WITH EVERY STEP toward the end zone Chris Clemons ran farther from a past fraught with obstacles, with injury, with poverty and tragedy.

As Clemons chugged along, football cradled, a fumble recovered at his feet, a clinching touchdown 73 yards away - clinching a win, clinching a playoff spot - it was as if his past was dissolving around him.

He ran from that day more than a decade ago when his grandmother, Evelyn, "Grandmama" to the children of her 15 kids, was hit by a car walking home from her job in a cloth mill. Clemons was playing street football nearby. He heard the tires squeal.

He ran from nights spent cold and dark and hungry, the electricity cut off in his home in Griffin, Ga., no money coming in, his mother Mattie sometimes working two jobs.

He ran from being undrafted coming out of Georgia, wallowing in obscurity with Washington for four seasons. He ran from a 2003 torn labrum (all season), a 2004 hamstring pull (10 games) and a 2005 knee ligament tear that cost him the last two games of 2005 and all of 2006.

He ran from his first, awful Eagles training camp, when, in August, the team became exasperated with him after signing him to a 5-year, $12 million contract - his arrival deal. He went to the hospital, dehydrated. He fought through a calf injury. He was unprepared.

"The things I went through . . . " Clemons said, his hands in his pockets, his head lowered a little. "It took time."

It took until Sunday.

Clemons, finally, was part of the crystallization of Jim Johnson's 2008 defense that routed the Cowboys in the 44-6 win. It took Clemons half a season to get a chance, then another month to pay the dividends that led the Eagles to sign him.

Clemons' return less than 4 minutes into the third quarter made it 34-3. It took him 27 hard years to reach that end zone.

See, it wasn't just "Grandmama" getting hit by the car on Dec. 10, 1994. It was Grandmama lying in a coma for a month before meeting her reward. It was Grandmama's mama, Josie Andrews, dying of a heart attack a week after the accident, dying while her child lay dying, dying a week before Christmas Day, her daughter to follow on the ninth day of the New Year.

"It was harder for the young 'uns," Mattie said yesterday from her home, still in Griffin.

That's because the boys slept at their mother's place, a block away from Evelyn's, but they did their living at Grandmama's.

Mattie was an old 31, the sixth of Evelyn's 15 children, but she wasn't ready for her new life.

Not with 13-year-old Chris and 14-year-old Nic and no man to help raise these big, dangerous boys. Mattie moved into Evelyn's apartment and watched Nic drop out of high school and saw herself sinking, the waitress jobs not enough, the move up to the cotton mill not much better.

"My mom was like the ultimate mom," Mattie said. "That's when I really had to grow up. She was a safety net. She was our backbone. She had my back. Every time the lights went out, she always helped get 'em back on."

Now, Chris and Nic keep the lights on.

Nic got his GED. He followed Chris to Georgia, joined Chris as an undrafted success story with the Redskins in 2003. He was cut out of training camps in 2006 and 2007 and considered quitting the game but a switch from end to tackle this season with the Broncos seems to have given him new life in the league.

When Mattie got laid off in April, she found herself not worried about the electric bill but looking through course lists; the boys sent her to college.

"We've got a deal: They say if I keep my grades up, I don't have to worry about looking for a job," she said.

When she turned 45 in March, Chris gave her a new white 2008 Honda Accord.

She declined the BMW and Lexus and the new house, too. She's in the same apartment on Jackson Road that she moved into 10 years ago; she'll take a house, she says, when the boys are more settled, more successful.

To think: Fourteen years ago, death and poverty, a Christmas she says she literally cannot recall through the grief.

"That was kind of a Christmas lost. This has been one of the less worrisome years," she said.

So far, she said her biggest concern: "I thought he was going to pass out at the 10."

His teammates saw this coming, right?

"No, not really," said linemate Juqua Parker.

True, Clemons logged eight sacks as a 1-year free agent with the Raiders in 2007. He has four with the Birds - but two came Sunday, one of which forced a fumble later in the third quarter.

But, no, this did not seem inevitable.

Clemons was soundly outplayed by doomed bust Jerome McDougle in training camp.

There is no better way to find the back of the Eagles' doghouse than to be a slow-learning, out-of-shape first-timer in training camp. Head coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson take that sort of thing personally.

"It was my fault what happened in training camp," Clemons said. "I didn't come into camp in the shape I should have been in. Andy had to do what he had to do. Jim had to do what he had to do."

What Clemons had to do was wait. Finally, in midseason, desperate for more quarterback pressure, Johnson began to play ends only on passing downs.

That meant Clemons, suddenly, was on the field, either as the left end opposite Trent Cole or as the "joker" - a hybrid linebacker/end who usually rushes the passer from a standing position.

"That's what we have him here," said defenisve end Darren Howard. "I was glad he got to show his skill and his talent on this kind of stage."

Howard was part of that stage.

Brian Dawkins delayed his blitz, cut in behind Akeem Jordan, caught Tony Romo as Romo cocked to fire. Ball on the ground, right at Clemons' feet - a gift, at last.

And then the faithful at Lincoln Financial Field witnessed the remnants of the 4.43, 40-yard dash speed Clemons flashed as a junior at Georgia.

"I knew I couldn't outrun everybody," said Clemons, who caught a 57-yard bomb as a high school tight end, his previous longest scoring play. "I just waited for my blockers. Once you've got blockers, your 40 time doesn't matter."

As Howard noted, the blockers were little more than ornamental for Clemons. Tashard Choice still caught him. Clemons stiff-armed Choice, who dropped like a bad memory.

Asked if he watched himself rumble down the sideline on the scoreboard video screen, Clemons scoffed: "I wasn't looking for the JumboTron. I was looking for the goal line."

When there is so much in front of him, why look back? *