- Elizabeth Merrill
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DETROIT -- Somewhere on an interstate between Florida and Michigan, one of the biggest, baddest athletes in Detroit history flipped on his radio Sunday for the Lions game. And Bill Laimbeer smiled. There is this brute of a man playing on the defensive line for Detroit now, and in some ways, he reminds Laimbeer of himself.
They say that Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh plays dirty; Laimbeer says he plays hard. They fine Suh and tell him he needs to stop being so reckless; Laimbeer, the antagonistic heart and soul of the Detroit Pistons' "Bad Boys" championship teams from two decades ago, says the enterprising young lad is simply doing his part to shape the culture of Detroit Lions football.
"Not everybody can be the pretty boys," Laimbeer said.
"I think that Detroit has always been put down for the longest time, especially for the last 20-25 years. They need to have that chip on their shoulder. They need to represent a hardworking city that gets beat on and say, 'Hey, we're not going to take any crap from anybody. We're going to take what we want.'"
OK, so perhaps Laimbeer isn't the most objective authority on etiquette in sports. He is the man who once posed for Sports Illustrated, hands over his head and mouth agape, with the headline that read, "What Foul?" But he's an expert on Detroit and for years was a long-suffering Lions season-ticket holder, post-Barry Sanders and pre-0-16. He knows exactly what this city, built with rivets and sweat, needed. It needed attitude again.
It was there Sunday, on a magical afternoon, against the 2010 AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs. There was one second left on the clock in the first half, and both teams were ready to head to the locker room. Not Suh. He hunted Chiefs QB Matt Cassel down, smashed him to the ground, and grinned as his face showed up on the JumboTron. He took what he wanted.
Just after 4 o'clock that day, when the final score read 48-3, a football-forlorn city was brimming with hope. A crowd gathered outside the Lions' locker room. Celebrities lingered, long after the boys dumped Gatorade on their defensive coordinator. Something had changed, and Kid Rock and Bob Seger felt it as they stood outside the locker room like the groupies that follow them. The double doors opened, a security guard whisked them in, and 10 minutes later, Seger emerged with an autographed football and what appeared to be a tear streaming down his face.
"We're on our way now!" the aging rocker said.
"It's great, isn't it?"
No, it is never too early to get excited about an undefeated start in Detroit, even after Week 2. Suh stood in the corner of the locker room and quietly dressed into a plaid shirt and jeans, taking some of it in. Then he left, with rap music thumping in the background and the city eagerly waiting for what's next.
Youth being served
He is only 24 years old. The Lions have to remind themselves of that sometimes, that it was just 17 months ago that they drafted the 6-foot-4, 307-pound defensive tackle from Nebraska with the second overall pick.
Veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, who came to Detroit around the same time Suh did last year, marveled over it, how the rookie was not intimidated by anything. How he immediately fit in.
"He looked," Vanden Bosch said, "like he'd been in the NFL for years."
If a phone call from Detroit was a death sentence pre-2011, you wouldn't know it judging by Suh's reaction on draft day. He wanted to be here, in a place that appreciated hard work and attitude. It reminded him of somewhere very familiar.
Here's what you need to know about how Suh spent his lockout: He had a vast array of places to train, and tens of millions of dollars to burn on fitness gurus and oceanfront gyms. He spent most of his time in Lincoln, Neb., the second-most populated city in the state. The place where he went to school, earned his degree and recently donated $2 million.
Repeated requests to talk to Nebraska's coaching staff went unanswered, but Suh can give a rough version of his spring and summer in Lincoln: He ran, lifted weights and trained with the Cornhuskers football team, which he helped bring back to national prominence in 2008.
"He doesn't talk a lot unless you speak to him," NU linebacker Eric Martin said. "But he's a really good guy."
Lincoln, Suh says, is home to him. It's where everything started. The son of an elementary school teacher and a mechanical engineer, Suh was a two-way star from Portland, Ore., who was wooed by many, including Oregon and Oregon State. But something tugged at him when he visited Nebraska and told him he needed to be there; he walked through the tunnel before a home game, and fans started yelling his name. They said they needed him to come to Nebraska.
"To hear that and to get a sense of how rich that football is there and how close the fans are to the team, it meant a lot," Suh said. "You're being put in a fishbowl, and your expectations are out of the water, and I think that's good. I loved it.
"I think part of my junior year and pretty much my whole senior year, I was the face of that program, and to me it was a blast. I didn't have to be vocal. I could just go out and play."
Suh said he would "love" to be the face of the Lions' franchise, but added that there are plenty of other leaders on this team. He rattled off receiver Calvin Johnson, Vanden Bosch and, of course, quarterback Matthew Stafford, who is finally healthy and has thrown for 599 yards and seven touchdowns in the Lions' first two games.
Suh may be the hot jersey seller at Ford Field right now -- it is worn by men young and old, women and babies -- but if Stafford avoids injury, he no doubt will rival that. Yet Suh was clearly brought to Detroit to change the Lions' culture. His signature moment in college was the 2009 Big 12 championship game against Texas. The Cornhuskers were heavy underdogs in the game. Then Suh sacked Colt McCoy 4.5 times and had 10 solo tackles. Texas won the game 13-12 on a last-second field goal, and Suh spent the next few days kicking himself because he didn't block it. He expects to block field goals and extra points, he says. When he doesn't and the Lions lose, he blames himself.
Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham recently called Suh "the best football player at that position that I've ever seen in my life." Cunningham, mind you, is not one to gush with praise. He has been coaching for nearly 40 years and has been known to lard his speech with a wealth of four-letter words in the heat of practice.
But Cunningham knows how one player, even a defensive player, can change a team's attitude. He coached Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas in the 1990s. Like Thomas, Suh has been double- and triple-teamed in the first two weeks of the season. But he still manages to make plays, and the Lions, cornerback Eric Wright says, feed off Suh's emotions.
"He has the heart of a lion," Wright said. "He's just one of those special types of guys. He plays the game with extreme passion. He just has that 'it' factor. People tend to say that when they talk about quarterbacks a lot, but he has that same sort of savvy, that same sort of effect on defense and the team in general.
"He's an animal out there. He's an emotional leader."
Toeing the line
In the span of 13 months, Suh has been fined $42,500 for his manhandling of quarterbacks. He had barely broken in his brand-new blue-and-silver uniform in August 2010 when he grabbed Jake Delhomme's face mask in the preseason and dragged him to the ground. That cost Suh $7,500, and he admits to a mistake. He never wanted to grab his face mask.
The next one was a $15,000 leveling of Chicago's Jay Cutler. Suh makes no apologies there.
"Nobody's ever told me what I did wrong on that Jay Cutler hit," Suh said, "and yet everybody brings it up, 'Oh, that's a dirty play.' Whatever. Where did I break a rule in that hit?
"Full speed, it looks awful. Slow it down, and you see my hand is right in the back of his numbers. And because he doesn't see me, that's why he falls the way he does. I'm powerful; I'm lucky enough that I'm strong and I refine that in the weight room. I know how to hit, and I know how to tackle to where somebody's going to feel that. Whoever I hit is going to feel that hit."
Suh seems to do much of his damage in the preseason, which is possibly his way of making a statement before the flags count. On Aug. 12, the Lions' first game of the preseason, Suh took down Bengals rookie QB Andy Dalton by the head, causing his helmet to fly off.
Suh says he didn't mean to grab him by his head, but he still was fined $20,000. But here's the thing: Suh wasn't really known as a dirty player in college. Terrifying, but not dirty. Oh, he had a few hits that looked downright criminal, like the time he tossed quarterback Nick Florence to the ground like a green cabbage-patch doll, but Suh says he couldn't help that. He outweighed Florence by more than 100 pounds.
He said the crowd in Waco, Texas, went, "Oooooh," instead of "Suuuuh." And then it was over and on to the next play.
So Suh is unconcerned with the dirty-player label, and almost seems to relish it. He says the game is made to be down and dirty, and those who disagree should play flag football.
But there is a fine line between intimidation and playing yourself out of a game. The NFL is cracking down on illegal hits, and commissioner Roger Goodell made it clear, through various fines and warnings last year, that safety comes first, and dirty play won't be tolerated. Naturally, Lions fans worry that Suh, who has become such an integral part of Lions' defense, might take it too far and land a suspension one day.
Suh says he doesn't go too far.
"There's many people who say I need to change my game and I need to do different things," he said. "I couldn't care less what you think. I'm going to play as hard as I can.
"[The Dalton hit] was preseason. That's just the tip of the iceberg. You're going to see a lot more. I'm going to cut it up three, four, five notches because we're in season. We have things we're playing for. For me right now, it's time to really bring down the pain and really get it going."
Just the beginning
The sky is gray on Monday morning when Suh arrives with a large bottle of water and a plan to get to work. It's Victory Monday -- something the Lions haven't experienced much in the past decade or so -- but nobody feels like resting. Receiver Nate Burleson is holding court in the locker room, talking to reporters about the matchup with Minnesota and his affinity for Vikings horns. Vanden Bosch arrives with a serious look that is no doubt sculpted to his face.
Suh's schedule allows him exactly 17 minutes to chat, which is huge considering his family is in town and he'd rather hang out with them or go study film. He is everywhere these days, from the Omaha Steaks ads that play during Huskers games to the hip Chrysler 300 commercial. It's raining in that commercial, much like Monday. Suh drives through blue-collar neighborhoods while rap music plays in the background and a voiceover starts.
Humble beginnings are true beginnings. They're character-building beginnings. They're hard-work ethic beginnings...
It's just the beginning for Suh's Lions, who may have found themselves back on the football map. Suh is asked what it's like to drive in to work when the city is awash in Lions love. He shrugs and says he expects it. He hated last year, even though 6-10 was considered a huge leap forward. He despised the talk that the franchise was three years away from being good.
"I've grown up understanding that as long as I work hard for something I want," Suh said, "I should expect success."
How good are the Lions? How dirty is Suh? It's only Week 3. The face of the franchise is nowhere near smiling. And that's a good look for Detroit.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Ndamukong Suh has been called dirty, but intensity, hard work and humility are his defining traits in Detroit, writes Liz Merrill.