Commentary

There's no stopping the Suh express

Nebraska DT is totally focused on reaching his destination: NFL success

Updated: March 24, 2010, 3:05 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh of NebraskaMarc Piscotty/Icon SMINdamukong Suh (93) became the fourth Nebraska lineman to win the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Awards in the same season, and was the first defensive tackle invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremonies in 15 years. He finished fourth in the Heisman voting.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- There would always be people who didn't understand him. The parents who would gasp when he rumbled down the field, so much bigger than the other boys that inevitably somebody, every season, would demand to see a birth certificate. The teammates who would laugh and joke during practice while Ndamukong Suh seethed because -- didn't they know? -- tomfoolery takes away precious minutes of preparation.

The poking and probing is over; the NFL draft is in mere weeks; and Suh, a freight train of a defensive tackle from Nebraska, is expected to hear his name called first or second. This is the time when a young man of such stature exhales, waits for decisions now out of his control, buys a Bentley and splashes his mug on magazine covers. Suh will have none of that.

He walks briskly out of the Hawks Championship Center after a pro day at the University of Nebraska that is closed to the media, and slips by a distracted gaggle of reporters waiting in a hallway. He moves so fast that a documentary crew hustles to keep up and smacks a boom microphone against the top of the door. Suh doesn't care. He isn't stopping.

"A lot of people would take him as standoffish," Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini says. "I don't think he is.

"He's a very cerebral guy. I can't explain it. … I can't climb into his head. I do know he is very goal-oriented; he has his ideas of where he wants his life to go. And he's totally focused on getting there."

No excuses for failure

It should be noted that one of Suh's biggest confidants, the person he calls or texts every day, never played football. Ngum Suh was born nearly four years before her little brother, and she lives in their hometown of Portland, Ore., coaching girls' soccer and working part time as a sports-clothing model.

She is so close to her brother that she plans to move to whatever NFL city he lands in. She is one of a handful of people Suh momentarily stops and slows down for these days.

Before Ndamukong (pronounced En-DOM-ah-ken) was a big football star, he was somewhat of a pesky tagalong, a frustrated young boy who got picked on because of his size. Some of the kids wondered -- aloud -- whether he had been held back a year in school. Others stood in awe the day he tried to help an injured teammate in a soccer game by lifting the kid off the ground, one-handed, by the shorts.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong and Ngum Suh
Courtesy of Suh familyNdamukong and older sister Ngum were close growing up, and she remains one of his biggest confidants -- he calls or texts her every day.

Yeah, Suh was huge on the field, but he held his own in the classroom, too. His mom, Bernadette, a schoolteacher, wouldn't let him play football unless he carried a 3.0 grade-point average. She knew how far the family had come. Bernadette was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica; her ex-husband Michael was from Cameroon.

If Michael Suh could pull himself out of a meager life in Cameroon, become a mechanical engineer and start his own business, then Ngum and Ndamukong had no excuses to fail in a middle-class neighborhood in Portland.

"We didn't grow up with a lot of people who were like us," Ngum says.

"So we spent a lot of time together. We related to each other."

They stayed close even when Suh got to high school and the kids gravitated to him. It wasn't every day that somebody from Grant High -- from the state of Oregon, even -- had so many college coaches courting him. It wasn't every day that a 6-foot-4, 280-pound teen could be found taking advanced-placement classes and excelling in them.

Suh played offense and defense in high school, won a state championship in the shot put and was considered somewhat of a goofy cut-up around his friends. Everyone at the 1,500-student school knew Ndamukong, who was named after a great-grandfather who stood 7-3.

"He was your typical teenage kid," says Grant football coach Diallo Lewis.

"His parents did a great job instilling some core values in him that I think have come to the surface. You see so many young people today allow their success to get in the way of who they are as a person. He has a great sense of humility."

'A very hungry time'

Success pulled the family in different directions. Ngum headed off to Mississippi State to play soccer and eventually landed a spot on the Cameroon national team. Ndamukong bypassed Oregon and Oregon State for the wide-open plains of Nebraska. For the first couple of years, the move appeared to be a big mistake. The Cornhuskers had an offense-minded coach in Bill Callahan, and their defense was abysmal.

Sometime after the end of the 2007 season, after Nebraska took a 65-51 walloping at Colorado, Suh pondered transferring. Then defensive guru Bo Pelini was hired as head coach, and Suh knew he had to stay.

"It was a very hungry time for him," Carl Pelini says of Suh.

But it was also a rather anonymous time. Suh was bottled up under Nebraska's old read-and-react defense, and had 34 tackles -- six for a loss -- as a sophomore. In his first season with the Pelini brothers' attack-and-smother approach in 2008, Suh had 7½ sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He became the first Nebraska lineman to lead the team in tackles in 35 years, with 76 stops.

He did it despite sitting out of spring practice with a knee injury. But the Pelinis saw it, even then, how good Suh could be. Most injured players drift off to the background, ride a stationary bike, watch the drills from a distance.

"He was at my shoulder," Carl Pelini says, "and you could see the wheels churning in his head. He was determined not to fall behind.

