Outland Trophy history: Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska, 2009 recipient 1

This is the fourth in a series of stories on Outland Trophy winners from 2006-2020.  From 1946-2005, the first 60 Outland Trophy winners were profiled in the book 60 Years of the Outland Trophy by Gene Duffey. In celebration of the Outland Trophy’s 75th Anniversary we are catching up with the last 15 recipients.

(Nebraska Defensive Tackle Ndamukong Suh was the third player to win both the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Best Defensive Player) and the Outland Trophy during the same season. After being named unanimous All-American in 2009, he was drafted No. 2 overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2010 NFL Draft. A five-time Pro Bowler, he has played for the Lions, Miami, Los Angeles Rams and now Tampa Bay. He has played in two Super Bowls, one with the Rams and this past February for the Buccaneers in their victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.)    

Ndamukong Suh did not play football as a freshman in high school. His mother wouldn’t allow it. She wanted him to emphasize academics over athletics. Bernadette was a teacher in the public schools in Portland, Oregon.

When Ndamukong earned a 3.0 GPA his freshman year at Grant High, Bernadette relented. “I had to prove I could handle my school work first,” said Suh. That was the day a defensive tackle was born.

Suh had attempted to play soccer before football. When he was 12, an opposing coach took his team off the field in protest after four of his players were knocked down by the oversized young boy. Suh was already frustrated with the sport, confused why he was whistled for yellow and red cards when any contact occurred. He figured that football was better suited to his athletic abilities.  

There was an incident in eighth grade that hurt Suh’s reputation. He became involved in a physical altercation with a male teacher. Suh was suspended from school for the final month and a half. The school made “a huge deal out of it,” he said.

“I was by no means wrong,” Suh told Jason Quick of The Oregonian. Suh didn’t realize his own strength. But the incident did give him a new outlook entering high school.

“That kind of opened my eyes to the real world,” he said to Quick. “I realized I just needed to get my act right and get focused, pay attention to things that were in front of me. I had always dreamed of going to college, and saw my sister (Ngum) getting good grades and I decided I was going to follow her. I was going to stop being a hard-headed boy.”

Besides his size and strength, Suh was different from most kids. In the summers he often went to work with his father Michael, an engineer.

“I was a weird kid,” he said. “I didn’t want to go to the park, I wanted to go to work with him.”

Ndamukong Suh

Ndamukong played with model cars and Legos growing up.

Michael, from Cameroon, had played semi-pro soccer. Bernadette, who was from Jamaica, had played cricket and run track. They named their son Ndamukong, which means House of Spears in the Cameroon language of Ngemba. The parents divorced when Ndamukong was only 2.

Suh found his sport, and his future, in football. He made Oregon’s all-state team as a senior. Many of the major colleges were after him.

But the other side of Suh began surfacing on the field. In the final game of his high school career, Suh was ejected for punching an opponent. He said the opposing center and guard were double teaming him, using an illegal block that could have injured his knees. Suh warned the opponents. They did it again. Suh hit one of them. He was ejected from the game.

Suh did not handle the ejection well. When he reached the sideline, he threw his helmet against a concrete wall. A female fan connected with the other team, leaned over the railing and taunted Suh.

“My parents did a good job telling me not to pay attention to the things people were saying,” he said. “They told me to by myself.”

Suh had developed into a versatile athlete. He played basketball, earning honorable mention on Portland’s Public School League all-star team, and competed in track, winning the state championship in the shot put.

Tragedy struck close to Suh during his senior season of basketball. Eddie Barnett, a 5-8 junior guard and teammate of Suh’s, nicknamed “Little Eddie,” collapsed during a game at Madison High School. He died later at Providence Portland Medical Center. Barnett had also been a teammate of Suh’s on the football team.

Suh had grown to 6-4 and 278 pounds by his senior year. He played on the offensive line as well, but colleges viewed him as a natural at defensive tackle. Rivals.com rated him the sixth best defensive tackle recruit in the country.

He made visits to nearby Oregon State as well as California, Miami, Mississippi State and Nebraska.

Suh’s older sister went to Mississippi State, where she played soccer. John Blake, the former Oklahoma coach, was an assistant in Starkville at the time. He had coached Ngum’s boyfriend.

“Through my sister he heard about me and when (Blake) moved to Nebraska, he continued to recruit me,” said Suh. “It ended up coming down to Cal or Nebraska.”

Suh played in the U.S. Army All-American Game for high school seniors in San Antonio. 

“There were about six other guys already committed to Nebraska,” said Suh. “They saw Nebraska was high on my list. They wanted me to commit right there. I wanted to wait until the last minute. I wanted to make sure I covered all the ground to make the best decision.

“The best part (of recruiting) was all the dinners and food. I had games Friday night and I would catch a redeye flight to whatever school I was going to that weekend.”

Nebraska offered a program in architectural engineering. Suh had been interested in engineering since going to work with his father as a kid.

“My Dad probably doesn’t know it, but he was my idol,” Suh said several years later on Mike & Mike in the Morning. “I was following in his footsteps. I didn’t want to be perceived like that college football player (who takes) an easy major.”

Suh played in two games as a true freshman in Lincoln, then suffered a knee injury that ended his season.

“I wish I had known the game was going to be a lot faster (than high school),” he said. “It would have been easier to adjust. But that’s part of going from high school football to college.”

He became a starter as a sophomore, but Coach Bill Callahan was fired after a 5-7 record that fall. Enter Bo Pelini, the defensive coordinator at LSU. Pelini saw he had a special talent in Suh that first spring of 2008.

