After season spent doing dirty work, DT Suh tasting glory

Publish date:

In this collision of strong wills, Ndamukong Suh had no shot. On a September afternoon in 2001, Bernadette Suh looked up at her 14-year-old son (in ninth grade, young Ndamukong was already pushing 6-foot-3), and repeated what she'd been telling him all summer. She didn't care what promises the coaches at Portland Grant High had made to him about getting on the field right away. He wasn't playing football. His fierce first name notwithstanding -- Ndamukong (pronounced En-DOM-ah-ken) means "House of Spears" in the Ngema tribe of Cameroon -- her son was a gentle, sensitive boy, and football was just so ... violent.

"All that physical contact really bothered me," says Bernadette, a native Jamaican who teaches first grade. "I didn't feel young kids with growing bones should be colliding with each other like that." Even though she relented the following year, to the joy of her boy and his coaches, Bernadette admits that football "still scares me today." She allays those fears by "praying that he doesn't get hurt."

With all due respect, Bernadette, other players are in greater need of your prayers. Those, frankly, would be the ones who must take the field against your son, last seen laying waste to the Texas Longhorns offensive line as if it were a five-headed piñata and he a 6-4, 300-pound birthday boy. The fifth-year senior sacked Texas quarterback Colt McCoy 4.5 times. No team had sacked McCoy that many times in his four-year career. Suh had a dozen tackles in the game, seven for loss -- a Nebraska record -- and two for no gain. While he never managed to strip McCoy of the ball, Suh did relieve the Texan, in all probability, of the Heisman Trophy -- in the process making himself a frontrunner.

Having absorbed countless hard shots at the hands of the Huskers, McCoy did not appear to be thinking clearly on the game's penultimate play. With time running out and Texas needing to stop the clock to set up for the field goal -- the 'Horns trailed, 12-10 -- McCoy drifted casually toward the right sideline, seemingly heedless of the fact that the clock was under five seconds. Finally, he threw out of bounds. Even though the scoreboard showed no time left, the zebras correctly restored a second, allowing Lawrence Hunter to kick a 46-yarder that averted what would have been the most epic upset of the 2009 season.

Texas found itself in that position because Suh "was all over the place," Texas coach Mack Brown said afterward. "We just couldn't handle him."

No shame in that. A future NFL first-rounder whose ridiculous strength and off-the-charts quickness are complemented by a formidable football intellect, Suh emerged in '09 as that rarest of stars: a nose tackle capable of taking over a game -- kind of like a monster truck winning Motor Trend's car of the year award. It's not supposed to happen. But Suh, who once frightened the other seven-year-olds in his Pee Wee soccer league by shattering fiberglass goals with his heavy shot, has spent this season dashing preconceptions about what a defensive tackle is capable of doing. "He amazes me all the time," says Husker defensive coordinator Carl Pelini. "Every game, you're watching him play and asking yourself, Did I just see that?"

Yes, that was Suh intercepting Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert in a monsoon on October 8th. That pick, the fourth of Suh's career, set up the go-ahead touchdown in the Cornhusker's come from-behind, 27-12 victory. Big Suh, as he is known, had muffed another sure interception in the third quarter of that game, but was credited with a pass breakup. His 10 deflected passes this season were more than any lineman in the country. Suh led Nebraska in sacks (12), tackles (82), tackles for loss (23) and blocked kicks (three) -- all while playing a position whose job description might as well read: hold point of attack; occupy center and/or guard; take on double-teams and otherwise sacrifice yourself so that the linebackers are free to make all tackles and be nominated for all the meaningful postseason awards.

Until Suh, anyway. After collecting the Nagurski Trophy in Charlotte on Tuesday, he accepted the Lombardi on Wednesday in Houston, then the Bednarik and Outland awards on Thursday. Even if Suh doesn't win the Heisman -- he's the first defensive player to be named a finalist since Michigan corner Charles Woodson won it in 1997 -- he's likely to get slaughtered in excess baggage fees.

Suh does the dirty work, then puts up numbers unheard of for a guy whose title includes the word "nose." As Florida Atlantic center Ryan Wischnefski noted after his team's season-opening 49-3 loss in Lincoln, "He was still making tackles on our running backs 10 yards down the field. Tackles don't do that."

A four-star recruit out of Grant High, Suh was a member of then-Nebraska head coach Bill Callahan's much ballyhooed 2005 recruiting class, a cache of blue chips ranked fourth in the country by So it reflected poorly on both Callahan and the recruiting experts when Nebraska dropped 16 games over the next three seasons. By that time, Suh was frustrated and, it seemed, overrated: 300 pounds of unrealized potential. For him, the hiring of Bo Pelini -- architect of LSU's 2007 national championship defense -- is best described as Suh-rendipitous.


His name lends itself to puns, there is no question. Best not, however, to trot out the title of that old Johnny Cash hit. First of all, it's not exactly original. Secondly, it's inaccurate. He's not "A Boy Named Suh." Even when Suh was a boy, he was a boy in a man's body, and that created some problems.

