- David Fleming, ESPN The Magazine
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Editor's note: This is an extended version of a story that appears in the Dec. 10 issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
My old-fashioned face-to-face conversation with the Lions' Ndamukong Suh started out with a classic 21st-century tech moment.
Just before Thanksgiving I flew up to Detroit to meet with Suh for what would be our third story since 2010, when the Lions drafted him No. 2 overall.
That first time, I rode with Suh in a massive stretch limo -- “You don’t have anything bigger?” a slightly embarrassed Suh joked with the driver -- to his first official autograph signing in Detroit, where his intimidating physical presence, intellect and no-nonsense approach made him seem destined to take his place next to Steve Yzerman, Barry Sanders and Joe Dumars among the pantheon of Motor City greats.
(This was, of course, before Suh’s infamous stomp of the Packers' Evan Dietrich-Smith last year, his numerous fines, traffic troubles and what some have said is a significant drop-off from his Pro Bowl play as a rookie.)
Still, after arriving at the swanky Townsend Hotel in Birmingham, Mich., I wasn’t too worried about somehow not connecting with Suh for a Q&A that ran in ESPN The Magazine’s Interview Issue.
We’ve got history, as I said, and, well, at 307 pounds in a lobby full of antique furniture, Suh’s not exactly hard to miss.
Just in case, though, Ngum Suh, Ndamukong’s sister and assistant, called my phone to make sure everything was still on schedule. I answered it just as I collided with a young woman in metallic UGG boots standing near a large fireplace at the center of the hotel’s lobby.
Of course, the call and the collision involved the same person.
After a quick chuckle, the three of us moved into a side room, closer to the elevators and under a giant chandelier that, later, Suh bumped with his head when he stood up to stretch his legs.
We talked for more than an hour as members of the Oklahoma City Thunder strolled past on their way to the Palace to play the Pistons that evening.
Suh was heading to the game, and on the tape of our interview you can hear him argue with his sister about wanting to wear his comfy gray sweats to the arena. She won that debate pretty quickly.
I’ll say this: Suh was attentive, talkative and easygoing during the entire interview, even when the questions turned to his traffic incidents and his growing rep as a dirty player. In fact, the only time he even looked away was to say hello to Thunder assistant coach Mo Cheeks, whom, I’m pretty sure, he called Mr. Cheeks.
At the end of our conversation, I came to the following two conclusions about Suh:
1. The rest of the world may eventually go hoarse debating his "issues," but like all great athletes Suh spends no time or energy on things he can’t control, like worrying what people think of him; and
2. Short of Michael Vick, I’m not sure there’s a player who privately comes across so differently from his public perception.
Anyway, read the outtakes from our interview that didn’t make it into The Magazine piece and decide for yourself.
Yesterday, Suh was fined $30,000 for an incident on Thanksgiving when his foot hit Texans QB Matt Schaub in the groin (something Suh says was inadvertent).
That’s why I think this exchange is especially telling. Several times Suh referred back to the idea that because of his issues in the past he needed to understand that his every move would be under heavy scrutiny.
It seems odd (but not entirely impossible) that someone this aware of how he was being scrutinized would just a few days later intentionally kick a QB in the groin. In a way, the NFL agreed, saying it was impossible to determine intent.
“I have a greater awareness now of how people look at you now," Suh said in the hotel.
"This past week in Minnesota I was messing with one of my old teammates who plays for the Vikings now -- Jerome Felton, the fullback. There was a little scrum on the field, people fighting for the ball and I was messing with him because there was no way he could have gotten to the ball.
"But since that incident on Thanksgiving [the 2011 stomp against Green Bay], there’s a million cameras on me so I have to be aware and understand that anything and everything I do is being heavily watched, because I came back to the facility today and someone in our organization came up to me and asked, ‘Did Felton know that was you?’ The reason why is there’s a million cameras on me and it could be taken the wrong way.”
Suh was adamant that he’s a dominant player, not a dirty one.
An opinion, I might add, that’s shared by a wide range of NFL folks, from Jim Brown to Mean Joe Greene, Jay Cutler, Colts coach Bruce Arians and Cam Newton, to name a few.
But not Schaub.
Definitely not Schaub.
After the Thanksgiving incident, the Texans' QB stated that Suh wasn’t Houston Texan-worthy, whatever that means. I like and respect Schaub and have spoken to him many times but, immediately, his judgment of Suh reminded me of former Nebraska player and current Jets lineman Matt Slauson.
Last year, you’ll recall, Slauson told the New York Post that Suh was out of control and out to hurt people and end their careers. An interesting choice of words from Slauson who, this season, was fined $10,000 after his illegal peel-back block actually did end the season of Texans linebacker and defensive leader Brian Cushing.
The truth is, though, Schaub’s judgment on Suh was every bit as hypocritical, if not more, when you stop to consider the Texans' frequent use of the cut block, the dirtiest legal play in football that Hall of Famer Bruce Smith told me is “the cheapest, most cowardly play in the game.”
Texans fans freaked a bit when I dared to ask if cut blocking was actually dirtier than nut kicking. I’m not sure it’s even close.
While the NFL couldn’t determine if Suh intended to hit Schaub in the groin, there’s no question that Houston’s cut blocking intentionally targets an opponent’s knees, often times when they are defenseless.
