, but a better person that lives the way he lives and believes the way he believes. That’s really how every man wants to be.
Last year you were injured while making a tackle during a meaningless preseason game. If you were commissioner for the day, how would you fix the current system? Would you shorten the preseason? Eliminate it completely?
Man, you know, if I was the commissioner I’d do a lot different. Like the individuality of the game – you want to sell that to the fans, but you’re really not letting the players be individuals. I would change that first and let players go out and have fun. A lot of the things that separate players and show the individuality of players is taken away – like celebrations or the dress code. I understand you want to make everyone look the same, but everybody is not the same. The way they market the NFL they’re making major money and that’s what it all boils down to, making money. They gotta get their money, but how much money can you make?
I say let the people go out and have fun. And I think the preseason should be about letting the people who are coming in, looking for a shot, have that opportunity. A lot of teams don’t do that. You don’t get the opportunity to go out and showcase your talent. You might get to play in one game or you might not. If you don’t even get into your first game then no one will ever know if you can play.
Because your season was cut short last year, it seems like critics are down on you. What’s your mindset heading into this season and what can the fans expect from Clinton Portis and the Washington Redskins in 2007?
You can expect C.P. to be back in the zone. I know no one is for me, everyone is against me. The people that are for me are probably the people that I sit down and have dinner with, and that’s it. That’s my family, my close friends and my teammates. Outside of them, it’s always “What have you done for me lately?”
People like negativity. They want to see you rise and see you fall. I know I didn’t fall, I got injured. I got injured doing something I love to do and that’s being aggressive and giving my all. Whether it’s preseason or not, I give it my all. When they turn the lights on, I go out there knowing I can’t give them garbage. I go out and play football – preseason, regular season, playoffs, anything. I got hurt putting myself on the line and people act like I fell off. I didn’t fall off, man. I was out there busting my ass in a game that wasn’t even meaningful. Once I get out on the field, I’m gonna go full speed. I think the whole thing was just a wake-up call. You’re only as hot as your last move and my last move it seems like was two years ago, so I ain’t that hot right now.
On the May 14th episode of Ballers on BET, you guaranteed that the Redskins would make it to the NFC Championship Game. Are you still standing by that guarantee?
You know, I really feel that way. Coach isn’t high on us making those kind of comments.
Well, it’s not like Coach is watching BET …
But it got back to him because I heard about it like two days after the show aired. Coach isn’t really high on you making predictions, he wants you to go out and play football. For myself, I feel like with the talent we’ve got here – we went to the playoffs when I was in Denver and the talent level that we had in Denver compared to what we have here is not even close. You had a bunch of guys in Denver who played great in that system or players the coaches knew how to play well in the system, but only a few standout guys like Al Wilson, Trevor Pryce, Rod Smith and Shannon Sharpe, but it’s not like everyone on that team was a Hall of Famer.
On this team you’ve got the possibility that as many as 10-15 guys could end up in the Hall of Fame. The possibility, the talent and the opportunity are there. Our record is 0-0 and it’s up to us.
You also appeared on an episode of MTV Cribs a couple years back that people still talk about today. Your basement has reached legendary status – with the glowing beds, mirrors on the ceiling, red hot tub and the stripper pole. Where was that house and do you still own it? If not, does your current pad compete with that one?
That was actually my house in Denver and I still do own it. I ended up seeing that, probably about a year ago, I was watching Cribs one day and then when they got to me and got to my basement, my eyes lit up. My phone started ringing and people were like “Oh, they’re showing your house on Cribs!” I had to tell them that it was from when I was in Denver – you see how small I was, you see how old that was. But everyone was still excited.
I only had a little bit of money back then, and I felt like I really worked for what I had. I designed it, I decorated it, I came up with the color scheme and I came up with all the ideas. I didn’t call anyone, it was just me sitting down in the basement figuring out what I wanted to do and that’s what I came up with. To this day I’m still proud of that place, but right now, what I’m doing to my basement will top anything you’ve ever seen on that program.
The Mad Scientist, Southeast Jerome, Dr. I Don’t Know, Sherriff Gonna Getcha, Dolla Bill, Reverend Gonna Change, Kid Bro Sweets, Inspector 2-2, Angel of Southeast Jerome, Coach Janky Spanky and Dolemite Jenkins. Which one was your favorite character and is there any chance we’ll see a new identity this season?
I enjoyed all of my characters. I really can’t say I have a favorite one because week in and week out the characters that I came up with just seemed to fit with whatever we were going through. I really think that got us through some tough times here. We had lost a bunch of games consecutively and we really needed to find a way to win. I think once that came along and once that got hot, players came in with a different attitude.
When I first started, I remember a few people in the locker room looking at me like I was crazy. They were thinking “What the hell is he doing and why is he doing this?” By the end of the year, there wasn’t a player in the locker room that wasn’t in my locker trying to find what I was wearing or what I was doing or had some kind of idea to give me. That just shows how the team came together. The first time I did it, only three or four people were sitting around the locker room laughing while everyone was thinking “Why the hell is this dude doing that?” But by the end, everyone was involved, even bringing in different parts for my outfits.
Toughness runs in your family. Two seasons ago your mother ended up punching a Philadelphia Eagles fan in the stands during a game. Were you at all surprised that your mom was ready to throw down and that an Eagles fan was involved?
To this day, that is still in the air. I wasn’t in the stands, but toughness does run in my family. I can’t say that my mom did do that because I wasn’t there in the stands. I think that fan is full of ****, and was in the wrong. This is a lovely game and we need to keep it lovely. It’s okay to jaw jack, but never get personal when you’re cheering for something you have no control over. No fan can control an NFL game. No fan at all. I think the game should be enjoyable and the fans should come out and have a good time – if you want to come out and get drunk and talk trash, keep it friendly. But once you take it personal and have to come to blows and hit someone in the face, it’s not worth it.
Which current player would you pay money to see play, and which offensive player gives you the biggest challenge when you line up against them on Sundays?
Right now it would have to be Sean Taylor, Frank Gore or LaDainian Tomlinson. You know, I really would pay to go watch LaDainian. From watching film and seeing him on TV, the things he does are exciting. How he manages to stay scot-free on so many plays is exciting because I’m in the same position and I can’t find a way to go through a hole untouched like that.
Madden 2008 just came out. Are you a Madden guy? Do you play the game?
Yeah, I played it for the first time today. I actually played with San Francisco, but I gotta go get the Playstation 3. That’s what everyone was telling me to go get because it’s the sweetest. I think they kind of downgraded the Playstation 2 version just so everyone had to go out and buy the Playstation 3. I was never gonna leave the Playstation 2, but now that everyone is raving about Madden on PS3 being so much better, I gotta leave my Playstation 2.
Actor Anthony Anderson sported your jersey in the summer-blockbuster Transformers. So we have to ask, when can we expect to see you make your Hollywood debut and which actors or actresses would you like to work with?
Man, it’s time. I want to work with all actresses; I don’t want to work with actors. (Laughs).
Put me in a movie with all actresses, like Sanaa Lathan, like Kerry Washington … you know, Jamie Foxx could even hang out. I figure if he could get them to laugh on set it’ll make my job much easier and I could just flirt the whole time.
And finally, when they make a movie based on your life who would play you and what will the name of the movie be?
I don’t know. It would have to be someone with personality, like Jamie Foxx or Cat Williams. Cat Williams would be a good one because of his sense of humor. What it would be called, who knows? The Mysterious Life of Clinton Portis or something. Maybe The Life and Times of Spanky Janky. (Laughs).
Interviewed by Brian Murphy, August 2007.