Step No. 1: Start With a Quote
Use something profane if you’ve got it. You are creating a villain, and we all know how much they like to swear.
Maybe go with one that came just before 10 a.m. on October 6. There on the grass at Lambeau Field lay Ndamukong Suh — tackler of quarterbacks, breaker of rules both written and not, and for the purposes of your hit piece, the vilest head-stomping and groin-kicking specimen in football. In two hours, Suh’s Lions would kick off against the Packers, but for now he was sprawled across the end zone with headphones on, stretching with a trainer as teammates waited their turn. Lions center Dylan Gandy approached with two other Detroit players, and the whole group chuckled as they discussed whatever it is men discuss two hours before they play a game of pro football.
Perhaps they were talking about Suh’s latest fine: $100,000, the largest for on-field behavior in league history, for a low block against the Vikings’ John Sullivan. Perhaps they were talking about what he might do against the Packers, what new fines he might earn, how he might add to his lore. Perhaps they were talking about the weather. Regardless of the topic, soon Suh raised his hand and swung it through the fall air, mimicking a backhanded slap. And just before they all laughed, just before they dispersed to continue preparing for an afternoon of violent spectacle, Suh yelled the one sentence that anyone standing nearby could hear. “That’s gonna be 50 million, bitch!”
You don’t know the context. That’s OK. Because here’s the most important thing you have to understand before writing a takedown of Suh: Context will only hurt your case. View Suh through the proper selective lens and he might look like your perfect villain, but give him a chance to explain himself, listen to what he has to say, and view him in the context of a sport that turns its athletes into neurology patients and a league that sells the carnage and then, all of a sudden, the definition of “villain” gets blurred.
Step No. 2: List His Indiscretions
Before you get to the interview, build the foundation of your case against Suh with examples from his career. There was the third preseason game of his rookie season, when Suh grabbed Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme’s face mask, then seemed to twist his neck as if screwing the cap off a bottle. There was the forearm to the back of Jay Cutler’s head, the Andy Dalton body slam, and, of course, the quote calling an injury to Matt Ryan “karma.”
Lucky for you, the worst moment of Suh’s career came on national television on a national holiday — the Thanksgiving smash-and-stomp of Green Bay’s Evan Dietrich-Smith. And then, the next Thanksgiving, his encore: a flailing kick to Matt Schaub’s groin. And just in case any readers think this is all in the past, make sure to reference recent events like the low block against Sullivan and the elbow to Arizona lineman Eric Winston’s head.
Got all that? Now you can set the scene for the one-on-one. It was a Friday afternoon in the lobby of a luxury hotel in downtown Birmingham, a moneyed suburb just north of Detroit. Suh walked in wearing an orange Lacoste T-shirt and jeans, along with Nikes made from the skin of an indeterminate reptile and enough cologne to cover a man twice as large as Suh’s 6-feet-4-inches and 307 pounds.
Jazz played in the background. Suh occupied an entire loveseat. His handshake was polite and his voice was soft. Disregard these details. Polite and soft do you no good. Keep it simple and let Suh talk at length about his place in the league and how he plays the game.
Step No. 3: Make Him “Respond to His Critics”
This gives the appearance that you’re sympathetic and fair, that you’re giving him space to vent, when really you’re just cementing the fact that he has critics to whom he must respond. After all, does J.J. Watt ever have to “fire back” at “detractors”? Must Tom Brady “speak out” against “slams”? The more you get Suh to defend himself, the more you drive home the idea that his actions are beyond defense.
Pick out a quote that gets into Suh’s violent reputation. Like this one: “I’m never, ever going out there to hurt anybody. I’m going out there to make plays. I’m going out there to win. That’s what I’ll continue to do. And the media is gonna be who the media is. They’re gonna say what they’re gonna say. But the facts are what the facts are.”
Facts. That term is useful.
Step No. 4: Write a Paragraph-Long Screed About “Facts”
Like the fact that he had nine personal foul penalties in his first two years. Also the fact that he has lost $374,294 to fines and suspensions, followed by the fact that his fellow players have twice voted him “Dirtiest Player in the NFL.” But keep in mind that writing a hit piece is more about what you ignore than what you include, so be sure to omit a few facts. Don’t mention that he has only two personal foul penalties in the last two years. Also gloss over the manner in which his now unavoidable reputation as a cheap-shot artist has escalated the amount of his fines. Finally, pretend that NFL players don’t consume the same media narratives as fans.
