What makes larger-than-life NFL stars like Ndamukong Suh, Travis and Jason Kelce and Brandon Marshall tick? Their mothers know best.
By Marc Sessler | Published May 11, 2017
Two words that bring lingering night terrors to quarterbacks everywhere.
There's a person out there, though, who remembers the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Dolphins defensive behemoth as someone else entirely.
"Oh, he was very cuddly," Bernadette Suh said of her son. "Sometimes we would sit and watch TV, and he would cuddle beside me or lay beside me."
Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Suh the boy was far more focused on brick-building than slamming Tom Brady to the turf.
"He was very observant. Very creative. Liked playing. Was very creative with building his LEGOs," said Bernadette. "He would make something out of nothing."
As fans, we possess these players when they reach the NFL. Judge them. Fawn over them. Analyze them to pieces. Laud them when they delight us and, in some cases, fry them on social media when they fail to carry our vicarious fantasy lineups into the promised land.
We don't truly know them, but the women who raised them do. As we prepare to celebrate Mother's Day, we asked a trio of NFL moms to tell us who their sons really are.
Before the lights
Donna Kelce is part of a unique group.
She raised not one but two NFL players in Jason, a Pro Bowl center for the Eagles, and Travis, a fellow Pro Bowler for the Chiefs who operates as one of the game's most exciting tight ends.
"When they finally left for college, I think I got a raise," Donna said of the family's unhinged food budget. "Because that's where the most [money went]. The eating in high school? They would sit down and eat whole chickens. Or go through tubs of lasagna. They just were voracious eaters."
The duo also doubled as comprehensive live-wires who gave Donna all she could handle within their childhood home outside of Cleveland.
"Extremely competitive. Very active, very smart early on," Donna said. "They would get into a lot of things, and I knew if I didn't keep them busy, our house would get destroyed. There was a lot of fights. There was a lot of ball throwing and glass block in the basement because they broke every window with hockey pucks."
Donna spent those early years compelling her sons to forge an "inclusive" attitude among their friends, a quality that has led both to be named team captains in the NFL. As for making it this far as athletes, the hints were there.
"I mean, they played every sport you could possibly think of," Donna said. "And both of them are extremely driven, extremely tenacious humans. I think they're highly motivated and they hate to lose. I don't know if that's inbred in them, or they spurred each other on with that."
A similar on-field fire was always evident in Brandon Marshall, the 33-year-old wide receiver set to enter his 12th year in the NFL.
"The exact same personality as now. What you see is what you get," said his mother, Diane Bolden. "Brandon has been driven from the time he was 3. Brandon told me at 3 years old, this is what he was going to do. I promise you. Three years old. Everything this kid has said he was going to do -- he's done. He's just amazing."
While little Ndamukong loved building his LEGOs, Brandon held a different urge as a boy.
"Taking stuff apart. Not a good hobby," Diane said. "Brandon wanted a BMX bike with his brother. And the agreement was, you make good grades for the rest of the school season and you get your BMX bike. Bought him the BMX bike. ... I come home from work, Brandon's in the backyard, and the bike is in a million pieces. That was Brandon's hobby. Taking things apart and putting them back together. Vacuum cleaners. Everything."
After Brandon was born in Pittsburgh, Diane soon moved the family south to Uniontown, Pennsylvania.
"I remember when Brandon was 4 and I was separated from his dad. His sister was 2, he was 4 and his brother was 6," Diane said. "And we had to go to the grocery store. We lived out in the country. ... Everybody out there were farmers. And we didn't have transportation, so we had to walk to the grocery store. Four miles down, four miles back. I'll never forget that day.
"We got there, and I told Brandon and my oldest son, I said, 'Look. There's $14 left. We can catch a cab back, or we can walk and can go halfway, two miles up to the ice cream parlor and get some ice cream.' Brandon said, 'Mom, let's walk and get some ice cream.'
