Suh’s Legacy: A Work Ethic That Breeds the Confidence to Win a Big 12 Title
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After a memorable day in the last Big 12 Conference game that will ever be played at Memorial Stadium, you try to measure the impact of the most decorated defensive player in college football history.
You try to frame his legacy.
You try to determine why he was what he was and became what he became.
You even try to define the relevance of Ndamukong Suh's return to participate in a halftime celebration to retire his jersey seven months after he announced a $2.6 million gift to his alma mater.
Then it hits you.
It's the one-year anniversary of Suh's legendary performance in the Big 12 Championship Game, and Nebraska is back in the league's last title game, just like No. 93 promised following the Huskers' first shutout in 45 bowl games last January - a 33-0 win over Arizona.
In the midst of watching Suh's legacy continue to grow into an almost certain all-pro season as an NFL rookie, you ask two questions:
1) What was his greatest legacy? and 2) What can Nebraska take from that legacy and apply to Saturday night's final Big 12 Championship game against Oklahoma?
You'll like the answers we confirmed with his college defensive coordinator.
First, Suh's greatest legacy, without any stretch of imagination, is an unparalleled work ethic that he learned at Nebraska and continues to hone on a daily basis in Detroit.
Secondly, that work ethic is why a 23-year-old defensive lineman who's already a household name across America believes Nebraska can beat Oklahoma.
Within minutes after the Huskers beat Arizona in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl, Suh predicted the Huskers would win the 2010 Big 12 Championship and contend for a national title.
The state of Texas blew up the bigger goal, but Nebraska loves the irony of still having the opportunity to accomplish its primary goal in ... well, the state of Texas.
Wants to a See a Big 12 Title, BCS Bowl Berth
"I came to Nebraska to do the things that everybody else wanted to do - win conference championships and go to BCS bowl games," Suh said. "I didn't get to experience that, but I was able to help build the foundation for the team that can experience that. Look where this program is today. We have another chance, the last chance, to win a Big 12 Championship Game. Win that, and we're in the Fiesta Bowl."
That's incentive plus, and here's the kicker Suh wants everyone to think about and put their arms around: "These guys are 10-2 without me because they have the Nebraska work ethic," he said. "It's the same work ethic I learned under the Pelinis and the same work ethic I see in practice every day in the NFL."
Suh also insists he's still learning from his college coaches, even though he's no longer around them.
"The Pelini brothers molded me into the player that I feel I am now," Suh said. "I mean, every time I come back and get a chance to talk to these guys about schemes and things, it's just a great opportunity. One of the reasons I cried at the Outland Trophy Banquet in Omaha was because I knew how much I would miss Coach Bo and Coach Carl. Having them for my last two years of college meant everything to me. They really touched me, and it hurt that I wasn't going to have them for two more years."
Suh, though, found a way to keep his strong relationship with both mentors. "I know I can call them, and I do," he said. "I know I can text them, and I do. I mean, Nebraska is the best place in America to play defense. I can't say any more about our coaches than what I know is true in my heart - they are the best."
Knowledge + Work Ethic = Confidence
They are the best, Suh said, because they use their combination of knowledge and work ethic to breed what matters most in a championship challenge ... confidence.
Suh personified that in his final season as a Blackshirt. "I would agree that his work ethic is his greatest legacy," Carl Pelini said Monday, recalling how far his defensive tackle came from the year before when he contemplated turning pro after his junior year.
Getting one more year of seasoning from the Pelinis is the greatest decision Suh said he's ever made.
"Halfway through last season, I had a pro scout ask me if I thought Suh would make a good pro," Carl Pelini recalled. "I told him that Ndamukong was already a pro because he approaches the game as a craft. He's like a carpenter who's always looking for a way to get better every day. That's what he did at Nebraska, and that approach hasn't changed at Detroit."
Suh is the celebrity advertisement for a coaching staff making sure that focusing on the process and getting better every day is posted on every meaningful wall in the football complex.
Ask Dominic Raiola, the Hawaii native and Rimington Award winner who flew from Detroit to Lincoln last Friday with Suh, so he could join his Lion teammate and seven other Husker legends that participated in the ceremony.
