In more than three decades covering sports, I have come across my share of characters.
Former defenseman Al Iafrate – who arrived for his first Caps training camp on a motorcycle sans shirt, pants and socks but with bandana, glistening tan, golden chain, lobster boxers and cowboys boots and a cigarette dangling from his lips – was the most memorable. Iafrate used to bring me to chat into the stick room where he would light his smokes with a butane torch.
Motormouth Redskins guard Tre Johnson, the hip-hop prep school teacher who once joked about shooting Santa – was also unusual. But few athletes tried so hard to be different as did running back Clinton Portis, who’ll officially retire from the NFL as a Redskin tomorrow.
Portis was schizophrenic. Not literally, mind you, but there were certainly many sides to the Redskins’ most dominant personality of the last decade.
There was the star player who hated to practice but was a true warrior on game days, carrying the ball play after play in hopes of preserving Washington’s lead.
There was the soft-spoken man who generally didn’t enjoy attention from the media but dressed in costume virtually every Thursday during the 2005 season as he powered the Redskins from a losing record in late November into the playoffs for the first time in six years. Portis ran for an average of 115 yards during Washington’s 5-0 stretch drive.
The media never knew whom Portis was going to pretend to be each week as we assembled at the bottom of the stairs by the locker room. The cast of characters in the bizarre getups just kept coming: Southeast Jerome, Coach Janky Spanky, Doctor Don’t Know and Sheriff Gonna Getcha and the like.
Then there was the time when Portis called me over in the locker room before the Redskins headed into their annual mid-season break.
“Yo man,” Portis said. “I got a scoop for you because I like you.”
Duly summoned, I walked over and said, “What’s up, CP?”
The second-leading rusher in franchise history replied, “I’m going to a whorehouse in China during bye week.”
That one was about as believable as the Redskins holding a retirement ceremony for despised former defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, but Portis could always make you laugh.
While Portis was never the speedster he had been in Denver nor worth the trade price of Hall of Famer in waiting Champ Bailey, he was still a very good back in Washington. Until his aborted final season in 2010, Portis had a career average of 108 yards a game from scrimmage. Only Hall of Famers Jim Brown, Marshall Faulk, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders and sure enshrine LaDainian Tomlinson were more productive. And few modern feature backs ever blocked as effectively as the 5-foot-11, 218-pound Portis.
“I have more fun blocking than doing anything,” he said. “When I broke 60-yarders, I used to come to the sideline and be gasping for air. It was a run. It wasn’t nothing exciting. That’s what I get paid to do. When I knock somebody off their feet, that’s what’s exciting to me.”
Portis was more workmanlike than exciting in Washington after scooting 64 yards to the house on the initial carry of his 2004 debut, but he averaged 102 yards during the 3-0 finishing kick that resulted in another playoff berth in 2007 and a league-leading 118 yards per game during the 6-2 first half under rookie coach Jim Zorn in 2008. From 2004-09, when Portis ran for at least 80 yards, the Redskins were 28-11. When he didn’t, they were 14-43.
The only other Redskins back to lead the burgundy and gold in rushing in five seasons are 1972 MVP Larry Brown and Hall of Famer John Riggins, the heroes of Washington’s first Super Bowl team and its first Super Bowl champions. Portis didn’t quite reach those vaunted levels, but he was certainly unforgettable, too.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin