FEDEX FIELD, WASHINGTON, 2015 – There are just over three minutes remaining in the first half of the season opener between Washington and Miami. It’s second and six, and home quarterback Kirk Cousins hands the ball off to his running back Alfred Morris, who cuts outside for nine yards before being brought down by a Miami defensive lineman. After executing the perfect tackle, the 300lb Dolphin rises and clips his opponent’s helmet with his foot, knocking it off. Morris gets up without injury, before unloading a few verbals at the man he believes has committed a cheap shot.
It doesn’t take long for Morris to garner sympathy from a teammate. It’s in the second half when offensive lineman Morgan Moses, locked in a battle with the same Miami defender, sees a thumb poke through his facemask and gouge his eye. Moses is subsequently forced to leave the field and doesn’t return.
The identity of the perpetrator isn’t surprising.
Ask the casual NFL fan to sum up the Dolphins’ new $114million defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and many will reply with just one word: dirty. Suh’s peers agree; in 2012, Sporting News polled 103 players on who was the league’s dirtiest player. The ‘victor’? Suh. The then-Detroit Lion scooped 32 of the votes, 13 more than second-placed Richie Incognito.
It’s a reputation that’s been built from the moment Suh stepped on to an NFL field as the Lions’ second overall pick in 2010; a reputation that began with him yanking then-Cleveland quarterback Jake Delhomme’s facemask before tightening his grip and throwing him to the ground by his head in an exhibition game; a reputation enhanced when he famously earned a two-game suspension for throwing the head of Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith into the ground before viciously stamping on his arm in a Thanksgiving game.
To pick those moments, though, is to select a small sample of larger rap sheet. Suh has been fined seven times by the NFL for player-safety violations, racking up a total bill of $255,375. Combine that with earnings lost during his ban and he’s lost a combined $420,669. None of those punishments come from his Dolphins debut, with the NFL deeming that there was insufficient evidence to prove either infraction purposeful. Few are convinced of his innocence, though.
“I just would love to be in that situation,” former Washington runner Clinton Portis told ESPN Radio. “Why didn’t guys play that way when I was on the field? I wish a guy would have. I would have dove at the back of Suh’s knees so quick and got up and just probably choked him out. I definitely wouldn’t have let him get away with that. But again, Alfred Morris is a different guy than myself.”
To judge Suh by his actions on the field is to judge someone those who know him don’t recognise. He is a walking contradiction, for that same guy stamping on people spends much of his time in the Dolphins locker room sitting silently. “He doesn’t say a whole lot all of the time,” says defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. “But when he does, you listen.” His teammates in South Beach have took to calling him Chief; he’s their leader, a calm man who doesn’t waste words, a man very different to what fans see.
“Suh seems two people,” South Florida Sun-Sentinel columnist Dave Hyde tells Gridiron, “The thoughtful, soft-spoken introvert who loves business and counts Warren Buffett among his friends off the field and the violent force of nature on the field. Right to the first game, he was everything the Dolphins expected by working exceptionally hard, helping teammates and changing the defense in pre-season. He’s a good guy… fun to be around but very serious when it comes to business.”
So what happens when Suh crosses that white line? “I think it’s a competitive edge and ultimately wanting to do whatever I can to help my team win,” he tells Gridiron. “I mean that’s what helps athletes play to the best of their ability – just to have that natural knack to go inside the white lines and know it’s no-holds barred and there are no friends out there.
“There is some form of intensity in all professional sports but then it is obviously heightened in certain areas. It is something that is very important to the game. There is a lot of stuff we have to fight through and you have to be a strong-minded person.”
Perhaps the best way to describe Suh is as someone you’d rather play with than against. His brothers-in-arms in Miami are feeling the benefits of Chief’s presence, especially after he bought every defensive lineman a Lay-Z-Boy so they could relax while sitting in the film room. But they’re not the only ones. Suh spent a large part of the off-season working with emerging defensive tackle Caraun Reid. An experienced veteran taking a youngster under his wing is hardly new, except Reid plays for the Detroit Lions – and is one of the men tasked with replacing Suh.
“If you want to be one of the best and take your game to another level, you need to have a great intensity and need to have a great camaraderie with the players you’re playing with,” adds Suh. “Intensity is what builds our defensive line and you feed off those guys who are next to you and you want them to be feeding off you as well.”
Reconciling the two faces of Suh with one another is an impossible task. He is both beauty and beast in the same cocktail. But it’s a cocktail the Miami Dolphins found irresistible this off-season. They believe Suh’s off-field leadership and on-field ferocity is the missing ingredient that can finally secure a post-season berth. And if a few NFL sanctions come along the way? So be it. They’ve given him enough money to pay the fines.
This article originally appeared in Issue XVI of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE