Away from the NFL spotlight, financial ruin drove Clinton Portis to the brink of murder
Fortune pilfered, Clinton Portis contemplated revenge under the veil of darkness. On a handful of late nights and early mornings in 2013 he lurked in his car near a Washington, D.C.–area office building, pistol at his side, and waited for one of several men who had managed a large chunk of the $43.1 million he earned with his 2,230 carries over nine NFL seasons. Purportedly safe investments had suspiciously soured, and almost all the money Portis set aside to fund his future had evaporated. That future included a mother who doubles as his hero and four sons scattered across the Southeast. Their comfort and security. Their happiness.
The hucksters he deemed most responsible ignored his calls. None were bound for jail. Their coffers were dry; a lawsuit seemed pointless. Once his helplessness gave way to rage, Portis lusted for a confrontation. He would meet this betrayer not with pleas or demands, or even blows delivered by thick fists attached to thick forearms. Bullets, he thought, were his sole means of balancing the scale.
“It wasn't no beat up,” Portis says. “It was kill.”
He recounts those grim urges in the kitchen of his two-bedroom apartment, 11 floors below the penthouse of a chic tower in Northern Virginia, as winds bellow outside the panoramic windows. Portis, 35, plays dominoes with a nephew as he speaks, reflecting on his private fury and his public bankruptcy—due in part to his own gambling and profligacy—and how he gradually learned to embrace life this far from the top.
As he sifts through his past, his focus remains fixed on the array of tiles in front of him.
Flanked by Redskins owner and close friend Daniel Snyder at his retirement press conference on Aug. 23, 2012, Portis responded to a question about his life after football by calling to his side two of his sons, Chaz and Camdin. Ever fashionable, Clinton wore a sharp dark-blue blazer and a sparkling stud in each ear. Ever honest, he choked back tears while reminiscing about a nursing assistant who once told her young son that if she ever grew wealthy, she would buy a Jaguar and a house painted purple, the color of royalty. “She's got a Jaguar. She's got a purple house,” Portis said of his mother, Rhonnel Hearn-Pearson. “And she'll forever be a queen in my eyes.”
Just 30 years old, the 5’ 11″, 218-pound Portis was only 77 rushing yards shy of 10,000 for his career and 648 short of John Riggins's all-time Redskins mark—but he was eager to deliver that farewell speech. His infatuation with football, in fact, had been snuffed out five years earlier when Snyder had knocked on his hotel room door in Miami, sun not yet peeking through the blinds, and collapsed into the running back's arms, muttering through sobs that the teammate Portis most revered, Sean Taylor, had succumbed to gunshot wounds.
Taylor's death, compounded by the loss of several other friends and family members in short succession, marked the end of Portis's trademark frivolity. Gone were Southeast Jerome, Kid Bro Sweets, Sheriff Gonna Getcha and the gaggle of other characters he'd once embodied, in full costume—loud wigs, novelty glasses, fake teeth—to enliven press conferences. Football became a vocation; chasing accolades and solidifying a legacy proved not to be worth the concussions, the broken bones, the dislocated joints. And that mind-set carried repercussions. Though he ranks sixth in NFL history in rushing yards per game (87.8—less than a yard behind Walter Payton) and though teammates still tout his singular skills as a pass blocker, Portis fielded two questions about his famous characters during his farewell press conference . . . and only one about the Hall of Fame. Canton-eligible since 2015, he has yet to be named even a finalist.
Portis says that sex, not drugs or alcohol, provided the salve he needed after Taylor's death. He took lavish, impromptu trips overseas, sometimes with women he hardly knew, sometimes three or four at a time. “It was empty,” Portis laments.
In 2004, when he was only 22, he had been traded to the Redskins after two seasons with the Broncos and inked what was then the largest contract for a running back in league history: eight years for $50.5 million, including $17 million in bonuses. He flaunted his various houses (how many? “A lot,” he says) on MTV and on the NFL Network, leading cameras past waterfalls, tanks of exotic fish, stripper poles, rows of designer suits and an armada of cars with gargantuan rims. As Portis's fortune grew, so seemingly did its gravity, pulling more properties, luxuries and hangers-on into his orbit. Former teammates and friends in the league, even those of comparable means, dared not try to keep pace. “Portis was on a different level,” says former Washington teammate Santana Moss, who himself once owned 11 vehicles. “He didn't think about tomorrow.”
