Ndamukong Suh’s first name means “House of Spears” in the language of his forebears from the Ngemba tribe of Cameroon.
The name fits the way the Miami Dolphins’ new 6-4, 305-pound defensive tackle plays football. He attacks running backs, brings down quarterbacks and inflicts pain to such an extreme degree that he has been fined $420,669 for mistreating opponents.
He injects nastiness into a team perceived as a milquetoast of mediocrity, a team that, aside from the 2013 bullying scandal, has been an NFL afterthought since it last made the playoffs in 2008.
But Suh is so dominant he makes the Dolphins relevant again. Team owner Stephen Ross is so convinced of Suh’s ability to transform the league’s 24th-ranked run defense that he was willing to pay Suh-sized numbers for the most prized free agent on the market.
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Ross welcomed ex-Lion Suh (pronounced En-DOM-ah-ken Sue) to the Dolphins on Wednesday after making him the highest-paid defensive player in the league with a six-year, $114 million contract, including $60 million guaranteed. Only four quarterbacks — three of them Super Bowl winners — earn more than Suh in the NFL.
“I love challenges, I’m excited about the pressure — it’s something I’m built for,” Suh said. “Money is not the most important factor. This team has a great nucleus that needs a few pieces to get us over the hump. I want to be the cornerstone of it.”
Long-suffering Dolfans’ gain is Detroit’s loss. Suh, 28, comes to Miami with a brilliant record of accomplishment. The three-time first-team All-Pro who was drafted second out of the University of Nebraska has amassed 239 tackles and 36 sacks in five seasons.
“He’s a power player who impacts a game — not only statistically but in how he alters game plans,” said Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey.
But Suh also has a reputation as a player with a tendency to cross the line — from aggressive to ferocious. On occasion, his hits have been ruled unnecessarily harsh, unsportsmanlike or late. He’s been fined eight times for player-safety violations. Sporting News named him the NFL’s Dirtiest Player and a Forbes/Nielsen report named him the NFL’s Least-Liked Player. The Dolphins previously employed former Dirtiest Player Richie Incognito, until he was cut for bullying Jonathan Martin.
Suh insists he never intends to hurt anybody. He’s simply doing what he’s supposed to do and what the violent game of football embraces as its reason for existence. He stops and drops opponents — in their tracks, behind the line of scrimmage or wherever they try to flee — with intimidating energy.
“I’ve been misunderstood in a lot of ways, and that’s understandable,” he said. “It’s about people having their own opinions rather than getting to know me. But people learn from their mistakes and grow and become better human beings. My assurance is that won’t be an issue here.”
Family members from Suh’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, who accompanied Suh to his introductory press conference at the Dolphins’ Davie headquarters said the “dirty player” tag is an unfair and simplistic characterization of Suh.
“It’s an easy label and a lazy label placed on him,” said Ngum Suh, the eldest of Suh’s four sisters.
Suh’s mother, Bernadette, a native of Jamaica and a retired elementary school teacher, said it pains her to hear misperceptions about her son.
“He’s a totally different person on the field compared to off,” she said. “This is his job, for which he does need to be aggressive. Most people don’t seem to like it. There is nothing angry about him. He’s not an angry man. But he plays with great intensity.”
Suh’s coaches, from Grant High School in Portland to Nebraska to Detroit, describe him as cerebral, studious in his preparation, and meticulous about following instructions. He’s known to be serious and somewhat aloof. Not one to waste words.
Yet headline-making incidents have dogged him.
On Thanksgiving Day 2011, against the Green Bay Packers, after an incomplete pass, Suh pounded lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith’s head into the turf three times, then stood up and stomped on Dietrich-Smith’s arm. Suh was suspended and docked pay for two games.
On Thanksgiving Day 2012, Suh kicked Houston quarterback Matt Schaub in the groin. He said his foot accidentally hit Schaub as he was being pulled to the ground. He was fined $30,000.
In 2013 against the Vikings, Suh low-blocked John Sullivan and was fined $100,000. Five weeks later against the Browns, he delivered a rough take-down on quarterback Brandon Weeden, and although he was not called for a penalty he was fined $31,500.
Last season against Green Bay, Suh stepped on quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ calf. He was initially suspended for Detroit’s playoff game, but he appealed and the suspension was reduced to a $70,000 fine.
He’s also whipped his forearm into Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler’s head, dragged another player down by his hair and was fined for making a throat slash gesture.
All part of the game, and part of the mixed message from the NFL, say Suh and his defenders.
“He’s not a monster, but people respect him,” said Suh’s father, Michael, who grew up in Cameroon and played semi-pro soccer in Germany. “I play soccer and sometimes I tackle someone hard and they give me a yellow card. That doesn’t mean I’m dirty. I say this not because he’s my son but you can see that he’s focused and determined when he competes.”
Suh played soccer until he was 14. He had to talk his parents into letting him play football.
“I was scared of football,” Michael Suh said. “I only knew people piled on top of each other. Now I’m not scared because they’re scared of Ndamukong.”
Suh was always the biggest kid on the field, but his father is only 5-8. Suh inherited his size from his Cameroonian great-grandfather, who is 7-3. Running backs know he’s also stunningly quick for his girth. He played basketball and was shot put state champion in high school.
Sister Ngum, whose name means Giver of Power and Strength, was a Mississippi State and Cameroon national team soccer player. She is her brother’s confidante, advisor and glue of a close family.
Michael Suh, an engineer who runs a plumbing, heating and air conditioning business, named his company Suh and Son Mechanical because Ndamukong suggested it when he used to go out on jobs with his father, learning the work ethic he still abides by as a multimillionaire.
Suh, who graduated from Nebraska’s engineering school with a construction management degree, is keen on becoming a businessman after his playing days are over. He counts Omaha investment wizard and philanthropist Warren Buffett — who called Ross to congratulate him on signing Suh — among his friends. Suh has donated $2.6 million to Nebraska and $250,000 to Grant High.
Now Dolphins followers will get a chance to understand the misunderstood Suh. Ross will see if his investment pays off. And Suh looks forward to playing alongside Cameron Wake and with quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
“I respect Ryan Tannehill,” said Suh, who looked downright congenial as he broke into a smile. “Because he’s taken hits from me. I had a tough time bringing him down.”