Step No. 5: Cut Any Other Quotes From Suh About His Reputation
It might be tempting, for example, to include the moment when he said, “I don’t even think of myself as an aggressive player.” But if you use that quote, then you might be obligated to use what he said next: “I just happen to play an aggressive sport. I think it’s no different from someone that plays tennis who has to learn how to develop a backhand. As a lineman, you have to learn how to play with your hands. You have to learn how to shut off a blocker. You have to do those things that make you dominant. And if you’re dominant, you’re going to look more aggressive than everybody else.”
Best to leave that out. Because once you’ve used that, you’ve allowed Suh to defend himself in a way that makes sense.
Step No. 6: Put Together a Villain “Origin Story”
Find a way to transition into a section on Suh’s background. Long before he destroyed quarterbacks, Suh once destroyed his own toys. Maybe something less over-the-top, but you get the idea. And here’s the best part: It’s true. “I always loved to tear stuff apart,” he says.
This is perfect because it establishes a lifelong theme of destruction — Suh ripping to pieces whatever object, human or inanimate, happened to be within grasp. Toss in some examples and you’ll be rolling. There was the time he yanked out the parts of the family telephone. How about his onetime hobby of building toy Ferris wheels with K’Nex, just so he could smash them to pieces? Even as Suh got older and started playing soccer, his kicks broke the miniature goals.
Now you can move straight into the way he played youth sports — a mass of fast-twitch devastation who marauded his way up the court and down the field. Other kids just bounced off him, Suh remembers, and adults looked at his miles-apart shoulders and his immigrant parents, and they demanded, “Show us his birth certificate.” So Bernadette Suh did. Her boy was born in 1987, just like everyone else in his league. “He’s not too old,” she told them. “He’s just big.”
Suh started playing football in eighth grade, but his mother refused to let him play as a high school freshman until he could prove himself capable of maintaining a 3.0 GPA. He resumed play his sophomore year as an offensive guard. “Offensive line is boring,” he says. “It’s just getting in someone’s way.” So Suh asked his coach to move him to defense. Defense meant disruption and chaos. Defense was where Suh believed he belonged. But in telling this, try not to let it slip that Suh didn’t love the sport for its violence. “It was being able to break something down, digest it, understand it,” he says. “See how a line functions, how an offense functions. I just wanted to have that knack for analyzing something and then tearing it apart.”
Football to Suh always felt like a puzzle. The final piece just happened to be a quarterback flat on his back.
Step No. 7: Don’t Talk to His Parents
Suh has said that he’ll change his play on the day his mother thinks he’s crossed a line. Don’t bother going down that road, because that day has yet to arrive. “I don’t see what he’s doing as any different from what other players are doing,” says Bernadette Suh. “Those are effort plays. Why he’s under such a microscope, I don’t know.” Says his dad, Michael: “They want you to be the best, they want you to go after the quarterback, but then they want to say it’s too much. They want to make up the rules as they go.”
Though they’re both immigrants from countries where American football is not played, Suh’s parents have come to understand the way the machine works. “Someday, this will go away,” Michael says. “They’ll find someone else to talk about. Then it will be over.” For now, Richie Incognito has earned his place as the league’s most-reviled player. But soon enough, Suh could deliver another hit that draws another fine, triggering another round of outrage. His parents know this. They just hope that eventually the venom will fade.
“He’s not mean,” says Bernadette. “He’s not dirty. He’s a kind kid. He just happens to be physically gifted. He was raised to be sensitive. He was raised by a loving mother.”
Step No. 8: Search His Background for “Red Flags”
This is easy. There was his suspension in eighth grade after a physical altercation with a male teacher. There was the last game of his high school career, when he punched an opposing lineman in the face. These were warning signs, you should say, evidence of a violent character.
But Suh’s time at Nebraska won’t do much to help your argument. Reporters fawned over him then, portraying him as an erudite demolition man — sophisticated and brutish in all the right ways. “It’s funny,” he says, “because I’m the same player and the same person now that I was then. And back then the perception from the media was, ‘He’s a great guy.’”
