Nebraska DT Suh rarest of stars (cont.)
While Ndamukong's college suitors included everyone who was anyone, including USC, he was drawn to Nebraska for two primary reasons. He relished the thought of restoring a program to its previous greatness, and he liked the fact that Nebraska offered a major in construction management. After coming to America in 1981, Michael attended a trade school for mechanical contractors. He now owns Suh's Equipment, "specializing in all heating and cooling needs, for both residential and commercial applications." Having earned his degree, Ndamukong is scheduled to graduate on Saturday, but will miss that ceremony in order to attend the Heisman festivities in Manhattan. While his studies have prepared him to join the family business, that course of events may be delayed as Suh pursues a career focused less on construction than ... destruction.
Another high Suh priority: football. The other kind of football. Michael, a compactly built 5-8 forward, played semipro soccer in Europe before crossing the pond. It was the first sport either of his children played. Ngum, now a part-time model and personal trainer in the Portland area, earned a soccer scholarship to Mississippi State, and has played for the Cameroon national team.
The footwork Ndamukong displays on the gridiron was first honed on the soccer pitch. Michael remembers a game when his son was 11. Taking a corner kick, Ndamukong struck the ball with the laces of his shoe, as taught by his father, putting enough spin on it to bend the shot into the goal.
"He scored from every position," recalls Michael, who frowned upon his son's desire to play goalkeeper -- even though Ndamukong was, by all accounts, a terrific netminder. "You're wasting your time at keeper," his father would tut-tut. Nowadays, as Ndamukong snags interceptions or bats down balls at the line of scrimmage -- marshaling those old netminder's skills to do so -- it occurs to Michael that perhaps his son wasn't wasting his time at keeper after all.
Even as he emerged as a star at Grant High, Suh kept a low profile, preferring "to let my pads do the talking," he recalls. "He was quiet," says Diallo Lewis, a counselor at the school whose advice Suh valued, "but in an observing, taking-it-all-in way," rather than a sullen, brooding way.
It was Lewis who took Suh aside early in the 2004 season. Sensing a touch of complacency in the senior, Lewis "tried to get him to understand that it wasn't enough to be the best player on the team, or in the city, or even in the state of Oregon. It was all about getting him to realize his potential."
Fast forward to December, 2007. Suh's potential remained largely unrealized. The Cornhuskers were coming off a 5-7 season in which the defense yielded an obscene 467 yards per game. Callahan was replaced by Pelini, whose reputation as a defensive guru carried little water with the players. All they knew was, he'd never been a head coach, and he intended to install a completely new system.
After shooting gaps for the first three years of his college career, Suh's marching orders changed dramatically. There could be no more going around offensive linemen. Through them, yes. Around them, no, because that "opens up seams in the defense," says Carl Pelini, who emphasizes to the de-line that its most important job "is to keep [offensive linemen] from climbing through to the linebackers."
This wasn't great news for Suh, who'd had more freedom under Callahan to freelance and make plays. With the Pelinis assuring him that if he stayed within the scheme, "the game will come to you," Suh bought in. Around midseason a year ago, "the light came on for him," says Bo. The result: Suh is playing at "a higher level than he's ever been before" -- a higher level, by the end of the season, than any defensive player in the nation, and possibly any player.
Whether or not Suh ends up winning the Heisman, he has vindicated many times over the decision to return for his senior season. Projected as a mid- to high-first rounder last year, "he's done nothing but improve his stock," says NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. Suh has been pegged by a consensus of draft experts as a sure-fire top five selection; Mel Kiper projects him as the No. 1 pick. And while there was plenty of self-interest involved, that decision was based on loftier principles than the possibility of winning a trophy or two, and raking in an extra 10 mill or so in guaranteed money.
"In this family, the degree comes first," says Ngum, who played a huge role in helping her brother arrive at his decision. Also, Ndamukong longed to take care of unfinished business, "to get this program back to where it belongs." It was that desire, not the dough, that kept his motor running until the final snap against Texas, after which a vastly relieved Mack Brown looked for him in vain.
"I tried to find him after the game to wish him good luck in the NFL," the Texas coach explained, "because I don't want to see him again."