"I'll tell you this much … . You knew he had unique ability. He was one of the strongest guys I've ever seen on the field. He has great explosion, and despite all that, he moves like a basketball player. He's really smooth."

The 6-4, 307-pounder did so well that the entire state held its collective breath that winter, when there were rumblings that Suh might turn pro. The Pelinis never really believed that would happen -- Suh was smarter than that, Bo thought -- but the coach nonetheless made a trip to Portland to talk with the big fella and his family. Suh told the coach that he was staying, that there still was a lot to learn and games to be won.

What happened next surprised even the Pelinis. Suh was always locked in and focused. But now it was as if football -- and preparing for the NFL -- was a full-time job with 30 hours overtime. He would meet with Carl Pelini once a week, for at least an hour, and talk about every defensive position on the field. Suh wanted to understand how everything worked, how everything affected the entire scheme.

Pelini talked about his being the face of the program in 2009, though Pelini didn't really know what it meant at the time. By October, when Suh was chasing Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert in a driving rainstorm in Columbia, it was clear. On the same field where Nebraska had been humiliated two years earlier in a 41-6 loss, the Cornhuskers rallied for a 27-12 victory. And Suh was everywhere.

"You see the kind of effort he makes," Nebraska safety Matt O'Hanlon says, "[and] you kind of want to emulate the stuff he does on film and during games. That pushes us to want to do better, too."

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh & Colt McCoy
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireSuh nearly carried the Cornhuskers to an upset win in the Big 12 championship game, sacking Texas QB Colt McCoy 4½ times.

Almost any time Nebraska went on the road, inevitably, the SUUUUUUHHHH chants drifted through the crowd. They got louder on Dec. 5 in Dallas at the Big 12 championship game, when Suh sacked Heisman Trophy candidate Colt McCoy 4½ times and had 10 solo tackles.

It was the best game of his career, and it nearly carried the Cornhuskers to an upset victory (Texas won 13-12 on a last-second field goal). But in the days and weeks after that game, Carl Pelini says, Suh kept asking himself whether he could've done more to help his team win.

"He's never satisfied," Pelini says.

"I mean, he probably took the loss as hard as anyone on the team."

'Always fighting'

Tom Castilaw, a polite young man who says "ma'am" and plays center for Arkansas State, says it's quiet when you go up against Ndamukong Suh. Oh, it's loud when he hits your quarterback and drives him to the ground. But when Suh makes a play or dominates a lineman, there is no bragging or smack.

"I'd probably compare him to a train, going full speed," Castilaw says. "At the same time, he's got a good finesse, good, technical footwork."

It's a mental check, Castilaw says, a toughness check, when Suh is bearing down. He can make a guy talk to himself, try to persuade himself not to get discouraged. You double-team him. He beats you anyway.

"The battle is not just hitting a big football player," Castilaw says, "because you hit big football players all the time. He's never quitting. There's never a time when he's just stopping. He's always fighting."

No time to rest

Suh is not the least bit nervous about the draft, his friends say. He'd like to go No. 1 -- who wouldn't? -- but isn't obsessed with it. Suh is not doing interviews now, a marketing representative for him says, but he might open up right before draft day.

The locals in Lincoln speculate that he has clammed up because he has grown tired of all the attention and is sick of having a microphone in his face. His buddies razz him about all the publicity. Linebacker Phillip Dillard is asked about the documentary team following Suh for the NFL Network, and Dillard deadpans, "They doing like the LeBron thing?"

Carl Pelini chuckles when he is asked how Suh is handling the pressure of the final weeks before the draft.

"You've been in Lincoln, right?" he says. "You understand it's the only game in town?

"I don't know what he's going through now, but I think the atmosphere surrounding Nebraska football and the media storm he put up with for the last year has really prepared him for what he's going through now. I think he wants to know where he's going. He wants to get to work."

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesSuh did every drill at the NFL scouting combine even though he's a lock to be one of the top picks in the draft.

By all accounts, Suh barely cracked a smile at the NFL combine earlier this month in Indianapolis. He leaped 35½ inches in the vertical jump, the highest number for a defensive tackle in 10 years. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 32 times and posted a 4.98 time in the 40-yard dash.

If he goes No. 1 overall, as some draftniks are projecting, he would be the first conference player to do so since the Big 12 was formed in 1994. How would Suh feel about that? Nobody really knows. He went home to Portland two weekends ago, and, in a rare move, took three days off from his intense pre-draft preparations.

He still worked out in the morning -- this is the guy who did every drill at the combine even though he's a lock to be called in the first few picks -- but he also made time to hang out, goof off and help coach his sister's soccer team.

Suh has been talking to various veterans in the league, and they tell him it's no time to rest. Suh doesn't just want to land a huge contract, Ngum says, he wants to make an impact. Maybe next year, he tells his family, there will be more time. Then again, with Suh, maybe not.

"You see a lot of guys his age, and I'm not saying this in a negative way, but they spend too much time basking in things they've been successful in," Ngum says. "A lot of kids get to this point, and they start goofing off, joking around, forgetting how hard they worked to get here.

"He says, 'Let me work on this. I can relax later.' Taking a break isn't an option for him right now."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.