There is one quote you should pluck from the archives. It came from Bears guard Matt Slauson, Suh’s teammate at Nebraska, who told the New York Post that in college Suh “wasn’t well liked.” There are also anonymously sourced reports that Suh got into fights during practice. Lean on those rather than leaning on people like former Huskers quarterback Joe Ganz, who now says, “Of course he got in fights! He’s a defensive lineman. That’s what defensive linemen and offensive linemen do. They fight each other. It’s not like they were boxing in the locker room. It’s just football.” Also stay away from Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis: “That kind of thing happens in just about every practice at every school in the country. It happened while Ndamukong was here, and it’s continued happening since he left. But to say he did anything out of the ordinary, anything dirty — no, never that.”
Step No. 9: Study the Media Members Who Have Villainized Him Already
Honestly, this entire 13-step formula would be unnecessary if you’d just spend enough time combing through newspaper and online archives. The Chicago Tribune: “Suh is a punk.” Yahoo Sports: “Suh’s thuggish play.” The two columns by two different CBS Sports writers calling Suh the most overrated player in the league. The templates are already there. Find them. Follow them. Recognize your place in the long tradition of deriding Suh’s character.
And don’t forget about the broadcasters. You can’t forget about the broadcasters. There’s the NFL Network’s Warren Sapp, who said of Suh on air, “He’s a blind dog in a meat house.” Suh, however, says analysts can’t always be trusted to speak their minds. “I’ve been in those studios,” he explains. “They’re not always saying what they believe. They’re saying what somebody in their ear tells them to say, or they’re saying something just because they know they’ve got to have a strong opinion. And I’m an easy target.”
Suh understands his role as the league’s bad guy. He believes it has been given, not earned. He speaks of “agendas,” of “creating headlines” and “selling papers” — the same clichés used by oft-criticized public figures the world over. It’s easy to casually disregard these sentiments, and that’s good, because if you think about them too much you might see that sometimes he has a point. It is true, for example, that reporters can’t resist a narrative with a strong bad guy — even when that villain’s character needs to be goosed up a tad. And it is true, as well, that after Suh roughed up a few opponents, a sense of confirmation bias set in. And it is true, of course, that the best way to get favorable coverage is to play nice with reporters — that an athlete who “gets it” addresses beat writers by name, and the “prima donna” is the guy who turns his back to the microphones.
Suh makes it clear that he wishes his reputation would go away. “I don’t embrace it,” he says of his villainy, not the way Detroit’s “Bad Boy” Pistons once did. Suh smiles in Subway ads and snarls on command in commercials for Nike and Dick’s Sporting Goods. He gave an interview to Jimmy Fallon. He’s done reality TV. He has a personal public relations consultant who works in tandem with the Lions and Suh’s sister and personal manager, Ngum, to shape his image and set up a post-NFL career. All of this makes Suh maddeningly well polished, pivoting questions about his reputation and his play into answers about his philanthropic ambitions. After being asked about criticism from fellow players: “I just haven’t seen any of that. I don’t pay attention to the papers. I don’t watch TV. Even today, everyone was in the locker room talking about Scandal. I just don’t get it. I mean, yeah, I guess Kerry — not Keri Hilson, Kerry Washington — is beautiful, but I’d rather be doing something that stimulates my mind. I want to be known as someone who takes this team, this city, to new heights, but I don’t always want to be known as Ndamukong the football player. I want people to say, ‘He’s an amazing guy from a business standpoint, from a philanthropy standpoint.’ I don’t ever want to be considered a dumb jock. I think paying attention to TV would do that to me.”
See? That stuff is useless. Whether you’re writing a hit piece or just a straight profile, you can’t do much with I don’t pay attention to criticism because I want to be a great human being. So you have a couple of options. You could listen to Suh as he goes into more detail. “If I’m not spending as much time as I can preparing for life after football, then I’m doing myself a disservice,” he says. “Marketing is fun — all of that stuff is fun — but it’s more fun to learn from the people who are running these companies. You can’t just play football for 10 or 12 years and then magically have another career. That has to start now.”
Or instead of listening to him, you can follow the lead of Yahoo Sports, which cast Suh’s PR efforts as willful manipulation — “Suh’s distorted self-image meeting reality.” Set this up as Suh’s paradox: smiling pitchman off the field, snarling hit man on it. The ads are a distraction; the generosity, like his $2.6 million gift to the University of Nebraska, an act of deception.
It can’t be that he happens to be a rich guy who likes the place where he went to college. It can’t be that he wants to figure out how to make a living after he’s done bruising craniums. That would reflect the mentality of a human, not a borderline monster. So no, it’s not that. Not with Suh.