Not all of Portis's expenses were typical of what he flaunted on Cribs. He built a house for his maternal grandparents. He helped support a vast extended family in Mississippi. He bought his mother the Jaguar and the 8,381-square-foot purple abode in Gainesville, Fla., that he knew she craved. He hosted massive picnics in Florida and Virginia for anyone who wanted a free meal.
In hindsight, Portis wishes he'd spent millions more—better that than to see so much of his fortune immolated with a few flicks of a pen. Once he was a star, former University of Miami teammate Rod Mack, who worked as a money manager after college, introduced Portis to Jeff Rubin, a financial adviser whose client list would go on to include Moss, Terrell Owens, Jevon Kearse and a cadre of other notable (and wealthy) players. Eventually, Portis made the acquaintance of Jinesh Brahmbhatt, a financial adviser whose past included a stint at Stratton Oakmont, the infamous firm that inspired The Wolf of Wall Street. Tailored suits and indecipherable business jargon worked their magic. “They come impressive,” Portis says. “The complication begins because you don't understand it. You don't know what they're saying, but you just get involved.”
Snyder and former Washington coach Joe Gibbs checked with Portis on occasion. Was he being wise with his money? Earnestly, Portis assured them he was. He'd entrusted millions on the word of men he had reason to believe in—both Rubin and Brahmbhatt were registered financial advisers with the NFL Players Association, after all.
That designation proved meaningless. According to a series of lawsuits filed by Portis between 2011 and '13, Rubin and his associates first persuaded the running back to sink $1 million into a southern Alabama casino. In '12, local authorities shut down that casino's lifeblood, a digital bingo operation, after it ran afoul of state regulations.
One suit also alleges that Rubin's company opened an account for Portis at BB&T bank using a forged signature card that gave power of attorney to some of Rubin's employees. Rubin's firm, Portis says, made withdrawals without his knowledge, bleeding more than $3.1 million from his account, some of it funneled to the casino project. (Rubin's lawyer did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)
Simultaneously, Brahmbhatt steered Portis and other NFL players to invest with Success Trade Securities, overseen by his former Stratton Oakmont colleague Fuad Ahmed, whose Ponzi scheme would unravel in 2013. Nearly $14 million of those investments vanished. STS was ordered to repay the losses, and Brahmbhatt and Ahmed were eventually barred from securities trading by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. (Ahmed's lawyer did not comment; Brahmbhatt's rep says his client was also duped by Ahmed, and while Brahmbhatt frequently conferred with Portis, they held no official advisory agreement.)
Portis won't reveal exactly how much he lost through these alleged misdeeds, but among the assets in his 2015 bankruptcy filings he included a $1 million note from Ahmed's firm as well as “potential” claims of $2 million and $8 million against Brahmbhatt's and Rubin's firms, respectively. Portis says that because of those investors' insolvencies and his own legal fees, he will be lucky to recover even a fraction of his losses.
The men who duped him were shamed publicly and stripped of their right to work in the financial industry, but Portis was livid that they walked free while he was left to rebuild from relative financial ruin. “No jail time, no nothing,” Portis says. “Living happily ever after.”
Portis never pulled his gun because he couldn't put down his phone. The voice on the other line belonged to a television producer he had met when he was auditioning for a reality show as his football career reached its end; her training as a family therapist spurred him to stay in touch as his life came unmoored. Several times she fielded calls from a man who had found bottom—sitting and waiting in the gloom, ready to upend his life and take someone else's. “He was talking real crazy,” Portis's friend says. “He was just so depressed.”
