Sports

Saturday, Jul 17 2010 09:21 PM

For Joey Porter, there's no place like home

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Joey and Christy Porter earlier this summer at Porter's annual football camp held at Fothill high.

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BY ZACH EWING, Californian staff writer zewing@bakersfield.com

Joey Porter sits in his salon on Brundage Lane, surrounded by home.

Yes, Porter is the famous football player, he of the NFL's select All-Decade Team, he of the multimillion- dollar contracts and he of Super Bowl Steelers, the loud quotes and 92 sacks, many of them followed by a dance on national TV.

But home is not like any of that. Home is Bakersfield. Home is wife Christy, sons Joey Jr. and Jacob and daughters Jayla and Jasmine. Home is Porter's charity work.

And, above all, home is comfort.

"I'm from Bakersfield," he said in a recent interview with The Californian right after a haircut at Studio 555, which he owns with his wife. "I don't know nothing else, so this is my home. I'm happy being comfortable here in my own city, my own hometown."

Home, incidentally, also is where the memories are. Like, for instance, when this future multimillionaire got stood up on his prom night at Foothill High School.

That's the story you'll get from Christy, who also ended up without a date just days before the prom, which required students to take a date if they attended.

Problem was, Joey Porter and Christy Houston, who had gone to the same school since their elementary days, didn't really know each other.

"I said, 'There's no way I'm going to the prom with Joey Porter,'" Christy Porter said. "'I just won't go.' But Joey gives me a call, says that if I don't like him as a boyfriend or he doesn't like me as a girlfriend, that's fine. We can get in and hang with friends; we don't even have to ride together. The rest is history after that."

Sort of. Christy was under a strict 9 p.m. curfew from her mother, who grounded her because Joey didn't get her home till 9:30. Fate was persistent, though, and they ran into each other again on a break from college.

"Been together ever since," Christy said.

And now, as Porter embarks on the next stage of his career -- he signed a three-year, $24 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals last winter -- it's increasingly apparent that home and its comforts are what's most important.

"A lot of people, when you have the means to live wherever you want, pick different places," said Ned Permenter, Porter's football coach at Foothill. "But he's always said this is his home. That's priority."

Porter joined the Cardinals just months after being named to the NFL's All-Decade Team -- "means somebody's been watching," he said -- because of that comfort. He'll be playing for head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh when Porter and the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, and about an hour's flight from his home in northwest Bakersfield.

"It's the best fit for me, for me and my family," he said. "(Whisenhunt) knows me, I know him. He knows exactly what he's getting out of me."

What the Cardinals are getting is a supreme talent, an outside linebacker who even at 33 can be the centerpiece of a defense. They're also getting one of the NFL's more notorious talkers and tough guys. Porter has come from what he calls "nothing" to become one of the NFL's elite players, and he's done it without hiding his sometimes out-sized personality.

"He is who he is," Christy said. "And a lot of times, that's a villain on the football field. But there's another side a lot of people don't get to see."

With Porter, the irony is how visible both of his sides can be.

First, there is the well-cultivated bad-boy image. In 2006, Sports Illustrated proclaimed him the "Most feared player in the NFL." Countless times he has made national news with his unusually candid quotes. He was shot in the thigh outside a Denver sports bar in 2003 -- as a bystander, but it only enhanced his tough-guy reputation when he returned just three weeks later and had four tackles and a sack against Cincinnati.

Porter, of course, has never been shy about any of it.

"Life is like this: They tell you what they want you to say, and they want to hear what they want to hear," he said. "You and I can both know it's wrong, but it's just an unwritten rule that your answer is supposed to be 'No comment.' But if you know it's wrong, why are you saying no comment? If that makes me outspoken or whatever, it is what it is. I can easily be a robot like everybody else."

But then there is that other side. Porter returns to Bakersfield during time off as much as possible, and much of his time here is spent with his charities. Every June brings a golf-tournament fundraiser and the Joey Porter Boot Camp, a youth football camp at Foothill that Porter runs with help from current and past teammates; this year's camp instructors included all-pros Larry Fitzgerald and Troy Polamalu.

"It's a chance for us to give back and (for kids) to come out here and play and have fun with NFL players," Porter said. "The type of experience they have is what a kid lives for."