Step No. 10: Figure Out How to Get Around the Fact That He’s Among the Best Defensive Tackles in the NFL
This part is tricky. In years past you could have pointed to Suh’s underwhelming numbers (only four sacks in 2011; only 25 tackles in 2012) or to the Sporting News poll of players that listed him among the most overrated players in the league. Suh himself admits that his 10-sack rookie season was only loosely connected to his performance. “I had no idea what I was doing that year,” he says. In the years since, Suh explains, he has improved by learning how and when to deviate from the coaches’ game plan.
“Say we have a blitz,” he says, “and I’m supposed to hit the B gap. But I have some inkling — I look at this guard, and he’s heavy on the outside and he’s coming out to me, so what I’m gonna do instead is go to the inside of him, and then I’ll bow back out to get to my B gap where I was supposed to be originally and run through.
“So on that play, I was wrong. I went through the blitz the wrong way, but I made the play. My rookie year I never would have made that play.”
It has worked. Which is a shame, since your story would track better following the narrative pushed by the anonymous GM who told Pro Football Weekly last year, “Suh belongs on the All-Hype Team.” Still, you probably have to acknowledge that he has 4.5 sacks through 10 games. That’s OK. Four and a half sacks won’t blow anyone’s mind. But the wheels really start to come off when you analyze Suh’s play more closely. Do your best to avoid Pro Football Focus, which credits Suh with 38 quarterback hurries, nine more than any other player at his position.
And don’t listen to Suh’s coach, Jim Schwartz, who says: “Statistics don’t even begin to show what he does. We’re getting a lot of sacks that come just because he ate up two blockers or he freed somebody else up. We’ve had a couple interceptions that he’s forced by putting pressure on the quarterback. If there was an assist category in the NFL, he’d probably be leading the league.” Adds Suh: “See, the only reason we’re even talking about me having good numbers this year is because I had a two-sack game. Take that away and the numbers are completely different. So you can’t say I’m having a good year just because you looked at the numbers. Without those two sacks, I’m still having a good year. I’m having a good year because Ziggy Ansah is putting up numbers, and same for Nick Fairley and Willie Young and C.J. Mosley and on and on. That’s why I love playing this position. It’s about all of us doing it together.” Schwartz points to a particular play against Chicago in Week 4. The Bears converted a third down, but the play was called back because Kyle Long was flagged for hands to Suh’s face. “I mean, how do you chart stuff like that?” says Schwartz. “There are a lot of weeks where his statistics just don’t show you how well he’s playing.”
Away from the field, Suh has started talking. This is new. “The first couple years I was here,” says Fairley, “I mostly just learned from him by paying attention to what he didn’t say. Just watching him shut up and go about his business.” But in training camp this year, Suh stood alongside quarterback Matthew Stafford, telling veterans and newcomers what was expected of the team. Now, he organizes Friday-night sushi or steak dinners with the other linemen. “That’s the highlight of my week, a lot of the time,” he says. “We have something special on that line, and those dinners are a big part of it.” So you should steer clear of people like defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, who says, “People who aren’t in that D-line room just don’t see it. They don’t see how thoughtful he is, how much he wants to get better, how much he wants everyone to get better. It would be a lot harder for people to say all this stuff about him if they spent any time getting to know him.”
And you shouldn’t spend any time talking to players like Andre Fluellen, the Lions’ defensive tackle who played for the Dolphins last season. If you do, you’ll hear quotes like this: “You talk to guys around the league, and they want to know how to play like he does. They’re like, ‘How can I imitate him? How can I do that?’ But you can’t. No one else can play the way he plays.”
Not useful. But that does lead to an idea for the next step.
Step No. 11: Round Up Quotes From Other Players Around the League
There’s no argument against this, right? Suh’s defenders can argue against the media, but against other players? No way. Take New Orleans’s Ben Watson: “He is making it a danger for a lot of guys, and his conduct needs to stop.” And back on the day of the stomp, there was Green Bay’s T.J. Lang: “He’s going to learn sooner or later that he can’t play football that way in this league.”
And then, just last month, there was Cleveland’s Jabaal Sheard, who said of Suh’s play: “I don’t respect it. I don’t like it. He’s a great player, he’s a dominant player. I don’t think he needs to do all the dirty stuff.”
That’s good. That’s what you’re looking for. But make sure you edit that last quote just right. You want to leave out the beginning, when Sheard set up his entire assessment of Suh by saying, “I just watch the highlights y’all put on ESPN with him hurting somebody.” You don’t want to remind readers that at the time of his quote, Sheard had never played a game against Suh, and you don’t want to remind them that Sheard — like all athletes — is both a participant in and a consumer of the same media narratives as fans.