“He had a lot of potential at that point, but he had a lot of work to do,” said Pelini. “He was so talented and had so much potential. He needed better footwork. He committed himself. He really became a student of the game. He put a lot of work in. It was not necessarily anything (I did). We got him moving in the right direction. But he was always a driven guy.”

The results didn’t show up until that fall.

Suh missed Pelini’s first spring with a knee injury that required surgery. “He was able to sit back and watch what the coaches were teaching, new techniques,” Pelini said. “It was remarkable how fast he came back.”

Suh became a force his junior year, being named to the All-Big 12 team. He also helped Pelini turn the Cornhuskers back into winners, going 9-4 including a win over Clemson in the Gator Bowl.

By his senior year, Suh couldn’t be blocked. He was a one-man defensive highlight film in a come-from-behind 27-12 victory against ranked Missouri in the rain.

Jared Crick played next to Suh on the defensive line.

“Toward the beginning of the season he got a lot of double teams,” said Crick. “Once I started coming around and making plays, I started seeing a lot of double teams near the end of the year. It was kind of 50-50. You double team him, I’m going to hurt you. You try to double me, he’s obviously going to hurt you.”

Nebraska went 9-3 in the regular season, winning the Big 12 North. The Cornhuskers squared off against undefeated and No. 3 Texas in the conference championship game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.

Suh played one of the best games ever for a college defensive lineman that night. He made 12 tackles, including 4 ½ sacks of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy. Nebraska appeared to win the game when it forced McCoy to throw the ball away as time ran out. But the officials put one second back on the clock, allowing Texas to kick a field goal for a 13-12 victory.

“It was very tough,” Suh said of the loss. “It’s still tough. I hope I don’t have to ever go through it again.”

More people probably remember Suh’s performance than Texas winning the game.

“For that game Texas didn’t change their offense at all,” Suh told Mike & Mike. “They felt they could run and do anything they wanted to do and didn’t have to put in any tweaks into their offense like most teams did with the great defensive line we had. We knew everything they were going to do. So it was easy for me to get where I needed to be. We had a blast.”

“He let it all hang out that game,” Crick said of Suh. “The one thing that surprised me with Suh was his strength. Obviously, he worked hard in the weight room. He could hold off teams with one arm. Some of the stuff he did was pretty unbelievable.” 

Suh’s statistics his senior year were unreal. He made 85 tackles, including 12 sacks and 24 tackles for loss. He was credited with 26 quarterback hurries and blocked three kicks. He even intercepted a pass.

Suh was invited to New York City for the Heisman Trophy announcement, the first defensive tackle there since Miami’s Warren Sapp in 1994. Alabama’s Mark Ingram won the Heisman. Suh finished fourth, one notch below Texas’ McCoy.

Suh ended his college career by helping Nebraska shut out Arizona, 33-0, in a bowl game.

“Did I know he would get that good? No,” said Pelini. “(The Texas game) was one of the all-timers. At times it looked so effortless, he was so powerful. People don’t realize how gifted an athlete he is. He’s a very intelligent, very grounded guy. He never got big headed.”

“I never fathomed this,” said Suh. “I always thought I was a good player and knew I could work at my position. I’ve always had the work ethic.” 

Pelini had coached another Outland Trophy winner at LSU when defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey won in 2007.

“They had that drive to be the best, that inner feel that all the great ones have,” Pelini said of Suh and Dorsey.

Pelini and Suh became a perfect team.

“When Coach Bo came in, the scheme fit (Suh’s) strengths the best,” said Crick, who went on to play for the Houston Texans. “We wanted to be the most athletic interior linemen in the nation and we approached workouts every day with that mind, show off our running skills. Suhie’s a freak athlete, so that really showcased him. We had a great defensive line.”

The Detroit Lions took Suh with the second pick overall in the 2010 draft. He signed a contract that guaranteed him $31 million.

Suh didn’t forget where he came from.

He announced that he would donate $2.6 million to Nebraska with $2 million going for the strength program and $600,000 to the college of engineering where he had earned his degree. He requested that students from his other alma mater, Grant High School in Portland, be given first preference for a scholarship.

Suh became a contradictory character in Detroit when he earned the reputation as the dirtiest player in the NFL, being suspended and fined for stomping on opposing players.

“He was kind of quiet, kept to himself,” Crick said of their Nebraska days. “That’s how I was. Come in, do my job and make friends later. He had his priorities in order. Once he’s comfortable around you, he opens up. We became great friends. He’s got a good soul. He’d do anything for you.”

Suh developed into an extremely smart athlete with a hair trigger temper. He was fined repeatedly in the NFL, mostly for dirty hits on opposing quarterbacks. “This is a guy who plays by his own rules,” said Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press.

When he returns to Lincoln, Suh keeps to himself—much as he did as a player.

“He didn’t really do too much talking (during the games),” said Crick. “He didn’t need to. He did his work with his hands and his play. I can’t tell you the amount of times guys would come at him, take jabs at him. He took them in stride.”

“I love being different,” he told The Oregonian’s Quick in 2011. “I love people saying that I’m not like other people. It’s a compliment to me. I think I’m different, but in a good way.”

One comment

  1. The press always wants to talk about the dirty plays, but no one wants to talk about what led up to those hits. How about doing some fact checks. How many times were his shoes untied, and how many times was he jabbed or racked in a pile up, How many times was he chopped blocked? How many weren’t called? How many slurs did he get put up? What verbal abuse was thrown at him during normal games.

    There was always a reason why Suh lashed out, and it was rarely without cause.

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