Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh has eyes on 2009 Heisman Trophy, NFL
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 Rivals.com. 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