Raiola: No Name Better than Newest One
"I don't know if there are any bigger names up on that North Stadium wall than Ndamukong Suh's," said Raiola, the Lions' starting center. "Look at what he did for Nebraska football and what he did for college football. No defensive player was ever more decorated. With Suh, it's all about action, not words. He's a superstar, and he's going to be a Pro Bowler as a rookie ... amazing."
Want something more amazing? "He has eight sacks, an interception and a touchdown in his first 11 games in the NFL, and he's getting doubled-teamed, triple-teamed, cut-blocked ... everything," Raiola said. "I mean, I still can't believe my first experience with him in our first preseason game against the Steelers. He was getting double-teamed on the first play ... crazy!"
Suh, of course, got used to the extra attention in the Big 12, so he sees it as a challenge in the NFL.
"It was just a blessing for me to go to Detroit and be able to play with (ex-Huskers) Dom (Raiola) and Kyle (Vanden Bosch," Suh said. "I go against Dom every day in practice, whether it's a walk-through or in full pads. He's taught me all kinds of things on how to beat players I'm going against at his same position. He's a true mentor who's shown me the ropes. He's kicked my butt a couple of times and talked trash to me just like I talk trash to him. It's all fun and games. We've learned a lot from each other, but I've learned more from him than he's learned from me."
Not true. "You know what?" Raiola said. "I get up early and come in to work out about 6 o'clock every morning, and Ndamukong is always there ahead of me. He gets his work done and disappears. It's no wonder he's so good and stays so healthy. We were talking on the flight to Lincoln. He wasn't even tired after playing two complete games in four days. He never wants to come out. You can't describe a guy like him because he never ceases to surprise you. Kyle says he's one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL right now, and he's only played in 11 games."
One Amazing Recruit Will Inspire More
Raiola just shakes his head and laughs in disbelief. "I can't believe the type of success he's had and the type of player he's become," he said. "That speaks volumes for the Nebraska program. I think his success will help Nebraska recruit players just like him. I mean, he's everything they say he is ... and more!"
Suh gives most of the credit to his college coaches. "Every day you spend under the Pelinis and all of our other defensive coaches just makes you that much more confident," Suh said. "They teach you why you have to work so hard every single day."
Again Raiola shakes his head. "With the type of work ethic Ndamukong has," he said, "I can't even imagine the possibilities of how much greater he can be and how fast that might happen."
Raiola wasn't the only one singing Suh's praises. Listen to what seven other Husker legends said about the man whose jersey was retired last weekend:
Tommie Frazier: "He just went out and played the game as hard as he could. He couldn't care less about the accolades. He just straps it up and plays every snap as hard as he can in every game. You don't see too many rookies making the impact he's making in the NFL. He has nothing but great things ahead."
Aaron Graham: "With his accomplishments, Suh's going to be the leader of the pack on that wall. His impact on Nebraska football is something that I don't think even he can comprehend right now. He's a catalyst for recruiting. I don't know why any defensive lineman wouldn't want to come to Nebraska."
Larry Jacobson: "The thing about Ndamukong Suh is he's just so humble. He knows what he needs to do, and he does what he's supposed to do. He doesn't mouth off. He doesn't do anything bad. That's just who he is. It's pretty easy to get excited to see his name up there. He's a great player and a great guy."
Johnny Rodgers: "With Ndamukong's exposure, you see how it can help take Nebraska to the next level. This is the place to come - not just because you're star, but because of the training you will get to be the best you can be, on and off the field. Nebraska has given him great support, and he's given it back."
Will Shields: "What makes this special is seeing your name and number in indelible ink. It's an honorable thing. He performed at a high level in college, and he's proving he deserved to be at the top of the draft pick board. It's up to him to set the stage for what he wants to do next in life."
Dean Steinkuhler: "It's an honor to be on that wall with someone like Ndamukong because of the way he's played over the years and the way he's playing now in the NFL. He is a tremendous player and person ... one of the best, if not the best up there. He's done so much and given so much back."
