Commentary

Dirty is in the eye of the beholder

NFL legends use a different word to describe Ndamukong Suh: throwback

Originally Published: January 23, 2012
By Alyssa Roenigk | ESPN The Magazine

Polls weren't kind to Ndamukong Suh this season. After leading Pro Bowl balloting for most of the year, the Lions defensive tackle fell behind the 49ers' Justin Smith as the fans' choice for top DT shortly after his infamous Thanksgiving Stomp.

So on Jan. 29, one year after being a rare rookie to lead his position in votes, Suh could be in Hawaii as an alternate, dealing with questions about the way he plays. In a recent Sporting News poll, Suh's NFL colleagues named him the league's dirtiest player. He had four times as many votes as the No. 2 choice, Pittsburgh's James Harrison.

Suh understands why fans and peers feel that way. After all, he was suspended for two games this season after stepping on Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith, he's been fined three times for hits on QBs and he has an NFL-high nine personal fouls since 2010.

But Suh claims he can toe the NFL's thin line between intense and illegal.

"I'm not changing my game tremendously, but now I understand how I can stay who I am and play within the rules," he said. "I am not a dirty player."

Then again, if former NFL stars are any measure, maybe Suh shouldn't change at all. The Mag polled 20 Hall of Famers to find out which current NFL players they consider the toughest. Their ballots produced the Any Era team and provide insight into how the all-time greats view the game today.

As expected, our legends panel tabbed many known tough guys. One surprise, though, was how voters raved about Suh, who made the 20-man Any Era team at No. 18.

"I'd take him and create a Frankenstein monster," Jim Brown said. "There's a respect and admiration for his kind of craziness."

Added Mike Singletary, who coached against Suh this season as a Vikings assistant: "I love his mentality. He can rip your face off."

No doubt Suh needs to learn to channel that aggression, which he concedes will take time. He quotes a sign he saw in the Pistons' weight room: Don't confuse routine with commitment.

"It means just because you go through the routine doesn't mean you will be successful," he said. "I'm going to be conscious of playing the right way now in practice, in scrimmages and in games."

The pollsters will be watching.

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Alyssa Roenigk

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com whose assignments covering action sports, Olympics and football have taken her to six continents and caused her to commit countless acts of recklessness. In 2012, she joined the X Games TV broadcast team and ordered additional pages for her passport. Follow her on Twitter at @espn_alyssa.