The sports-nostalgia gene is stronger in some people than others. It doesn’t take much to get me excited about the players and teams of yore, and my feelings are strongest when discussing an individual season of a standout athlete. My boss, Bill Simmons, devoted an entire chapter of his Book of Basketball (“The Wine Cellar”) to the idea that players’ careers can be measured one season at a time: Reminiscing about the year (or years) that given athletes owned a sport is a telling way to consider their greatness.
This is relevant because at Big 12 media days last week, new University of Texas head football coach Tom Herman brought up Ndamukong Suh’s final collegiate season at Nebraska in 2009. Here’s the audio, via my longtime friend and Sports on Earth writer David Ubben. “I got a little disappointed [in ’09] when Ndamukong Suh didn’t win [the Heisman Trophy],” Herman said. “That was the most dominant football player I have ever seen, probably still to this day … on a college football field.”
Herman’s quote prompted me to nod vigorously before heading to YouTube to dig up any highlights of the defensive tackle I could find. After tumbling down a hole lined with quarterback carcasses, I didn’t come away disappointed.
Any person even casually familiar with college football remembers the destruction Suh wrought in the 2009 Big 12 championship game against Texas. He was omnipresent, and I’d guess that Colt McCoy still checks for Suh underneath his bed every night. Though the Cornhuskers lost to the Longhorns 13–12, Suh turned in the most physically dominant performance I’ve ever seen from a college player — he finished with 12 tackles, including six for loss and 4.5 sacks — and his ridiculous stat line doesn’t come close to conveying what a force he was in that game. Suh looked like vengeful god smiting a town that had dared to defy him.
My favorite highlight from that night came early in the third quarter. On a second-and-23 from the Texas 24-yard line, two plays after the Longhorns had been penalized for chop-blocking Suh on first down, Suh shrugged off a double team, torpedoed into the backfield, got his claws on McCoy, and tossed the quarterback like a discus for a 7-yard sack. At that point, McCoy weighed around 215 pounds. Suh put him airborne for about 15 feet. There was legitimate hang time.
Like all transcendent athletes at the peak of their powers, Suh looked like a grown man playing against middle schoolers. The way he moves in highlights relative to players around him is tough to process. The footage looks doctored. He was bigger, stronger, and quicker than everyone else, and that blend of traits made him virtually unstoppable.
The sheer number of bodies involved in a football game should make it impossible for any non-quarterback to single-handedly keep his team competitive, but Suh did that all the time during the ’09 season. Against the Longhorns, Nebraska managed just 106 yards of total offense. The Huskers recorded more than twice as many combined punts and turnovers (11) as first downs (5). This happened against the third-ranked team in the country, one that finished the campaign averaging 39.3 points per game, and Nebraska still should’ve beat the Longhorns due to the carnage Suh caused.
Herman, who comes to Texas from the University of Houston, served as Iowa State’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2009. The Cyclones visited Suh and the Huskers in October of that year, and forced Nebraska’s offense to turn the ball over a whopping eight times. Iowa State won by only two points (9–7), though, in large part due to Suh’s holy shit–level impact when the Huskers defense was on the field.
Suh’s game tape and box scores should be enough to communicate what kind of player he was that fall, but my appreciation for him goes further. That season was my first as a football reporter, as I covered the eminently forgettable Missouri Tigers. Nebraska visited Columbia on October 8 for a matchup that was notable chiefly because torrential downpour knocked out Memorial Stadium’s sound system for a huge chunk of the first half. The rain came in sideways, the thunder crackled in the distance, and that storm was the second-most vicious force of nature I witnessed that night.
Suh terrorized Mizzou’s Blaine Gabbert for the better part of three hours in a 27–12 win, finishing with a handful of tackles, a sack, an interception, and a deflected pass. But what will stick with me is how keenly aware Gabbert was of his presence for the entire game. Playing quarterback against Suh in 2009 was like being lowered into a swimming pool with a great white shark. It didn’t matter that the shark might not be inches away from your face at a given moment. In that setting, the shark was never as far away as you’d like.
Suh’s ’09 season was as transcendent as it was remarkable, and looking through his old YouTube highlights felt like rediscovering why I got into covering football in the first place. So do yourself a favor and spend the next 15 minutes doing the same. You won’t regret it.