Zach Wiegert: "Ndamukong is very nice, and that's more important than what he does on the football field any day. Obviously, he was a great college player, and he's already showing he's a great pro, making all the plays against the best in the world. God willing, he'll have a long and great career - on and off the field."
Tom Osborne presented Suh with his retired jersey award. "There's no player who's done more for this university," Nebraska's athletic director said afterwards. "He was great on the field and a great student. Not too many would give the Athletic Department what he gave and endow a full scholarship in Engineering. He's unique. We appreciate everything he stands for, and we're glad we could honor him."
Suh's parents, Michael and Bernadette Suh, and his sister, Ngum, were proud to be part of the ceremony.
"It's wonderful to see him honored like this," Bernadette said. "Everything he's accomplished is the result of his dedication and hard work."
Ngum called the retired jersey ceremony a wonderful moment. "It's always great when his Nebraska family can pat him on the back like we're able to do with our own family," she said. "He's an ambassador and always trying to be the example of what you want your own kids to be."
His father's grin went ear-to-ear before the ceremony even started. "It's incredible," Michael Suh said after watching the big screen and the short presentation. "No. 1, I have to thank Nebraska for embracing him just like a son to them. In some ways, Nebraska is almost taking over my son from me. That makes me happy because there are so many great parents in Nebraska, and I can only say thank God for that."
Voices from Husker Nation
I've lived in Las Vegas for the last 31 years and never miss seeing my Big Red on TV or on radio. Since I grew up in Elkhorn, I consider myself home-grown. I watched Big Suh struggle from one coaching era to excellence in the Pelini era. I am struck by how humble he is in his life. Now on the football field he is all business. He epitomizes the saying that is on the Southwest wall of Memorial Stadium. "Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory." Ndamukong, you are a true warrior sent by God "for such a time like this". Be blessed and highly favored, Big Suh, and Go BIG RED!! John Rasmusen, Las Vegas, Nevada
I read every word about Suh and watched both videos. I even went back to read articles I've already read. Watching "Big Suh" cry at the Outland banquet in Omaha is enough to move anyone to tears. To get the story behind those tears makes it even more meaningful. Thanks for getting the opinions from all the other legends who were on the field last Friday. Their endorsements say it all about the new name on the wall. Sue Schroeder, Omaha, Nebraska
I agree that hard work is Suh's greatest legacy, but his kind of dedication requires the kind of passion the Pelinis instilled. Suh always had the gifts, physically, mentally and spiritually. Bo and Carl just lit the match to that passion and launched him on his personal journey to become the best he can be. As amazing as that transformation has been, no Husker fan should be surprised after watching Devaney and Osborne inspire young men in a similar fashion throughout all these years. Fortunately, now that Pelini's back, our tradition of unparalleled work ethic can continue. Jim Hanson, Kansas City, Missouri
Great story on Suh's work ethic and his relationship with the coaches. In my opinion, every recruit we have or would like to get would benefit from reading this article. Tim Adams, Omaha, Nebraska
Thank you for writing such a wonderful and comprehensive article regarding the Huskers' national treasure, Ndamukong Suh. His legacy continues to grow every day and makes every Nebraskan and every person supporting Husker football glow with pride. We're eager for the Huskers to come down here in the desert so we can see them in person. Larry K. Warren, Scottsdale, Arizona
The fact that Suh immediately gave $2.6 million to the University for athletics and academics says a lot about his character. What an example he has set for past, present and future Huskers! Kevin Horn, Alliance, Nebraska
I'm sure that all athletes who come through Nebraska and end up in the NFL appreciate the university for helping them get there. But I give Suh all the credit in the world for being a pathfinder and showing such genuine appreciation. If more ex-Huskers follow Suh's and Darin Erstad's example and give generously to an institution that gave so much to them, Nebraska will benefit in many ways, including recruiting. I talked to three CU fans that stayed in their seats to watch the halftime presentation honoring Suh. Needless to say, they were impressed that someone who had just graduated from college would give so generously to his alma mater. Thanks for making a big deal out of something that really is a big deal. Steve Brown, Omaha, Nebraska