Between his size and exotic lineage -- his mother immigrated from Jamaica; his father, Michael, from Cameroon -- Suh always stood out, even in the diverse section of northeast Portland where he grew up. He was picked on in middle school, and anger was occasionally an issue for him, allows Bernadette -- particularly when she and Michael separated. Around this time, according the The Husker Blog, Suh was mocked by another player during a youth basketball game. He body-slammed that boy "into the hardwood floor," leaving his antagonist suh-prised, no doubt. Asked to recount the incident, Bernadette demurs, saying, "I just want to dwell on the positive."

Plenty of that to go around. Ndamukong and his sister Ngum, older by four years, grew up in a household where discipline was required and education was revered. When Michael was growing up in a village in Cameroon, public schools were not free. It was not uncommon, he says, for families to go hungry in order to pay their children's school fees.

While Ndamukong's college suitors included everyone who was anyone, including USC, he was drawn to Nebraska for two primary reasons. He relished the thought of restoring a program to its previous greatness, and he liked the fact that Nebraska offered a major in construction management. After coming to America in 1981, Michael attended a trade school for mechanical contractors. He now owns Suh's Equipment, "specializing in all heating and cooling needs, for both residential and commercial applications." Having earned his degree, Ndamukong is scheduled to graduate on Saturday, but will miss that ceremony in order to attend the Heisman festivities in Manhattan. While his studies have prepared him to join the family business, that course of events may be delayed as Suh pursues a career focused less on construction than ... destruction.

Another high Suh priority: football. The other kind of football. Michael, a compactly built 5-8 forward, played semipro soccer in Europe before crossing the pond. It was the first sport either of his children played. Ngum, now a part-time model and personal trainer in the Portland area, earned a soccer scholarship to Mississippi State, and has played for the Cameroon national team.

The footwork Ndamukong displays on the gridiron was first honed on the soccer pitch. Michael remembers a game when his son was 11. Taking a corner kick, Ndamukong struck the ball with the laces of his shoe, as taught by his father, putting enough spin on it to bend the shot into the goal.

"He scored from every position," recalls Michael, who frowned upon his son's desire to play goalkeeper -- even though Ndamukong was, by all accounts, a terrific netminder. "You're wasting your time at keeper," his father would tut-tut. Nowadays, as Ndamukong snags interceptions or bats down balls at the line of scrimmage -- marshaling those old netminder's skills to do so -- it occurs to Michael that perhaps his son wasn't wasting his time at keeper after all.

Even as he emerged as a star at Grant High, Suh kept a low profile, preferring "to let my pads do the talking," he recalls. "He was quiet," says Diallo Lewis, a counselor at the school whose advice Suh valued, "but in an observing, taking-it-all-in way," rather than a sullen, brooding way.

It was Lewis who took Suh aside early in the 2004 season. Sensing a touch of complacency in the senior, Lewis "tried to get him to understand that it wasn't enough to be the best player on the team, or in the city, or even in the state of Oregon. It was all about getting him to realize his potential."


Fast forward to December, 2007. Suh's potential remained largely unrealized. The Cornhuskers were coming off a 5-7 season in which the defense yielded an obscene 467 yards per game. Callahan was replaced by Pelini, whose reputation as a defensive guru carried little water with the players. All they knew was, he'd never been a head coach, and he intended to install a completely new system.

After shooting gaps for the first three years of his college career, Suh's marching orders changed dramatically. There could be no more going around offensive linemen. Through them, yes. Around them, no, because that "opens up seams in the defense," says Carl Pelini, who emphasizes to the de-line that its most important job "is to keep [offensive linemen] from climbing through to the linebackers."

This wasn't great news for Suh, who'd had more freedom under Callahan to freelance and make plays. With the Pelinis assuring him that if he stayed within the scheme, "the game will come to you," Suh bought in. Around midseason a year ago, "the light came on for him," says Bo. The result: Suh is playing at "a higher level than he's ever been before" -- a higher level, by the end of the season, than any defensive player in the nation, and possibly any player.

Whether or not Suh ends up winning the Heisman, he has vindicated many times over the decision to return for his senior season. Projected as a mid- to high-first rounder last year, "he's done nothing but improve his stock," says NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. Suh has been pegged by a consensus of draft experts as a sure-fire top five selection; Mel Kiper projects him as the No. 1 pick. And while there was plenty of self-interest involved, that decision was based on loftier principles than the possibility of winning a trophy or two, and raking in an extra 10 mill or so in guaranteed money.

"In this family, the degree comes first," says Ngum, who played a huge role in helping her brother arrive at his decision. Also, Ndamukong longed to take care of unfinished business, "to get this program back to where it belongs." It was that desire, not the dough, that kept his motor running until the final snap against Texas, after which a vastly relieved Mack Brown looked for him in vain.

"I tried to find him after the game to wish him good luck in the NFL," the Texas coach explained, "because I don't want to see him again."