The first time Richard Lane thrust his forearm across a receiver’s neck and ruthlessly tossed him to the ground, it helped him earn a spot on the Los Angeles Rams roster. The second time, he gained a reputation. In 1960, while playing for the Detroit Lions, a teammate gave him the moniker "Night Train." The legend was hatched and Lane was off and running. His signature move, a clothesline tackle that included vicious a blow to the neck or head, was known as the "Night Train necktie."
Eventually the necktie maneuver was banned from the league. But the man himself remained. Night Train (below left) had the respect of his peers and his fans. For all of his headhunting, Richard Lane has 68 picks, a bust in the Hall of Fame, and a nickname that's ready-made for the tallest of tales. That’s the way it should be. Of course we're having this discussion 51 years after the fact. Death and time can turn anyone into a folk hero.
Perhaps even Ndamukong Suh.
The game hasn’t changed as much as we have. We believe in fantasy. We believe in nightmares too. Ndamukong Suh has become the latter. Boo Radley is coming to get you. The Boogie Man is real and he plays the three technique for the Detroit Lions. Oh the horror for all the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving Day, who while dining on their roast beast, saw Suh viciously slamming Packers lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith’s head into the turf.
Probably not the most easily digested image of someone born of Jamaican and Cameroonian parents. The name alone, Ndamukong Suh, rich with consonants and culture, is enough to strike fear into the unsuspecting viewer.
At first, I was torn by this episode.
I was torn because Ndamukong Suh's first public act, before he'd ever played a professional down, was to give $2 million to the University of Nebraska athletic department and another $600,000 to the Engineering department.
I was torn because Ndamukong Suh is what you call a stud. His time at Nebraska bore witness to the future of football. All of his stats -- sacks, tackles, tackles for loss, passes broken up, blocked kicks, even interceptions returned for touchdowns -- were plural numbers.
I was torn because there's this voice in my head. It's gotten louder in the last two years. In that time players have been punished for hitting one another. The helmet-to-helmet debate is based on the comical premise that a person's neck and shoulders can operate independently from his head -- as if he's Plastic Man. I hear the voice. It's the voice of Deacon Jones, the go-to-guy for anyone who craves the old school perspective.
I last spoke to Deacon when Vernon Davis was acting a fool in San Francisco. But we talked about defense too. In the 60's and 70's, Jones (below right) single-handedly crafted the definitive persona for the down lineman. In fact he coined the term "sack." Jones' take on the modern game is reflective of most guys from his era: Annoyed. "The game today is played from the neck to the waist," says Jones. "But we could hit you from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. And the quarterback was a wide open situation."
Mention Brett Favre's streak of 279 consecutive games and Jones will summon the demons from a less politically correct (and concussion-aware) era. "I would rather slap my mama than allow a quarterback to play 279 games in a row," he says. "Somebody supposed to put him on the ground!"
That's the sentiment echoed by Suh. He's remorseless and mean, playing as if there were no consequences -- like all the old school guys did. Suh's necktie around Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was once par for the course. But today, the quarterback is the leading man in an oddly constructed morality play. Football is viewed by fans as being comprised of actual heroes and villains. In this theatre, the athletes always remain in character and their style of play marks them as good or evil.
It wasn't always so.
Guys like Night Train and Deacon had other jobs. Lane worked at an airplane factory, hauling slabs of metal into a bin. The average salary in the early 1960’s was about $6,000 a year. Those athletes always kept one foot in the so-called real world. They had teammates in the fall and co-workers the rest of the year. This dual citizenship made them human.
Ndamukong Suh has no such citizenship. Exorbitant wealth and brute strength place him in the category of "other." I agree with the decision to suspend him. I say that because impressionable youth league players are watching his every move. And how many moronic youth league coaches have become YouTube sensations because of their violent actions? Because of all that I think Suh should be punished to the fullest extent of the football law. In the aftermath I hope he changes his ways.
But I live in reality, so I don't buy into the notion that Ndamukong Suh is an actual menace to society. In his own aberrant way Suh is honoring the classic version of the game. And one day we'll appreciate his contribution.
I'd say around the year 2060.
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