"Long story short, we made it to the parlor and I fell down. I was in tears. So my two boys came over and asked, 'Mommy, what's wrong? Why are you crying?' Because I felt so bad, because it was like 100 degrees outside. Just had no shade, no trees, no anything. And Brandon tells me: 'Mom. It's going to be OK. That's what you have your boys for. You just watch. Everything's going to be OK. From this point on, you'll never have to walk again.' ... And that's Brandon; that's just a perfect example of who he is now. Whenever I feel a little gloomy, I remember that day."
Whispers of greatness
Before they were picked apart and graded by pro scouts, these players began their careers in backyards and parks at the lowest levels -- watched by their mothers.
Bernadette Suh saw Ndamukong emerge as "very, very coordinated for his age," but football was an unknown world to the family for much of his childhood.
"I honestly didn't think that he would have reached the pinnacle he's at right now until he was in high school. Because he didn't play football until he was a sophomore," Bernadette said. "I kind of thought that maybe he would be a basketball player, if anything, or soccer. He started playing soccer when he was about 3 and was very coordinated and had a very good sense of the game. ... In terms of sports, he's one of those kids that really enjoyed playing. Whether it was just tetherball, hitting the ball, throwing the ball to each other, riding his bike. Any kind of playing. He was a very active child."
Said Bernadette: "Football came later in high school, primarily because -- even though he had the size for it -- I didn't want him really playing it because, to me, it's just a rough game, and I just thought, I don't want my child playing football. It's too rough. And not understanding the game myself made it even a harder decision for me to want to have him do it. But it was something that he truly wanted to play, and so, you know, over time, I think ... I allowed him to play it, because I felt at that point, he's big enough, he's old enough, he understands the game, and so I felt like he could protect himself a little better."
In the Kelce home, Donna knew her boys viewed sports as a polestar. Jason and Travis always seemed to know they had a bright future on the field.
"I think they both believed it at a very young age. There was no doubt about it," Donna said. "I remember I told them, whenever they'd be in timeout, 'Practice your signature, because you're going to be signing a lot of things when you grow up.' But you don't really know. You know that they're better than everyone they're playing with at the moment, but you don't know how that relates nationally."
If the Kelces were sports-obsessed, the same was true for Marshall.
"In the back of my trunk, I had footballs, baseballs, tennis balls, you name it," Diane said. "Anything to keep him busy. We would burn that energy down and get him home, get him a bath and put him to bed. Early on, that's just what he did all day long."
In the stands
We watch games from afar, cheering and despising players we'll never meet. When one of those athletes is your child, though, everything changes.
Football's inherent violence leaves parents to confront a jumbled nest of nerves as they watch their sons rendered vulnerable to pain and injury.
"It's always in the back of my mind," said Bernadette Suh. "It's something that I pray about every game and, after every game, I thank the Lord that [Ndamukong] comes out OK. ... I'm very, very wary about that. ... It stays in the back of your mind all the time."
Donna Kelce has endured watching both of her children suffer significant injuries. Travis spent the first year of his Chiefs career rehabbing from microfracture surgery, while Jason went down with a torn ACL in 2012 while his mother was in the stands.
"That was against the Ravens. That was a tough one," Donna said. "And I realized how independent he was when his buddies were carrying him into a truck, and I said, 'Would you like me to help you?' And he says, 'No, mom. I got it covered.' That's when I realized that they're totally on their own, they're totally capable of handling everything that comes across their plate."
Beyond the tension, the game itself offers these mothers an incredible experience of seeing their children chase their dreams, leaving Donna to say of her boys: "Basically, it's fantastic. You get to see them play on Sunday. I either get to see them on TV or I get to see them in person. They're both out of town, so I miss them terribly. ... it's a very demanding career, so the time I do get to spend with them is very, very precious."
For Diane Bolden, the emotions often bubble up before Brandon even plays a down.
"I can give you a perfect example," she said. "He was playing with the Miami Dolphins at the time, and we were going up the escalators to go up to our suite, and there were four little boys with his jersey on, and I just lost it. I literally started crying."
