Tim Twentyman, Detroit News staff writer
When Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh decided to play college football at the University of Nebraska, it was never a priority to make a NFL career out of it.
It wasn't until the summer leading into his senior season that Suh realized how much of a hot commodity he was going to be in the 2010 NFL draft and that a professional football career was a real possibility.
The magnitude of that moment was so much for even his broad shoulders that he needed some trusted advice.
"The fall of 2009 came and he called me and said, 'Do you see where I'm ranked? People might actually think I might be able to make this a career,'" said Ngum Suh (pronounced en-gum), Ndamukong's older sister, remembering the conversation she had with Ndamukong in 2009. "He asked me if I'd help him. He asked me if I'd move with him to wherever he might go. He told me that he was going to need my help and it would be crazy to do all the stuff he was going to have to do, and that he was going to need my help.
"What was I going to do, tell him no?"
So, big sis put her life on hold to help run "Team Suh," as she calls it. Ngum, 27, is the director of operations for the Ndamukong Suh Family Foundation and is also responsible for handling her little brother's business ventures, appearances and nonfootball related activities.
Sports agents Roosevelt Barnes and Eugene Parker handled the five-year, $68 million contract Ndamukong signed with the Lions with $40 million guaranteed. He is also signed with Nike.
According to Ndamukong, there wouldn't be a "Team Suh" without Ngum.
"When I left college, the main focus was for her to help me adjust to getting into the real world, leaving college and getting into a new city -- adjusting to football," he said. "That's how it really came about."
Ngum has a bachelor's degree in biological sciences from Mississippi State University and another in clinical exercise physiology.
A terrific athlete in her own right, Ngum played soccer at Mississippi State and was a member of the Cameroon National Soccer Team for a year following graduation. Ngum also has citizenship in Cameroon, where their father is from.
At the time Ndamukong reached out to her in 2009, Ngum was running an in-home personal training business in their hometown of Portland. She also was involved in a youth soccer mentoring program and was a fitness model with such brands as Nike, Adidas, Columbia and REI.
In her free time, she coached soccer.
But Ngum dropped it all after that phone call from Ndamukong. She decided then and there that her plans for the future could wait so she could help get Ndamukong's career off the ground.
"It means a lot to me," said Ndamukong, who finished his rookie season as a Pro Bowler and favorite for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. "I've said many times before that I'm very lucky to have a sister like that to kind of put her life on hold to help get mine started. It's something I can't thank her enough for and it's truly a blessing to have that in my family.
"My sister is very smart.
I feel very comfortable with her being with me."
Business acumen an asset
Ngum said she still plans on fulfilling her ultimate dream of being a physical therapist with her own elite training facility. She insists those plans are just in a holding pattern until Ndamukong no longer needs her. She even thinks the business experience will pay off later on.
"That was my fear in life, business," she said. "But now I have to do business stuff and it's really forced me to step outside of my comfort zone, which I really appreciate, I guess.
"I wouldn't describe it as putting my dreams on hold because as the oldest in the family, I'm responsible. Culturally, I'm responsible for those that come after me. It's my job to make sure that they're OK. If that means changing my plans — not deferring them too much — but changing my day-to-day activity, then that's what I have to do."
Ngum is almost four years older than Ndamukong, 24. The two grew up in a middle-class upbringing in Portland with their father Michael and mother Bernadette, neither of whom was born in America. Michael emigrated from Cameroon and is a mechanical engineer, and Bernadette found her way to the states from Jamaica and is a teacher.
Michael has since remarried and Ngum and Ndamukong have three half-sisters from that marriage.
As for Ngum's decision to move to Detroit with her brother, "I thought it was a great idea," Bernadette said. "It just meant that it took a lot of pressure off of me, deciding what to do in terms of continuing to work or hiring someone to do the things he needed to have done. I thought it was a great idea for her to do it.
"Hopefully after I retire, perhaps I can take over and maybe she can go back to school because finishing school and getting her masters and completing her degree in what she wants to do in life is something I'm still interested in having her do.
"I know she's interested in doing it, too. She really wants to have her own career and her own identity. But for the meantime, I thought it was a wonderful idea."
From Nebraska to Detroit
The first real indoctrination into her new job came immediately after Ndamukong's senior season at Nebraska, when he went on his awards tour.
"That was my first taste of my job as family manager," Ngum said. "I wasn't just the manager for him, I had to make sure the whole family got to where they were supposed to go and do what they were supposed to do.
