LINCOLN — Years after he won all the awards at Nebraska, made three all-pro teams and signed one of the biggest contracts in NFL history, Ndamukong Suh prayed by himself on the bench as the biggest moment of his pro career unfolded inside the New Orleans Superdome.
The Los Angeles Rams — with whom Suh signed a one-year contract in hopes of enjoying the team success that has long eluded him — were a 57-yard overtime field goal away from an NFC championship win over the Saints.
Suh couldn’t bear to look. He waited for the silence of the crowd.
“And our sideline to erupt,” Suh told The World-Herald. “Which happened.”
He celebrated briefly, screaming “we’re champions” before running to the locker room. It was a “great feeling” for a player who hadn’t won an NFL playoff game before joining the Rams.
His biggest team achievements before going to Los Angeles were bowl wins at Nebraska. His signature game — the 4½-sack performance in the 2009 Big 12 championship — ended in a gut-wrenching loss.
Now he has reached the Super Bowl. The world’s biggest stage.
“That’s all anybody can ask for — to be a cog in the wheel,” Suh said.
A cog in the wheel? When’s the last time Suh — who won the Bednarik, Lombardi, Outland and Nagurski Awards in one season — was just a cog?
Perhaps in those early years at Nebraska, when the Portland native was recovering from an injury and learning how to play the game at the highest level.
For games as a Husker, Suh roomed with the same teammate every Friday and Saturday night — Omaha Creighton Prep graduate Zach Potter — and they formed a friendship that continues today.
“We talked about everything — football, high school, sports, girls,” Potter said. He knew and saw the guy behind the dominating performances, the massive financial gift to Nebraska for its weight room and engineering scholarships, and the many commercials he did during his early NFL career with the Lions.
The people who know that guy — Suh mentions former Huskers like Potter, Jared Crick and Cody Glenn — know how quickly he can turn off the switch from football player to businessman, world traveler, philanthropist, friend. They see beyond the fines and two-game suspension he once received for on-field conduct. Facemask tackles. Arm stomps. Low blocks. A step on Aaron Rodgers’ calf.
“If everybody knew who the real Ndamukong is, they’d understand him better,” Potter said.
Suh is trying to present more of the other side. The national media has, to some degree, obliged.
“Ndamukong Suh Remains One of a Kind on Biggest Stage of His Career,” read a Sports Illustrated headline.
From The Ringer: “Ndamukong Suh Is Surging Just In Time for the Super Bowl.”
He sat down with ESPN this week for a feature on two UNL engineering students who were helped by his scholarship funds. In a piece produced by NFL.com, Suh acknowledged people “probably look at me as an evil person.”
“To people that truly know me, I’m a teddy bear, especially off the field,” the 32-year-old said in the piece.
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Not bad for a guy cut by the Miami Dolphins three years into a six-year, $114 million contract. Suh went looking for a new deal, and chose the short-term option — one year, $14 million with the Rams — over longer-term suitors.
By picking the Rams and a lower deal, Suh got to play alongside Aaron Donald, the league’s best defensive lineman who has transformed into what Suh was when he joined the league in 2010.
Suh also got paired with an explosive offense quarterbacked by Jared Goff and run by coach Sean McVay, who’s just a year older than Suh.
“L.A.’s changed him a little bit because of the success (the Rams) have had,” Potter said. “Truthfully, I think the pressure’s off him because of guys like Aaron Donald, Jared Goff and Sean McVay. He’s on a star-studded team where he can play more of a supportive role compared to when he’s in Detroit and Miami.
“In L.A., it’s a superstar team and the coach is the biggest superstar.”
Suh logged 4 ½ sacks during the regular season — Donald had 20 ½ — but turned up his game in the playoffs. Suh was responsible for a key fourth-down stop against the Cowboys when he blasted his blocker to help slow down Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott. Suh also had 1 ½ sacks against the Saints.
He’s become more than a running mate with Donald. He’s a twin tower.
Suh also plays a position — tackle in a 4-3 — that will allow him to bother Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who can manage just about any scenario but doesn’t care for pressure up the middle into his field of vision.
And Suh knows Brady. He faced the Patriots twice a year while playing for the Dolphins. He had one of his best games as a Dolphin against Brady on a Monday night in 2017. He logged a sack, three tackles, a pass deflection and two quarterback knockdowns.
The Rams leaned on Suh’s knowledge of the Patriots, he said, in preparation for the Super Bowl. Suh, ever confident, is no less so about Sunday.
“I’ve been a part of teams that have beaten them — and unfortunately lost to them,” Suh said.
“But if there’s some things I know, having played against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick over the last three years, is that they’re not invincible by any means. They make mistakes and leave it open for opportunities to win.”
Just as important, Suh added, is the Rams’ offense, which is capable of keeping up with any team. Suh is thrilled with how the entire team functions together — how the wheel rolls when all the cogs are in place.
Should Los Angeles win, it’ll be a signature moment for Suh. A capstone of sorts. His friends know what it would mean.
“It’s a big week for him,” Potter said.
“It just shows you how important it is for any athlete to get to the highest point of his career. At some point it’s not about the money, it’s about the legacy they’re going to leave as a player.”
Photos: Nebraska football's Super Bowl streak
There has been at least one former Husker on a Super Bowl roster for 26 straight years, the longest streak in the nation. Some players like Neil Smith, Grant Wistrom and Scott Shanle played big roles in the Super Bowl, while other years the streak was kept alive by players on the practice squad or injured reserve. Here's a look back at all the ex-Nebraska players on Super Bowl rosters dating back to the streak's start during the 1993 season.