How much do players despise this block? In a recent survey by The Mag, 81% of players said they’d rather absorb a monster hit to their head than their knees.
The Texans' trademark -- “They cut more than anyone in the league,” says former NFL lineman Ross Tucker, now an analyst with ESPN.com and NBC -- is so dangerous and dirty that legendary line coach Joe Bugel told the Houston Chronicle he refused to teach it because the technique lacked integrity.
My point, which I tweeted a few days ago, is this: Without defending Suh, it’s still safe to say that any team that cut blocks as much as the Texans do probably shouldn’t be passing judgment on the dirty play and character of anyone, even Suh.
Okay, mini-rant over.
Now back to the outtakes:
During our talk, Suh responded passionately to critics who just go by stats without understanding the role of a defensive tackle, which often times requires the taking on of double-teams in order to free up teammates.
“It doesn’t always have to do with stats, but to the outside world that’s what you are always gonna be graded on. Any other regular defensive tackle who has 4½ sacks and 30-some-odd tackles, they’re in the Pro Bowl. And there was a guy who went to the Pro Bowl over me who had similar stats to that last year and a little bit less.
"It’s like last week against Minnesota: I was only registered as having one tackle. You can even take that tackle away and I still had a tremendous impact on the game. People in the outside world, people who don’t really understand the position, you just have to take it with a grain of salt when they say things like ‘Suh didn’t have any tackles!’ You just gotta roll with the punches on that one. It’s tough for me, it’s tough to swallow.
“Because I’ve yet to meet a reporter or someone else who wants to talk and say bad things, come sit with me in my defensive line room and let me show them the film. Somebody who has the balls, the knowledge and the respect to come sit down with me or our D-line coach or Gunther [Cunningham] or [Jim] Schwartz and digest the film like any true professional athlete does when doing their homework. You do that, and you still have that opinion of me, then OK, you can have that opinion. People won’t do it. But it’s not an issue for me. I just got done watching two-and-a-half hours of film.”
One of the best reactions I got out of Suh was after I asked him about his mom, who once told me: “Ndamukong’s an introvert, he doesn’t share a lot, he’s quiet, reserved, and you have to dig deep to find out what’s going on with him. Sometimes, he even tells me, ‘Mom, you ask too many questions.'”
“Guys who play D-line and offensive line, they understand the way I play and they respect it. It’s just not in my caring self to care if anyone else does or doesn’t. I have had a lot of people tell me, ‘You’re a very difficult person to understand outside of football.’ They say, ‘You don’t let anyone close enough and you are very complex the way you think and look at things.’
"There’s no question that statement from my mom is accurate. If I want to share something with you, I’ll share it with you, but don’t try to pull anything out of me because that’s when you’ll get the opposite effect. I don’t openly rebel. I quietly rebel. My mom is one of the few people who knows how to maneuver around my personality to get the answers she wants. But for everyone else, that’s just the way I am. You’re gonna have to either take it or leave it.”
Here’s Suh on what was, at the time, his most recent traffic accident:
“I don’t feel obligated to explain. Do your homework. Just look at the most recent incident that was a sabotage to my character, the accident here on M59. Go back and look at the facts. I was first to call 911. I told police exactly where I was going. I said exactly what was happening. My taillight was broken. Now, I don’t know how you sideswipe somebody and break your own taillight but people are gonna make those stories and and say whatever they want.
"The funny thing is nobody knows that when that story was amended it was a blurb for two seconds. Two to three reporters came up to me the next day and apologized. The 15 others didn’t say anything because they got their story and they were the first ones to get it and that’s what they want. It is what it is. In my heart of hearts I know I didn’t do anything wrong and I reacted like any normal person would but if I wasn’t who I was there wouldn’t have even been a story.”
Last year ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com surveyed 20 Pro Football Hall of Famers on what current players could have excelled in any era of the game. Suh ranked 18th, receiving tons of praise from the likes of Brown, Mike Singletary and Larry Csonka.
But in this era of increased concern and potential litigation over player health and safety, just as Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita told me this summer, the line seems to be constantly moving on what is and isn’t dirty anymore in the NFL.
So I asked Suh if he felt it was hypocritical for fans to be entertained, and the NFL to make billions off the violence of football only to gasp in horror and condemnation when the play on the field crosses some imaginary and constantly moving line.
“It’s very hypocritical. The play that irks me the most and probably will for the rest of my career is the Jay Cutler hit [in 2010] when people said I threw a forearm shiver to the back of his neck. Slow the film down and you see it was on his name plate [on his jersey] and I get fined for it and so on and so forth -- and yet, if it’s such a terrible play, why would people be selling autographed pictures of it? Why would you be selling videos of it online? You are saying one thing but doing another. It’s a controversial thing. It makes a lot of noise and you can make a lot of publicity out of it, too.”
Near the end, I asked him if all this scrutiny made him want to leave Detroit.
“If I wanted to leave in 2.5 years, why would I invest myself so much in this city? There’s nothing to talk about. I’m telling you this, it will be very hard for me to leave this city and I will almost guarantee you that it won’t be because of me. I love playing here. I didn’t buy a house here so I can just be here for six months. No one with the mindset of leaving would do something like that.
“I’m a storyline. And that’s just another storyline. That’s ridiculous.”
It all is, really, when it comes to Suh.
The talent. The troubles. The judgement. The potential.