"We went to the Big 12 Championship. Then we drove to Houston to receive the Rotary Lombardi Award. We then flew to the Chuck Bednarik Award. We were out the next day to Orlando, where he got the Outland Trophy and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy. That night, he called us and said he was up for the Heisman. That's when we knew we had to change all of our plans.
"So I had to get everybody's plans together to leave from Orlando to New York, instead of coming home. I was in charge of organizing with the Heisman people to get all the flights and hotel situations. Dad left for California because he was up for the Ronnie Lott Trophy. After the Heisman, Ndamukong flew back to take an exam and finish a project that everyone else in his class had weeks to do and he had 72 hours."
Ndamukong won the Rotary, Chuck Bednarik, Outland and Bronko Nagurski trophies. He finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Next for Ndamukong and Ngum was the draft and the eventual move to Detroit as the No. 2 overall pick to the Lions. Ngum made the move with her little brother and currently lives with him in Royal Oak.
"I raised them to love each other and to truly really care about each other," Bernadette said. "It just stems from the way I raised them."
Off the gridiron organizing
Anything Ndamukong does off the field, Ngum is there to coordinate it.
She was by Ndamukong's side when he was making Subway sandwiches for reporters in October and she was laughing along with everyone else when Ndamukong busted out his Michael Jackson moves for a bunch of kids at the Detroit Children's Hospital in December.
"She is really the main focus for me not having to worry about anything other than football," Ndamukong said.
That includes taking care of some of the little things, too.
"If my brother sends me a text at 2 a.m. saying 'I'm coughing, I need some Robitussin,' or something like that, then I guess I better have some Robitussin in the house, or get some, because I want him to sleep and get his rest so that he can go to work and do what he has to do. Because without him being able to do his job, I have no job," Ngum said.
"I'm full bore on Suh's empire. Suh's empire includes making sure that he has everything that he needs to do what he has to do. I can't help him with the tackling. Everything else I told him 'I've got it.' I'm helping him with his day-to-day. I'm director of operations for his foundation and then with his business ventures, I see it through. I make sure that everything gets done with his businesses."
The Ndamukong Suh Family Foundation has already made charitable contributions to schools in Cameroon. Ndamukong and Ngum say they are working to broaden the scope of their charitable work in Detroit. Ndamukong is a big proponent of working with kids and schools.
As for Ngum's compensation for all this work: "I told him he has to pay for my school," she said. "I'm going back to school and he has to pay for that. We can leave it at that. That's my salary. Whatever school fees are when I finally decide to quit my job, or when he fires me."
Ngum wants to continue her education in physical therapy.
That isn't happening any time soon, though. Ngum said "Team Suh" has a lot of plans in place and Ndamukong's instant success in the NFL has opened up a lot of business opportunities, not only in the U.S., but globally.
"That's what we're hoping for someday," Ngum said. "Why not? If we have the means to do it, what excuse do we have?"
Michael Layne, president of the Marx Layne Marketing and Public Relations Firm in Detroit says it can sometimes be a dangerous situation when athletes mix family and business, though.
"It sounds like Ngum is highly capable and highly educated and fiercely loyal to her brother, so that can be very positive," he said. "But my experience with dealing with family members and athletes is that it can sometimes be difficult. The best course of action, from my experience, is having professionals handle money management and marketing matters rather than family."
But Ngum says she has a lot invested in this business venture, too.
"I'm dedicated to the success of him because his success and his name is my name," she said. "If he fails, I fail. That's definitely a family motto: 'If he fails, I fail.'
"A lot of athletes end up having their family become a liability and they end up helping them spend all their money and we wonder why 68 percent or 70 percent of athletes go broke within three years of being retired."
Ngum says down the road she'd like to be involved with a mentoring business for families of athletes in money management matters.
"What can you do to help establish the athlete to represent you," Ngum said of family members of athletes. "Because again, when he fails, you fail. If he goes broke, that represents you because you're part of that family."
No matter how famous Ndamukong gets, though, Ngum says she'll always see Ndamukong as just her little brother.
"I respect him as I would respect my boss because, again, I like what I do and without what he does, I have no job," she said.
"I try to give him a little bit of the boss respect, I try, but I am four years older and I have tormented the crap out of him since he was young."
Photo caption: "I can't help him with the tackling," says Ngum Suh of her brother. "Everything else I told him 'I've got it.'" (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)