Print and Go Back News & Opinion

Thursday, September 22, 2011
Off the field, Ngum Suh calls the shots

By Brant James

Ndamukong Suh's broadening legend is underpinned by determination, intimidation.

Selected second overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2010 NFL draft and cast as the new face of an old, moribund franchise, the 6-foot-4, 300-pound All-Pro defensive tackle already has been fined three times for hits on quarterbacks. There seem to be ill intentions behind that face mask.

But on this night, in the lobby of a hotel in Miami before the Super Bowl in 2010, the soul of the gentle-mannered kid who got good grades and built jewelry boxes for his mother has rendered him timid at the sight of retired defensive line legends Warren Sapp and Michael Strahan.

On this occasion, like all others, it is Ngum Suh who is unblockable. His sister/business manager/champion there with him in the lobby insists he introduce himself. He does and meets two men he now considers mentors.

Big sister comes through again.

"It's good," Ndamukong Suh said, "to have somebody looking out for you."

In the Cameroon language of their father's Ngema tribe, Ndamukong translates to "house of spears," and Ngum, translated loosely, means "giver of strength, giver of power." It is a responsibility Ngum takes very seriously and has immersed herself in since leaving her collection of small business interests to focus on building, branding and being there for her brother.

All it took was one phone call and one request in 2009, when he was a rising senior at the University of Nebraska who realized he suddenly had many more things to worry about than his play on the football field and finishing his degree in construction management.

With scant practical experience -- she holds degrees in biological sciences and clinical exercise physiology from Mississippi State -- Ngum Suh, 28, instead applied passion and responsibility borne of her upbringing to the job. Officially, she describes herself as her brother's business manager. It's an all-encompassing role.

Russell Spielman, of Agency Sports Management and Marketing, who directs the Suhs' marketing and endorsement ventures, describes her as a "silent assassin" -- in the best possible way. She is diplomatic and forthright, yet unapologetic in advocating for her brother in business and philanthropic matters.

The simple bio atop her Twitter feed may describe her best: "I am my brother's keeper."

"She is not loud and demonstrative," Spielman said. "She won't go in a room and start yelling, but if you mess with the bull, you get the horns. Don't cross her."

Ndamukong assembled a team of marketers and retained Roosevelt Barnes and Eugene Parker to handle his contract negotiations -- he's playing under a five-year, $68 million deal -- but his sister quarterbacks all facets of "Team Suh." She's the possessor of his daily schedule and the gatekeeper of his time, be it for possible endorsements or future girlfriends. Though other professionals have been hired to address contracts and marketing, she is the intermediary between them and her brother.

"There are other relationships where family of some kind is involved in the daily life of the athlete," Spielman said, "but at this level, it is pretty unique."

That's just the way it is, Ngum said. And that's the way it has been since she moved to Lincoln, Neb., in 2009 for a frenzied on-the-job training session in managing fame and mitigating distraction.

"I hope people didn't see me in this light where I'm the evil big sister, but whatever I have to do to make sure he's protected, fine by me," she conceded. "I wouldn't keep him from anything, but I definitely want to make sure he is protected."

As he felt the groundswell of interest in his career entering his final season at Nebraska -- after which he earned scores of laurels, including AP Player of the Year, Lombardi and Outland awards and fourth-place finish in the Heisman balloting -- and saw and heard stories of athletes being targeted by parasitic would-be agents, Ndamukong needed someone with whom he could share complete trust and candor as he concentrated on his career.

"I put myself in a position where I know I can trust somebody even though it may not be her exact skill," he said. "She's a smart young woman who can learn fast and is very adaptable. She's done that on the fly very, very well.

"I can tell her anything, yell at [her], cuss at [her], tell her anything when I am angry, get some frustration out and she knows she can take that with a grain of salt, that it was all just one way of me getting it all off my chest, and then we can get back to business or talk about personal stuff, whatever."

A former physical trainer and fitness model who played soccer at Mississippi State and for the Cameroon national team, Ngum said the responsibility she felt in taking the job was in some way instilled by the cultural values taught by her father, Michael, and mother, Bernadette, a school teacher originally from Jamaica.

Ngum and Ndamukong came to understand the opportunity they had in their middle-class neighborhood of Portland, Ore. Each was expected to be an achiever, expected to make sure the other was, too.

"I didn't know there was anything different," she said of her mindset regarding helping her brother. "I have come to realize the fact it was maybe from parents who aren't from here, so that's what they know. They know that the oldest sibling, you have to take charge or at least take care of your younger siblings.

"Guy or girl, your younger siblings look at you like a second mother or second father they have to show respect to or listen to, but also you're responsible for them. So if they're doing poorly, then that's a reflection on you and your teaching."

Just four years apart in age, the Suh siblings enjoy a chummy, yet "pretty boring" relationship, she said. There are dinners -- preferably in, so he can dine in peace, she said -- chats, video game contests and movie marathons.

"It's kind of what we do," she said. "We'll sit around the house and giggle and watch movies. For the most part, we get along really well. We're good buddies. But I think that's good. That helps us. It helps me.

"If he's not listening to his manager, I can always put the big sister hat on and say, 'You've got to do this.' It gives me leverage, but it also gives him leverage, because if I decide to spoil him ..."

There is the laundry issue, which would probably be a nonstarter unless the business manager is also the sister.

"He's busy," she laughed sheepishly. "He doesn't have time to do laundry. OK, I do his laundry. It's not that big a deal to me. Maybe it's another cultural thing. But because we're so close, I feel it's OK for me to do his laundry. I don't care. It's not that I'm his sister and I think I have to do his laundry. It's not like that. We help each other out a lot."

Together they form what Spielman calls a "dynamic duo," and there is a sense after speaking with them that they are capable of a great deal in football and beyond. Suh's foundation has announced plans for a $2.6 million donation to the University of Nebraska, and endowed a scholarship fund for engineering students.

Currently, the foundation focuses on education, health and nutrition issues and international outreach, which has included adopting a school in Cameroon and may eventually entail building a library in Jamaica.

Eventually, Ngum wants to attend either medical school or study physical therapy, with the long-held goal of opening a facility with her brother. That will be her ultimate compensation, as insisted upon by their parents and paid for by Ndamukong. He readily endorses the deal, but he hopes he can delay it for a while.

"She can go back to school for however long she wants to," he said, "hopefully when I'm done with my 12-to-15-year career."

There is no time limit for a brother's keeper, apparently.

"I'm there," she said, "as long as he needs me."