Ndamukong Suh grew up in Oregon, played collegiately at Nebraska, became a pro in Detroit and now calls South Florida home.
So of all the places you would expect Suh to have a rabid fan club, Spartanburg, South Carolina, is low on the list.
Tell that to the army of aqua-and-orange-clad Dolphins fans who invaded Wofford College last month for their team’s two practices with the Carolina Panthers. Hundreds lined the fences as Dolphins players made their way up the hill and into the locker room, hoping for an autograph or quick picture.
And they all wanted Suh. Little kids in Suh jerseys. Dads with Dolphins collectibles. Even senior citizens didn’t want to miss their chance for a photo with Suh, or, if they were really lucky, a hug.
Suh couldn’t accommodate them all, of course. He had meetings to attend, sleep to catch up on and a business to run. But he didn’t blow them off, either. Not even close.
And he actually seemed to enjoy the give and take.
This is the side of Suh few see, and an aspect virtually no one remembers when Suh does something controversial — and some would even call reckless — on the football field.
The Dolphins bet big on Suh, now the highest-paid defensive player in league history. They bet that he won’t turn into Albert Haynesworth, who lost all motivation after cashing in with the Redskins. And they bet that his on-field problems are truly a thing of the past.
“I’m a humble, hard-working kid from Portland, Oregon,” Suh told the Miami Herald after that practice in Spartanburg. “At the end of the day, I’m going to continue to be that person, and live each and every day with how my parents brought me up: A kid that’s quiet, a true introvert, just loves working hard, being competitive and winning.”
Problem is, Suh’s competitiveness has gotten the best of him more than once. Far more. He has been fined nine times and suspended once for football violations of varying degrees.
And this isn’t a thing of the distant past. He almost missed the Lions’ playoff game in January after stepping on Aaron Rodgers’ leg in Week 17. The league suspended him for the following week, but Suh ultimately got the punishment overturned.
A few months later, when Suh signed that six-year, $114 million contract with Miami, he insisted his temper was not an issue moving forward. And he’s frustrated that most think they know him based on his worst moments.
“I think people that are stuck in their ways are going to stay stuck in their ways,” Suh said. “I really don’t care to change their opinion. If there are people that are on the fence that don’t know me or have never met me, don’t be afraid to come up and ask me a question, get to know me.
“I feel at this point in my life I have nothing to hide. I’ve been in the media eye for long enough. As much as I want to be an introvert, sometimes I’m forced not to be, and it’s OK. But don’t judge me if you don’t know me.”
What we already know about Suh: He is the first Dolphins player who is the best at his position since Jason Taylor was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2006.
They have had good players since. But he’s a truly elite one, an element missing during the team’s six-year playoff drought.
And Suh’s confidence matches his ability.
Olivier Vernon had never met the four-time All-Pro until after Suh signed with Miami.
Their first conversation?
“He just said, ‘You ready to get to these playoffs?’ ” Vernon recalled.
If Suh backs up his swagger with on-field results, he won’t just justify the massive salary. He might also save coach Joe Philbin’s job.
Philbin, who is in a win-or-else situation, is famously consistent with everything from setting his schedule to dealing with the media. But that consistency doesn’t apply to Suh; put simply, the star defensive tackle has more leeway than everyone else on the team.
For now, the caste system in Davie is not divisive, but if the season for whatever reason goes south, it could become so.
Like everything else with Suh, there’s more to the story. He’s a busy man with many interests beyond football. He’s an aspiring Wall Street mogul who has a support team working for him that is led by his sister Ngum, whose Twitter bio sums up her job description: “I am my brother’s keeper.”
So add that to Suh’s massive to-do list (which includes the minor task of revitalizing a once-feared franchise).
“I’d always had tension, or if you want to call it tension or requirements, of being one of the leaders of my family behind my father,” Suh said. “I embrace that, just like I embraced it at Nebraska, being one of the leaders there, looking after the team there and being one of the spokespersons. Same thing in Detroit. I look to hopefully have the same opportunities and responsibilities in Miami.”
Dolphins fans all over hope so, too — even in South Carolina.
Element of success: Defensive tackle
The Dolphins took their biggest defensive liability from 2014 and turned it into their No. 1 strength. All it took was a nine-figure contract and a second-round draft pick.
Ndamukong Suh and Jordan Phillips immediately upgrade a defensive tackle position that allowed nearly 1,000 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in Miami's last six games last season. Suh, the highest-paid defensive player in league history, recorded more sacks (8.5) in 2014 than every Dolphins defensive tackle — combined.