But Porter's charitable outreach goes well beyond that. His fundraisers raise money for Foothill football, but also for the Bakersfield Association for Retarded Citizens and for his family's own project, a day care Christy opened for special-needs children like Jasmine, who was born autistic.

"We don't charge a crazy fee," Porter said. "We make it feasible for anybody to come over there and enroll your kid. ... There's nowhere for you to take them, because the regular day care don't want to deal with them. It's a hands-on process the whole day, and we have a school that targets for that."

Porter also reaches out to friends, both old and new, who are in need. He paid for West High's Princeton McCarty to have knee surgery in 2005, shortly before McCarty embarked on a college career at Idaho. Another West grad, A.J. Jefferson, signed a rookie contract with the Cardinals this year and is staying with the Porters in Phoenix.

"I know a guy we went to high school with who went down the wrong path," Christy said. "He had done some time (in jail), made wrong decisions, but he had been out and on the road to recovery. He just couldn't find a job. I just asked Joey to give him a chance, and Joey found him a job. He's helped so many people like that."

And the list goes on. But so does the other list, the one that makes Porter fit his more public image.

He was arrested in March on suspicion of driving under the influence, battery on a peace officer and resisting arrest in a Taco Bell parking lot in northwest Bakersfield. The media jumped on the story, and Porter's critics jumped to the offensive -- especially in Miami, where Porter and the Dolphins, his former team, had just completed a messy separation.

A Miami Herald blog asked readers if they felt like "a loudmouth got his comeuppance for being something of a jerk to your team?" The Palm Beach Post remarked that "Porter is now someone else's problem."

But those who were quick to defend him -- Whisenhunt among them -- ultimately were justified. A Kern County district attorney dropped all charges four days after the incident, saying the evidence against Porter wasn't strong enough.

"For me, I know my husband," Christy Porter said. "We've been together 17 years, over half of my life. I wasn't at all distraught. I just know that he left home, and he went to Taco Bell. He wasn't drunk."

Porter blew a .07 on a breathalyzer test that has a margin of error of plus or minus .02; the legal limit is .08. His attorney, Daniel Rodriguez, also pointed out that the arresting officer actually unlawfully struck Porter and that the officer previously had a DUI himself.

The real damage, Porter said, was in the negative media coverage he received, both nationally and locally.

"I did nothing wrong," Porter said. "I was trying to order something from Taco Bell. That's why it was all erased in (four) days. And I didn't like the way I was portrayed. This is the first time I feel like my own hometown let me down a little bit because they kept with the story in a negative way. I've been holding football camps and stuff and doing so much positive stuff for Bakersfield, (and) I haven't got that much publicity for all of the stuff I did. Then I get so much bad publicity for something I didn't do. That's what hurt."

Porter said he forgives Bakersfield. It's home, after all, and home is where the comfort is.

"Everybody can make a mistake," Porter said. "I've made plenty of them."

Permenter, who has followed Porter's career from near and far, said he's also done plenty to make up for them.

"He creates controversy because sometimes he says stuff," Permenter said. "He has his own way of getting himself up for the games. But I think of the things people don't see: I've never seen him turn down an autograph request. He's done so many things for charities. He's done that boot camp. He's brought a lot back to our town."

Christy said her husband, when his career is over, has always talked of coming back to Bakersfield to coach high school football.

"For me, I said a few years ago, 'Let's go and live in San Diego,' or 'Let's live in San Francisco' or 'I wouldn't even mind moving to New York,'" Christy said. "I was OK with that, but because I was like, Bakersfield is home, but we can always come back and visit.

"But for him? It was never. There's no way he's leaving Bakersfield. I'm comfortable with being home. You don't have to show me where the grocery store and golf courses are. I'm OK living in Bakersfield."

And so Porter will continue to be Bakersfield's homebody superstar, one who speaks his mind, plays his game and incites opinions -- all before coming back to shower love on his home.

"I grew up here," he said. "I came from nothing, but I played football ... and I really felt like that was a way out for me and my family. And I stuck with it. And that brings me to where I'm at now. ... I'm always home, and I always give you a story. I'm always here."

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