Even if the money had disappeared, she told him, the people who truly loved him wouldn't. She begged him to turn his car around and go home to his mother in Gainesville, visit loved ones in Charlotte, see some friends in Miami. If he didn't, his four boys would know him not as a charismatic former-NFL-star-turned-carpool-driver but as the man on the other side of a glass prison partition.
“You've already lost,” his friend told him, “but the loss you would sustain [by killing someone] would be greater.”
Prepared as he was to commit murder, sacrificing his freedom and his name for revenge, he never found whom he was looking for. But what if he had caught a glimpse before coming to his senses? What if their paths had crossed, there in the darkness? Portis doesn't hesitate: “We'd probably be doing this interview from prison.” (After two lengthy interviews, Portis declined to further participate in this story.)
In the end, Portis says, the idea of four fatherless children ended his hunt after a few desperate mornings and nights. To remain a dutiful dad, he wouldn't betray the dutiful son he'd long been. Once, in high school, Portis had needed extra cash and so he turned to selling weed—but it took only a few hours before he panicked and dumped $130 worth of green for the $27 that one buyer had in his pocket. “I was so nervous,” Portis says. “So scared.” He routinely called his mother to tell her where he was going, that he was safe, even as his stardom blossomed at Miami. He would never forget Hearn-Pearson's tears when she took collect calls from Clinton's older brother Gary when Gary was serving an 11-year prison stretch for selling narcotics.
Heeding his friend's advice, Portis left his pistol in her care while he grappled with his anger; she kept it until she was certain he wouldn't pull the trigger. Over the ensuing months Portis sequestered himself with family, and his most frightening impulses had abated by the time he filed for bankruptcy in late 2015, triggering a rash of media coverage that called attention to the details of his plight: $412,000 in domestic support owed to four women; $390,000 due to the IRS; more than $287,000 owed to the MGM Grand casino; another $170,000 to the Borgata; only $150 remaining in his bank account. Lavish homes in Virginia and Florida were sold at a loss. A condo in Miami was liquidated. (Though Portis's debts were officially discharged in July '16, the Borgata's parent company has contested its portion. A hearing is scheduled for this fall.)
Perhaps most painful were the headlines seizing on the $500,000 Portis owed his own mother. He had paid cash for her house in Gainesville, valued at roughly $900,000, but he says one of his financial advisers took a loan out against it in his name without his knowledge—which left Hearn-Pearson as one of her son's largest creditors. The stories claiming Portis owed his mother a half-million dollars missed the mark. “I owe my mom everything,” he says. “Everything.”
“Everything” includes the $45 Hearn-Pearson spent two decades ago for a physical exam after coaches at Gainesville High asked Portis to join the football team as a freshman; Rhonnel had already told her son he wasn't allowed to play, but here she buckled. Yes, the family's means were relatively meager—Clinton's stepfather was a truck driver—but Hearn-Pearson made certain her youngest son never went without stylish clothes, new gadgets or her succulent home cooking. It wasn't until Portis reached the NFL and added his mother as a dependent on his taxes that he realized her endless string of 6:30 a.m. shifts at a nursing home were only worth around $25,000 each year. He told her she would never have to work again, which ensured she would be in the crowd at all but one of his 117 games for the Broncos and the Redskins.
Portis's close friend, the TV producer, says the prospect of his mom's losing the home he'd gifted her tormented him. Still, son assured mother not to worry, and mother asked son to reciprocate. “It came down to: If it had to go, it had to go,” Hearn-Pearson says. “This house is not my life.”
Through a nascent broadcasting career and regular appearance fees, Portis optimistically believes he'll earn back much of what he lost. His mother, meanwhile, remains pragmatic. She doubts her family's lifestyle will ever reach the stratosphere again, but she's proud of how her son treats his children and of the time and money he still donates to others, despite his own problems. “He lost money,” she says. “He didn't lose me.”
Portis has felt the spotlight's burden since he first showed promise on the football fields of central Florida, when he was 14. “I spent more time in the public eye than I did getting to know who I was,” he says. “I'm just now learning me.”