So be smart. Edit carefully. And then, when you’re done, go try to get a follow-up interview with T.J. Lang. He’s the Packer who spoke out against Suh on the day of the stomp. He might have something interesting to say this time around — just hope that he’s in a different mood than he was in on October 6, when he sat at his locker after the Packers beat the Lions 22-9. Because in that moment, Lang, two years removed from Suh’s ejection and a few minutes removed from his latest clash with the NFL’s baddest villain, looked up at reporters, half his uniform still on, and said of Suh, “If I played D-tackle, that’s the way I would want to play football.”
Come on! If you’re going to write a hit piece, you’ve got to get a quote better than that.
Step No. 12: Develop an Airtight Sense of Denial
This is the most important step. Follow it and you’ll be fine. Forget it and the whole story falls apart. Because here’s the one principle that guides this whole thing: You can demonize only Suh if you maintain the illusion that football etiquette matters — that the violence is only harmful when it violates the sport’s rules.
Just make it simple. Suh once pounded a man’s head into the ground then stomped on that man with a cleat as he rose to walk away. That is bad. And Suh might have meant to kick Matt Schaub in the balls, like he might have meant to take out John Sullivan’s knees. And he might have laughed when Winston Justice went down, perhaps taking pleasure in the harm he’d caused another man. Then there are his hits on quarterbacks. Jake Delhomme’s neck rotating like an owl’s. Jay Cutler’s head bouncing off the turf. They’re gruesome sights, so vile that it might make you question your love for the sport.
But that’s where the denial comes in. You have to ignore the quotes like Joe Ganz’s — “It’s just football” — not because they let Suh off the hook but because they remind us that the whole endeavor is gruesome. Ignore the research that shows that the long-term damage to players comes not from highlight tackles like Suh’s but from the cumulative effect of small hits that occur in every game, every practice, every day. Cut Suh’s quotes like this: “The damage comes from those constant little hits, those small little train wrecks or car crashes that happen on every play. Where you’re head-butting a guy, or a guy’s pressing you and he head-butts you — that kind of stuff that happens constantly.”
Gloss over the way that the NFL and its compliant media (present company included) portray athletes like Suh as villains. It’s useful for them to make an example out of someone, to tell themselves and the fans that they’re serious about player safety by coming down hard on a player who has been branded as dangerous. If we can crack down on big hits and dirty players, the thinking goes, then we’ll really clean up the league. Bigger fines and longer suspensions and realer consequences will lead to greater accountability among players. The game still won’t be totally safe, but we can make it a safe place for fans to have a clear conscience while they high-five over brain-rattling hits.
Emphasize that Suh has almost certainly endangered another man’s long-term health. But don’t get into the research that says the realest danger came not from stomps or kicks or the grabbing of face masks, but from the simple fact that he plays football, and football inflicts damage on every play of every game. Keep up the appearance that Suh’s tipping point came when he threw that punch in high school or when he cranked Delhomme’s neck before he had ever played a regular-season game. Don’t acknowledge that the real moment Suh became an agent of destruction was much earlier, on a late-summer afternoon when he was in the eighth grade.
Suh had never played football, but he decided to try out for the team. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “I just listened to the coaching.” They told him to hit, so he hit. They told him to tackle, so he tackled. They told him to do what football coaches tell football players to do. Pulverize the man in front of him. Let nothing stand between Suh and the ball. “I liked to disrupt stuff,” he says. Because he was big, he could do that, and he did. Everyone patted him on the back. Suh felt cool.
He was a football player now, and he was good.
Step No. 13: Find Your Closing Scene
A good place to look was in Lambeau’s visiting locker room minutes after the Lions’ loss on October 6. Detroit had been dominated, Suh had been neutralized, and now the reporters streamed in to listen to players explain their struggles. Near the front stood wide receiver Calvin Johnson, talking into microphones even though he hadn’t played. In the middle, there was center Dominic Raiola, owning up to mistakes made by the offensive line. As for Suh, you couldn’t find him unless you rushed to the back of the room. There, he could be seen walking out one door as reporters walked in another, headed toward a bus, not to be heard from on this day.
Make sure you describe the way he looked: A hulk of malevolence; somehow even more fearsome when unhidden by his pads; dressed, it just so happens, all in black.