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Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Barry Sanders vs. Ndamukong Suh

By Jemele Hill
ESPN.com

Most of us are familiar with the old adage about not being able to go home again, but after writing this column a few weeks ago, I wondered if it really might be true in my case.

Sanders
Nobody else ran like Barry Sanders, but he wasn't a vocal leader.

I was born and raised in Detroit, went to Mumford High School -- Eddie Murphy wore our T-shirt in "Beverly Hills Cop" -- and also attended Michigan State. I wrongly assumed my deep Michigan roots would make me exempt from forced exile. But after I wrote that I thought Ndamukong Suh was a better draft pick than Barry Sanders, my boisterous readers showed little mercy for a native sister.

Joseph from Westfield, Pa., wrote: "What were you thinking, putting up one of the best football players in history of the NFL in Barry Sanders against a second-year player who has done nothing next year?"

Whoever approved that column is insane! (Wait, who's editing this mailbag again?)

Sean from Atlanta wrote: "Your Suh vs. Sanders [column] is so off. I understand that Suh has the potential but Sanders was a game-breaking back that did amazing things on the field. I laughed when I read this and I am a Redskin fan."

No worries, I often laugh at myself.

I'll admit that I wasn't just stepping out on a limb, but also jumping on it and hitting every branch on the way down.

But here's my defense: I never said Suh was a better player than Sanders. That really would have been absurd. I watched Sanders a great deal growing up, and he and Bo Jackson are probably my two favorite running backs of all time. It is unlikely that Suh, who some consider the best defensive tackle in the NFL, will have a career that matches Sanders. Not impossible, just unlikely, and we won't have a one-to-one comparison for another eight years.

My argument wasn't based on personal accomplishments, but rather how their individual personalities impacted the Lions as a franchise. The Lions had a few good years with Sanders, but a lot of bad ones, too. It wasn't entirely his fault, of course. The Lions' management during Sanders' tenure was a joke. Sanders' quarterback for three years was Scott Mitchell.

Ndamukong Suh
Ndamukong Suh has brought a physically imposing presence to Detroit.

No wonder he retired by fax.

Sanders, though, is a quiet guy. During his years with the Lions, he preferred to lead by example. That works for some teams, but I'm not so sure that's the kind of leadership the Lions really needed at the time. As exciting as Sanders was, his persona didn't have the same contagious effect that Suh's has.

Although the Lions have lost back-to-back games to San Francisco and Atlanta after a 5-0 start, Detroit is playing with an edge that I've never seen before and Suh deserves a large share of the credit. He's nasty. Some say he's dirty. Regardless, his attitude has transformed how the Lions play and how they are perceived.

The culture in Detroit seems to have truly changed, and that didn't happen when Sanders was there. Suh isn't the only one who has helped the Lions turn things around, but he's the cornerstone.

On to a mostly Motown-themed mailbag …

Your commentary made it sound as if Barry Sanders was just another example of a really great player languishing on a mediocre team, but I think that's hardly the case. Barry Sanders was a transcendent player who basically carried crummy teams to the playoffs in the same way Peyton Manning has done more recently.
-- Gregg Nallo, Aurora, OH

I didn't mean to belittle Sanders' impact. The Lions went 12-4 in Sanders' third season, and during his 10-year career Detroit made the playoffs five times. The problem is the success didn't seem sustainable. The Manning comparison doesn't quite fit for me because the Colts' organization is a lot more committed to winning than the Lions were with Sanders. The Colts look like a junior varsity team this season, but Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Dallas Clark and others are players who could start on any NFL team. And let's not pretend as if Sanders wasn't, at times, surrounded by talented players. Surely the names Herman Moore and Robert Porcher ring a bell.

Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders' achievements will be hard for Ndamukong Suh to match.

In my 26 years, and in having a father who has worked for Chrysler for over 30 years, I've experienced the ups and downs that have graced and plagued our state. I've empathized with friends who have lost their jobs, their houses, and their hope. I've seen a blanketing fog of sadness you won't find in many cities, even in today's challenging environment. Not to discredit the struggles of others, but Michigan, especially Metro Detroit, has been derailed by the state of the economy to an extent beyond any other state. Yet we refuse to be subdued by these hardships. We stand taller, stronger, more united, in spite of them.

Enter the "lowly" Lions, an incredibly perfect microcosm for our uniquely beautiful metropolis. We don't remind ourselves of the pain endured when counting scars. We wear them as a badge that shows what we are able to overcome. As the Chrysler commercial flawlessly captures, "What would you expect from a city with a statue of a fist?"
-- Eric Oliveri, Detroit

I'm not sure if outsiders understood just how much that one week meant to Detroit. The Lions played on "Monday Night Football" for the first time in a decade. The next two nights, the Tigers faced the Rangers in the American League Championship Series at Comerica Park. There have been bigger sporting events in Detroit -- the Super Bowl in 2006 and the Final Four in 2009 -- but for a few days, people paid attention to Detroit for all the right reasons, instead of the wrong ones.

After watching Michigan State's William Gholston's two violent personal fouls in the game against Michigan, I want to ask: What do you have to do to get ejected from a football game? Only the [knuckleheads] who run the NHL think punching is part of any team sport.
-- Noah Snyder, Los Angeles

Let me say first that Gholston isn't a dirty player. His immature actions, which include twisting Denard Robinson's helmet in the pile, were an unfortunate byproduct of a heated rivalry game.

There's no question that Gholston, who is just a sophomore, should have been ejected for throwing a punch at Michigan lineman Tyler Lewan. I don't know what the officials did or didn't see, but going forward, Gholston must understand that retaliators almost always get caught.

Idris Elba
Idris Elba forgot to invite Jemele Hill to the GQ Men of the Year Awards in London.

You think the Packers will go undefeated?

Surely you can look at the schedule and say they should win their remaining games, but should and will are two different things. ANYTHING can happen between now and then. I'd be willing to bet you $5,000 that they DON'T go undefeated.
-- J Edwards, Stuart, Fla.

Sure. If I lose, look for a postdated check made out to You Have Lost Your Mind.

Non-sports question: Have you seen your husband, Idris Elba, in the "Luther" TV drama series?
-- Kris Gardner, Houston

So I have this thing where I kinda, sorta refer to Idris Elba as my husband. That's not weird, right? Shut up, don't judge me. And yes, I've seen the series because that's what a supportive wife does.

Final thought I: How can you not root for this guy?

Final thought II: I think I found the next NFL star.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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