To get here he's had to shrink a once-vast circle down to one that includes only those family and friends who enrich his life. Edgerrin James, the running back Portis succeeded at Miami, and now a longtime confidant, supplies common sense. James earned nearly $70 million during his career, and he made a habit of not propping up others along the way. Portis was too generous, James says, too quick to plop down his credit card when the bill came and to align himself with people who would let him. When news of Portis's financial woes surfaced, James called him not out of sympathy but to discuss hard truths and next steps. “Don't bring that weak s— over here,” James said. “Let's just deal with the solution.”
James, Moss and former Redskins tight end Chris Cooley attest: They never saw their friend show signs of buckling under the weight of his predicament. Portis hints that there is a woman in his life who has shown him how to be vulnerable, imperfect, fearful. He didn't seek that sort of connection when he was hopping around the world, relative strangers in tow. Until now, he never realized how much he needed it.
Through tough love (and the softer kind) he has come to accept his share of the blame for all he lost. The slew of homes, he admits, proved unnecessary. He acknowledges that no one forced him to hand over his millions to strangers in hopes of speedy returns. “The biggest regret is trusting people with my money,” Portis says. “You shouldn't. Go to a bank.”
Quietly, he devotes much of his spare time to others. A recent trip to Haiti to provide food, water and clothing through his work with former NFL player Jack Brewer's charity marked his third such visit in as many years. Portis's Two 6 Foundation hosts an annual holiday feast in one of Washington's poorest neighborhoods, and he makes a handful of monthly appearances at schools around the city, reading to children and earnestly fielding their questions.
Portis does regular work for several media outlets, including one owned by Snyder. (He always had the owner's ear, more than any other player, says Moss.) He's a regular guest on Cooley's radio show, and the two host a weekly Redskins-centric TV program during the season. Cooley, now a media fixture in Washington, says he has worked with few people better versed in football knowledge than his former teammate. Portis worries, though, that the molasses-like, sometimes-unintelligible drawl he attributes to a youth spent in the small-town South has impeded his progress. NFL Network producers have lauded his appearances on their shows, but he's chagrined to see a new crop of retired players added to their regular rotation after he has been told there's no spot for him.
More worrisome are the occasional lapses in memory that have begun to plague him. Portis sometimes struggles to find words or loses his train of thought; through the course of an interview he habitually repeats himself as he searches for his next point. He gets lost driving in familiar places. He missed the last two months of the 2009 season after taking a helmet-to-helmet shot against the Falcons, and he says he suffered more than 10 concussions in his career. On occasion, he strode off the field with no memory of the game he'd just played. Content to sleep it off, he rarely sought medical help—as a young player, he'd been taught to avoid the training room at all costs. “You can't make the club in the tub,” he says.
Portis is among the former players eligible to receive benefits from the NFL's $1 billion concussion settlement, which could entitle him to up to $1.5 million if he shows signs of early dementia and as much as $5 million should he be diagnosed with ALS—but in order to receive even a penny he would have to undergo testing and demonstrate clear symptoms of severe problems. And he's wary of being evaluated because those tests might reveal that the fog is encroaching just as he has learned to navigate this complicated world. “F— that concussion money,” he says. “I'm scared. I'm really scared of the results.”
No bust in Canton, no major records, no nationally recognized broadcasting career, no gilded nest egg—but Portis still treasures the tranquility every morning brings. Gone are the endless hours spent agonizing over court dates and a lost fortune. “Most people would have offed themselves if they had to deal with what I had to deal with,” he says. “Life is so much clearer after coming out of that storm.”
Lying in bed, Portis will often hear the wind roaring outside his apartment. The tumult doesn't hold him hostage; he sleeps as peacefully now as he did when he was a boy, when the smell of his mother's cooking wafted through their small home.
Today, as his game of dominoes wears on, those ceaseless gusts send a chair careening across his apartment's deck, hard plastic clattering against glass and metal. Portis's guests snap their heads to attention and peer outside, mouths agape, as the chair rattles down the terrace.
Portis, unflinching, keeps his eyes trained on the dominoes scattered across the kitchen island. Eventually he slides another tile into place, pressing on as the wind rages.