Suh draws a direct line from his play to his mom, an elementary school teacher, and to his dad, Michael, a contractor who was born in Cameroon. (Ndamukong, which means "house of spears," was the name of Michael's grandfather, a 7'3" police chief in the Ngema tribe.) When Ndamukong was 12 years old, his father took him out on a job for the first time. "A lot of kids don't like that," Michael says. "They like to stay home and watch TV and play games. He followed me on vacation time when he was off school. He saw how I was doing things, how determined I am. That got into him."
To this day Michael drives around Portland in a blue SUH'S EQUIPMENT van, its trunk stocked with the instruments of his trade: copper tubing and Freon for refrigeration, PVC and metal venting for furnaces, an assortment of tools to both build machines and break them down. "People see me in my van and stop me," Michael says. "They say, 'We saw your son on TV. He's a millionaire. What in the heck are you doing working?'"
"What should I do?" Michael usually responds. "Stay home and eat and get fat?"
Across Detroit, there's an air of regeneration. The Lions, who haven't made the playoffs since 1999, are 4--0 for the first time since 1980, tied for first in the NFC North with Super Bowl champion Green Bay, the league's only other unbeaten team. Detroit hosts the division-rival Bears in prime time on Oct. 10, the Lions' first Monday Night Football appearance in a decade. They don't meet the Packers until Week 12—but that may be the first Thanksgiving game in years that means as much in the standings to the Lions as it does to their opponents.
And as the revelers in the Rub BBQ Pub will attest, Suh has become an integral figure in the community. He attends high school football games, sits courtside to watch the Pistons, drives Six Mile with his windows down and waves to the kids on the street. After hearing that the football equipment at Frederick Douglass College Preparatory Academy had been stolen, Suh, running back Jahvid Best and a Quicken Loans sister company donated helmets, cleats and gloves in time for their game last Friday.
"They showed [Suh] on TV at the game," says Tyrone Winfrey, president of the Detroit Board of Education. "For him to take the time to do that meant a lot to those young men. When I look at Detroit and the shots we've taken with crime and unemployment, to have the Lions and Tigers winning, we are truly grateful. And to have a positive role model like Ndamukong Suh come to our city, I'm excited about the young people who will be impacted by his success."
After a recent practice Suh sat on the team's nearly empty field, going over all the mistakes he made in his rookie season. "I have a lot of things to learn about this game," Suh says. "There are a lot of plays I left out on the field last year. I can think back to two games where I missed five sacks. Go back and look at all the other games where I had a finger [on the quarterback]. Until I have a perfect season, I won't ever be able to say I've reached the pinnacle. And when I do have a perfect season, the next goal is to match it. I want a championship, and not just one. I want multiples."
His black and red T-shirt bore an image of Kid Rock and three words written in block letters that spoke of a football revival: MADE IN DETROIT.