The boy still within
Today's NFL transforms 20-somethings into instant millionaires and household names. Barely men, these players face insane temptations.
Is it enough to keep a mother up at night?
"I've never really had problems with that," Donna Kelce said. "I pride myself in teaching them the social game, which is to be involved in your community, respect people's time and keep being inclusive."
For Donna, that even meant watching Travis take his love life public on last year's "Catching Kelce", a dating show on E! that swarmed the pass-catcher with no fewer than 50 suitors in hopes the Pro Bowler might find love.
"He is in a smaller market. You have to do what you have to do," Donna said. "The career is not long, and you have to make the biggest bang that you can in the shortest amount of time. He knew that would help him further his name, and people would start to know who he was, and he would get to know the people in the industry."
Furthering one's name was no problem for Suh early in his career, but much of the attention was unwanted, as the defender was lashed by critics for moments of aggressive -- sometimes flag-worthy -- on-field play.
Bernadette Suh admitted she struggled right away with the narratives that formed around Ndamukong.
"When he first entered the league, I was really nervous about things that I would hear announcers say about other players. And I was nervous about how they were going to perceive my child," Bernadette said. "And after games, I would try to read everything that they would say about him in the newspapers, magazine, radio, whatever. And it got to the point where maybe, in about his third year, some of the things I would hear them say -- or people they would compare him to -- somewhat, it would bother me. And, finally, I said something to him one day about something I had read. And he said to me, 'Mom, you need to stop reading those things.' And I took it to heart."
No matter what you feel about Suh, the idea that an over-the-top penalty or two would characterize his entire persona never made sense.
"I feel like sometimes the things they say are not really, truly about your kid. They're imagining some of their thoughts," Bernadette said. "Because I did hear a couple things an announcer said, and I wondered, Are they really talking about my child? They really don't know my child, because this is not the kid I raised."
In Bernadette's eyes, Ndamukong hasn't been changed by his career or the praise and criticism that come with it, saying: "I think, for the most part, he is the same person. He is very humble."
Marshall has been in the league for more than a decade, and the world has watched him transform. A career tarnished early by off-the-field issues shifted when the receiver, in 2011, announced that he had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
"He's amazing," Diane Bolden said. "That whole experience, to be honest with you: He called me before he came out and shared that with everyone on national TV. And I told him, 'Son, I don't think this is a good idea.' I know I can handle it, the family can handle it, but I don't want anyone judging Brandon. Or treating him awkwardly because of this diagnosis. But it was the best thing that could have happened. Not just for Brandon, but for our whole entire family, because we all were able to do some soul-searching and do a little work on ourselves. Actually, a lot of work because of that. Because of Brandon."
In Diane's eye, pro football has changed her son -- and the evolution is welcome.
"Of course, for the better. It was supposed to. That's what a blessing is supposed to do. A blessing is supposed to change you. It's not supposed to keep you the same," Diane said. "And Brandon has changed for the better. He's grown. He's matured. He's an amazing father, amazing son, brother, friend. He's done good things, he's doing good things with his money. Smart with it. But, yes, it has changed him. A whole lot."
Diane has watched Brandon already shift into a second career with his analyst's role on Showtime's "Inside the NFL". The way she sees it, mom had plenty to do with this new adventure.
"I said, 'If I have to find somebody myself to put you in a movie.' He just looks good on the silver screen," Diane laughed. "Brandon looks good. He's well-spoken. I love it. Prior to him getting the Showtime show, I told him, 'I see you on TV. I see you after your career.' "
These mothers were there for their sons long before football, and they'll be there after the games go silent. It's easy to forget these superstars were once little boys, staring out wide-eyed at the world beyond. Children knit with hopes and dreams of tomorrow.
For both Kelce boys, that connection to youth -- when mom was the center of their world -- comes roaring back to life every Sunday in the fall.
"I try to send them, before every game, a picture of their childhood. To keep them grounded," Donna said. "To help them remember how badly they wanted this. And how they finally got there."
Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSessler.