ATLANTA — Ndamukong Suh is an extremely competitive introvert, and people like that tend to confuse us. Suh has been confusing people since he was a rookie. He seeks the spotlight but is uncomfortable in it. He can be a mediocre teammate by most traditional standards but also a player you definitely want on your team. He can be fundamentally self-involved but desperate to win.
This week, as his Los Angeles Rams prepare for the Super Bowl, Suh is a player at both a peak and a crossroads. He is on the stage he has always craved but, at least in public perception, stuck in a supporting role.
Suh is not even the best defensive tackle on his own team. Aaron Donald is. But precisely because of Donald, Suh may be the most important defensive player in the game. The Patriots’ Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will likely try to scheme their way to neutralizing Donald. That could free Suh to provide one of the NFL’s most desired and elusive strategic advantages: pressure up the middle on Tom Brady.
This may be Ndamukong Suh’s moment, after years of driving toward … well, some mix of greatness and stardom, something special but undefined. All he wanted was the most he could possibly have: fame, money, whatever felt like success.
Suh brought a red water bottle with his SUH logo on it to his Thursday media availability, a nod to the brand he has worked so hard to create. He arrived in Detroit in 2010 as the No. 2 pick in the draft, trying to obliterate everybody in sight until he conquered the world. As he said this week, he did not want to play offense in high school because keeping people at bay seemed “boring” to him. He wanted to destroy.
As a rookie, Suh was so focused that he could walk past teammates in the hallway and seem not to realize he was there. One teammate asked a young Suh for an autograph and Suh tried to charge him for it. Another teammate who played an entire season with Suh said, “I don’t think he said a single word to me. I’m not exaggerating.”
The teammate did not take offense. You have to understand: Suh was totally consumed by being Suh, but being Suh was good for the team. He eventually tried to be a leader, in his own way. But he is not wired to have empathy and a personal connection with 52 teammates on a daily basis. That just isn’t who he is. As Suh has grown older, he has developed bonds with position coaches, strength coaches and teammates along the defensive line. But most people outside that circle are beyond his emotional reach.
I asked him this week what he has learned about being a teammate since he got to the league, and he said “Just be who you are. Everybody respects everybody as themselves, instead of trying to be somebody else.”
Is that easier for him now, at 32, than it was when he was a rookie?
“I think it’s always been easy for me,” he said. “I think people have different opinions or perceptions that they have to get over, as opposed to me having changed.”
This is the Suh line on everything: I didn’t change. You just see me differently now. This is the introvert talking. He is not going to tell a long story about his personal growth, and he is too stubborn to cop to mistakes. It’s understandable but unfortunate. He is a more sympathetic character in a more honest telling of his story.
For a while, before Ray Rice and Colin Kaepernick and Antonio Brown, Suh was the most controversial player in the sport. In his first five years he was fined eight times and suspended twice for violating player-safety rules. The second suspension was overturned. The first, though, was telling.
Suh stomped on the Packers’ Evan Dietrich-Smith. Everybody saw it. But Suh refused to admit he stomped on Dietrich-Smith or had done anything wrong. He created his own reality, where he was not an overly aggressive superstar, but the oppressed party. People were picking on him.
And yet: he did not miss practices, rarely took a play off, and was not much of a concern off the field. The Rams have gotten exactly the player they should have expected when they picked him up last winter. Suh works as hard as anybody and always has. Unlike many defensive tackles, he takes exceptional care of his body. (In eight seasons, he has never missed a game due to injury.) Suh is not the player he was at his peak, when he was selected as a first-team All-Pro three times and the second team twice. But he is still a force.
A Super Bowl win is the highlight of most careers, and one hopes Suh would consider it the highlight of his. Suh has tried to be a franchise player, get a record-breaking contract and win a Super Bowl. When you set out to accomplish everything, what qualifies as enough?
This season he took not-so-subtle digs at his old Lions teammate, Matthew Stafford, by calling Jared Goff the best quarterback he’s ever had, and mentioning Jay Cutler (Jay Cutler!) as the other quarterback he enjoyed the most. Stafford responded with “classic Suh.”
There was no good reason for a player on a Super Bowl contender to take a shot at a quarterback he hasn’t played with in four years. But this was also telling. The Detroit days shape him, not just because he played his best, but because that was when his career was filled with possibility.
Stafford played the glamour position and got along with everybody. Receiver Calvin Johnson was naturally easygoing and beloved in and out of the Lions’ facility. Suh was not close to either, and may have been a bit jealous of both—especially since he was arguably better at his job than even Johnson was at his.
Suh decided he wanted a record-breaking contract, and he got one after the 2014 season from the Miami Dolphins. But he lost something, too. In Detroit, Suh was a star. In Miami, he was just a guy making a lot of money for a mediocre team without a quarterback. Suh likes to talk about his friendship with Warren Buffett, which dates back to Suh’s Nebraska days, and his interest in business is real. Of course he wanted the money. But that wasn’t all he wanted.
Now Suh will play in a Super Bowl, which the Lions have never done. Beating Brady and the Patriots would help redefine his career, and it may be the difference in his Hall of Fame case someday. People who know him well would say he probably thinks about that kind of thing more than most great players do. Suh’s case will likely hinge on what he does in the next five years.
Suh has been one of the best players in these playoffs, a complete defensive tackle playing the best football he has all year. He has grown and softened, but he has never wavered. If he wins the Super Bowl, some people who know him will be thrilled for him. Others can’t quite get there. But everybody will have to admit: he earned it.