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ATLANTA – In the 2009 Big 12 championship game, Nebraska defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh recorded 4.5 sacks and 12 tackles, seven of them for a loss. It was about as dominant of a performance possible by an interior defensive lineman.
Even the most grizzled of NFL scouts drooled over Suh’s combination of speed, size, strength and propensity for backfield violence.
A few months later he entered the NFL as the No. 2 overall draft pick of the Detroit Lions (St. Louis took quarterback Sam Bradford first) and signed a five-year, $68 million contract.
Big things were expected. All-Pro things. Super Bowl things. Hall of Fame things. He was destined not just for greatness, but for history.
Some of them happened. Some.
Suh was always a heck of a player, a three-time All-Pro and someone offenses needed to attend to on every snap. Yet in Detroit he became best known for his dirty plays, quarterback stomps, and ensuing fines and suspensions. He was one of the best players on the team, but was an elusive leader.
In his five seasons with the Lions, they never won a playoff game. That isn’t all his fault. There is a long line of talented players who couldn’t make Detroit into a winner.
So Suh took off for Miami as a free agent, signing a monster six-year, $114 million deal. He was good in Miami too. Always productive, but rarely truly devastating. Either way, it didn’t matter. Another weak franchise, three more seasons, zero playoff victories, plenty more on-field drama and cheap-shot accusations.
And then Miami cut him. He wasn’t worth the money anymore.
At 31 years old it was fair to wonder if a guy who arrived with incredible fanfare and great promise would ever amount to much more than a checkered career. He made money. He played pretty well. He applied himself as an off-field businessman.
But that was it. He never played in a truly big game. He never made a sack that truly mattered. He was never a key figure in the league.
And with his talent, was that enough?
“You never think you are going to get cut being an elite athlete and playing at a high level,” Suh said. “I always had the goal to set the tone and I’m going to retire on my own terms, especially signing a long-term deal like that, but it is what it is.
“It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.”
Suh was speaking Monday at Super Bowl opening night as a member of the Los Angeles Rams, where he signed prior to the season and joined a potent defensive front led by Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers. The Rams face New England in Sunday’s Super Bowl here and finally, at last, Ndamukong Suh is on the biggest of football stages.
“It’s a moment to create legacies, not just individually but as a team,” he said.
He appreciates the long road he took to arrive.
“It’s a great deal and a great opportunity,” Suh continued. “Being at Nebraska and playing at such a high level and having great memories there. And then going to Detroit having a lot of highs and a lot of lows. And making it to Miami and having some great times there and some tough times there.”
Suh has always been known for being intelligent, which might be a shock to fans who know him mostly for stepping on Aaron Rodgers or choking Ryan Mallett. And there are plenty who know him for that. He drew plenty of boos when he was announced to the crowd at State Farm Arena.
On Monday he reminisced about missed chances and lessons learned in Detroit. “I loved every moment in Detroit, even some of the tough times,” Suh said. “It was some growing pains for me as well as my family.”
He swore he had no hard feelings about the Dolphins dumping him, even pledging his ongoing allegiance to team owner Stephen Ross, who he still seeks out as a business mentor. He wished it had worked out differently, but in the end the expectations of the contract proved to be too much.
“My evaluation was based on wins and losses, truly like a quarterback, which I respect, but at the end of the day, I can’t score points,” Suh said. “That’s not a shot at our [offensive coordinator] or our quarterback but that was part of the burden I had to take on my shoulders. And I embraced that and I will continue to embrace that because that’s the type of player I need to be.”
Indeed, despite playing the middle of the defensive line, he had too much ability to just blend in. Suh was supposed to carry teams forward. Maybe he did and the franchise was too great a burden.
All he knows is now he is here, not the star (Donald had 20.5 sacks to Suh’s 4.5) but not willing to call himself a role player. Suh is still capable of greatness. He can win this game for the Rams too.
And if he does, maybe it changes his image forever. Maybe it gives people a memory other than all the disciplinary incidents and mega-money contracts. Maybe.
“What do people get wrong about me?” Suh asks. “They think I am a villain on and off the field. I like to impose my will. I like to be a dominant force when I am between the lines but that is not who I am 24/7/365. Don’t just take my play as who I am as a human being.”
That’s a tall order. A few playoff wins next to Donald don’t change all those seasons prior. At least the opportunity is here though. At least Ndamukong Suh is in the biggest of games, at the Super Bowl where everyone long ago expected he would be.
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