NFL heel to veteran: The maturing legacy of Ndamukong Suh

*If this is Your wish for me to be a champion, I'm ready to embrace it. -- Ndamukong Suh *

The sellout crowd in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was roaring two Sundays ago. An NFC Championship Game that had been filled with drama and controversy was suddenly on the verge of a dramatic ending, three minutes into overtime.

Suh, the massive defensive tackle who had turned down bigger contracts to sign a one-year deal with the Rams, sat motionless on the visitors' bench as teammate Greg Zuerlein lined up for a 57-yard field-goal attempt. He spoke only to the Higher Power who guides his life.

"In that instance, you're just hoping and praying that this is the moment you've been wishing for, and working hard for, all your life," he would tell me the following week. "You're hoping and praying that this is the fulfillment of why you've put everything out on the table -- your blood, sweat and tears. God has a plan and that's what you have to go with."

The ninth-year veteran did not watch as Zuerlein sent the ball between the uprights to beat the top-seeded Saints and earn a spot in Super Bowl LIII. Instead, he waited and listened for cacophony to turn to silence, followed by hooting and hollering along his sideline, a clear indication that the kick had been true.

In the celebration that ensued, Suh shed tears as if they were overmatched blockers. He retraced the highs and lows that had led him to this moment: from the decorated career at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to the three losing seasons and two first-round playoff losses with the Lions, who drafted him second overall in 2010; from signing the richest contract in league history for a defensive player with Miami, to sandwiching a pair of 6-10 seasons around a first-round playoff exit with the Dolphins; from the nine publicly known league fines for violating player safety rules, including a two-game suspension, to the decision to pass up greener pastures so he could join the title-contending Rams.

"You bottle all that up, all those emotions, and you realize you're finally an NFC champion," Suh said. "It's been a long time coming, something I've wished for and worked for. Everybody who knows me and has won a championship of that sort understands that it doesn't come easy. It takes an ultimate team effort to get it done, not one individual."

Intellectually, the Portland native has always known this. But that didn't stop him from striving to be an exception when he entered the league. He was 6-foot-4, 307 pounds and blessed with a rare blend of grace, power and explosion. He also had a cerebral approach that traced back to his days at Nebraska, where he met weekly with a coach to learn every position on the defense so he could understand how all the parts worked together.

He believed he could be that difference-maker because his parents had instilled the hope of "what can be" in him and his older sister. His father emigrated from Cameroon, his mother from Jamaica, and they set the example for the importance of faith, hard work and education. But in trying to do more, Suh sometimes did too much. He struggled to control his aggression, like in his rookie year, when he grabbed Jake Delhomme's facemask and flung the Cleveland quarterback to the turf. Or the next season, when he was suspended two games for stomping on a Packers offensive lineman. Or every other time he was penalized or fined for actions that some deemed unnecessary and others viewed as dirty. A 2012 Forbes poll even identified him as the league's least-liked player, with a 19 percent appeal rating.

"People probably look at me as an evil person, or whatever you may want to say, but I'm a human being," he said. "To people that truly know me, I'm a teddy bear, especially off the field. I don't typically cry or have outburst emotions, but I am an emotional person and I wear my heart on my sleeve and my emotions on my sleeve, without question."

The image of him as a villain contrasted with the picture being painted by some who teamed with him or coached him. They refer to him as quiet, thoughtful and driven. Jim Caldwell's first season as coach of the Lions was Suh's last season in Detroit, 2014.

"Suh was the consummate professional," he told me last week. "A highly intelligent individual with freakish strength and power. He always came back in great shape, meticulously monitored everything nutritionally and he played the game with great passion."

Young players often enter the league with a focus on creating wealth and achieving individual accolades, both of which Suh has accomplished. He has earned nearly $140 million on the field and been voted first-team All-Pro three times. But now, nearly a decade into his career, his focus has become even more narrowed on winning a championship. It's why he signed with the Rams, despite knowing it could mean playing in the shadow of tackle Aaron Donald, who's expected to be named Defensive Player of the Year for the second time in as many seasons.

He spent much of the season adjusting to his new surroundings, but the playoffs have brought back the dominance that previously made him one of the league's more dangerous talents. In the lead-up to Super Bowl LIII against the Patriots, he once again is disrupting blocking schemes and embarrassing offensive coordinators who attempt to single-block him, sometimes with a tight end.

"Ndamukong not only had two good back-to-back games, but two great back-to-back games," said Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "We're used to seeing him play well, but these last two have been his best. It was just me getting used to what he wants to do and him getting used to what we want him to do. He's finally put it all together. He's a great talent and he's certainly shown it. Look at the two teams we played. They (Dallas and New Orleans) were great running teams. Neither one of them made (more than) 50 yards rushing."

You don't have to listen long to hear the word "legacy" being used among Rams players this week. Coach Sean McVay has talked about it with the players, and the players have discussed it among themselves. For Suh, it would be another brick in the road that leads to Canton, Ohio, home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Former Lions GM Martin Mayhew, now an executive with the 49ers, drafted Suh in Detroit. When asked what this moment means to the player, he said, "Everything."

He added: "He's got the money, he's got the status, and the last thing left for him to kind of solidify his legacy as one of the great players in this league, at his position, is a championship. That's what he really wants. He knows the importance of this, and he knows how rare these opportunities are, based on what he's been through in the past. He knows what's at stake, and I think he wants to be a Hall of Famer and have a legacy in this league that lives beyond his time as a player. I think he knows this is what it takes for him to have that."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter @JimTrotter_NFL.

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