During their day, Bill Romanowski, Chuck Smith and Rodney Harrison were regarded as some of the dirtiest players in the NFL. They reveled in it early in their careers. Opponents didn't know if they were going to get pinched in a pile, have their arms wrenched in a clutch or knees cracked in the trenches.
As they aged, though, the dirty label became a Scarlet Letter. It kept them from Pro Bowls, endorsement opportunities and some post-career jobs. They don't want that to happen to Lions DT Ndamukong Suh, a player whose nasty style invigorates them but whose across-the-line behavior could harm a promising career.
"Has it hurt me?" asked Romanowski, the rabble-rousing linebacker for the Broncos and other teams who was once ejected from a game for kicking fullback Larry Centers in the head. "Absolutely."
Suh was suspended two games by the NFL for pushing Packers OL Evan Dietrich-Smith's head to the ground then stomping on his arm in a Thanksgiving Day loss. It was the most excessive disregard for the rules Suh has exhibited in his short career, but he's straddled the line before. His appeal was denied by the NFL on Friday.
"This is the only way he will learn," said Harrison, a safety for San Diego and New England who was voted by peers multiple times as the NFL's dirtiest player. "I missed just one game (via suspension for a head-to-head hit with Donovan McNabb) but it got my attention.
Breer: Suh's reputation in college
"You're getting fined 10-15 thousand, OK, you can live with that. A game check will get his attention. You also want to be on the field. That's what we do. In his case they're trying to make a stretch playoff run and they're missing their best player. They're going against the Saints this week and they need pass rushers and run stoppers and they might not get what they want because their best defensive player is out.
"He'll be watching, sick to his stomach, saying, 'I could have made that play. I could have helped there.' "
For the punishment, furor and discussion Suh has prompted, Romanowski said there could be a deeper seed being watered as it relates to Suh's behavior.
"There's no coach or defensive coordinator that's going to come out and say, 'I like this' -- especially that kick, that push and him holding him down and rubbing his face in the turf," Romanowski said. "In those meeting rooms, there is part of that, that is encouraged and coaches love. None of them will come in public and say, 'We love that,' but they do."
The Lions condemned Suh's behavior, saying it was unacceptable. Suh apologized but not until after a clumsy initial public response that Romanowski said was probably Suh's biggest mistake.
"I would have liked to have seen him take accountability straight up from the beginning," Romanowski said. "I've done things on a football field I'm not proud of, but I always tried to hold myself accountable."
Smith, a defensive end for the Falcons and Panthers from 1992-2000, was hated for his alleged dirty play. He understands how Suh could lose his cool because what happens along the lines of scrimmage is far more violent and ugly than any other part of the field. At the same time, Suh has made himself a marked man, Smith said.
"He's the alpha male and he's too dominant," Smith said. "Teams are going to do everything they can to get him out of control, get him out of the game. They're going to have guys try to do things to him that he's done to them. He's going to take a lot of hits and shots and has to be humble. That's not going to be easy. He's got to be able to take what they give out."
All three retired players said Suh is so early in his career that he has time to rebuild his image and have a great career. However, one more slip and greater punishments will be likely, as could other collateral damage.
"It's a dirty game and I wanted to hit you and I don't have to help you up. But what I did, I did between the lines," Harrison said. "You still don't want to carry the dirty player label. You want the respect you deserve. There were times I deserved to be in the Pro Bowl or All-Pro and didn't because of the reputation.
"I feel that I was misunderstood because I wasn't that type of player or person but that's what sticks with you and that's not what you want."