Monday, September 5, 2011

The Pilot

(Published April 2010)

PORTLAND, Ore. — The teacher rummages through Room 105, searching for Ndamukong Suh.

He looks in his file cabinet. No, not here. In his desk. No, not here. In his closet full of boxes.

Ah ha! A VHS tape.

Room 105 lies at the end of a massive hallway inside Portland's largest high school, Ulysses S. Grant.

Outside, the neighborhood is green and tidy, cozy as a Sunday morning cappuccino. Tudors, bungalows and foursquares tightly line the shaded streets, each featuring wood floors and colorful landscaping.

You can't find a home younger than 70 years old. You can't find two bathrooms and a remodeled kitchen for less than half a million bucks.

The neighborhood focal point, Grant High, is two stories of orange brick beneath towering conifers.

Inside, black-and-white photos adorn the walls — every varsity team dating back to 1924, when all the faces were white.

Ndamukong Suh walked these halls for four years. Now he's four days from selection in the NFL Draft.

His fate didn't always seem so clear, Karry Cameron says. You'll see on this video.

Mr. Cameron walks briskly to his VCR. He wears a blue suit, red tie and buzzed hair. He enunciates every syllable and speaks with the certainty of a veteran coach — football, wrestling, track and field.

He could pass for a CEO in downtown Portland. Instead, he's been at Grant since 1984. Half that time, he taught “bridge,” a study skills class designed to prepare freshmen for the rigors of high school. Three of every four students eventually made honor roll.

In 2001, a broad-shouldered, soft-spoken boy — half Cameroonian, half Jamaican — walked into Room 105 and found a seat at the second desk against the wall.

Mr. Cameron emphasized preparation and organization. Bring your bookbag every day. Take notes.

“I was pretty much a drill sergeant,” he says.

Nine months later, the boy fulfilled the class's final requirement: an on-camera exit interview. Mr. Cameron inserts the tape.

“It may take some time to find it on this old-school VCR,” Cameron says.

He presses fast forward, then rewind, zipping through anonymous adolescents, seeking a face his students know from ESPN.

While Mr. Cameron searches, let him tell a story about Suh's first month here.

Grant High is home to 1,600 students. It's one of Oregon's scholastic gems, a magnet for racial and economic diversity. The roll call of alumni includes politicians and pro athletes, an astronaut and a Hollywood actress.

“Mr. Holland's Opus” was filmed here. Beverly Clearly grew up here; her “Ramona Quimby” stories take place under the evergreens of Grant Park, which adjoins the school property.

Ndamukong Suh — Mr. Cameron likes to say his full name — came to Grant not from one of the prestigious old homes nearby, but from a mile west.

A week of classes passed and Suh still hadn't attended a football practice. Who cares, right? Well, Mr. Cameron happens to coach freshman football.

You have to come out and play for me, the teacher told Suh.

Well, Suh said, you'll have to talk to my mom.

“So I give Mom a call,” Cameron said. “‘Mom, would you consider allowing this young man to play football for me? He'd be in good hands.'

“And Mom says, ‘No. My son will not play football until he proves he can handle high school academics. Unless he is on honor roll, he is not going to play any sports.'
“Mom would not budge. What a strong, strong woman.”

Suh didn't quite make the honor roll first quarter and he never did play freshman football. But he soon hit the academic benchmark — and, sophomore year, Mom finally let him wear shoulder pads.

“She was worried about her baby getting injured,” Cameron said.

OK, OK. Here it is. Mr. Cameron stops the tape.

Suh's exit interview. June 2002.

Mr. Cameron gave the bridge students some bases to cover: What is your name? What did you learn this year? What are you going to do better? And, of course, what does your future hold?

The boy's cheeks are full, his voice a little higher than you know it now. His T-shirt fits loosely. His eyes spend more time on the ceiling than the camera. His monologue lasts 52 seconds.

“My name is Ndamukong Suh. ... Freshman year has gone by fast.”

Teachers at Grant remember a good listener and a warm smile, but a kid too shy to say much.

Suh couldn't shield his competitiveness, though. A classmate saw it in PE, when Suh got into a tussle with a peer.

“It's like that quote by Roosevelt: Speak softly and carry a big stick,” said Beau Cumming, a 2005 Grant graduate. “That personifies him.”

A head coach saw it when he walked into the weight room one Friday afternoon before a football game and found Suh alone, pumping iron.

An offensive coordinator saw it when he called timeouts and listened to his star lineman make requests. “Let me pull,” Suh said.

So the Grant Generals ran power running plays behind Suh, all the way to their first playoff win in a generation.

Coaches all over school lobbied Suh to join their team. Mr. Cameron, the wrestling coach, tried to get Suh into a singlet — “He would've been a state champion wrestler.”

Suh preferred basketball.

“He reminded me of Charles Barkley,” Cameron said. “He knew how to use his body. He didn't outleap everyone, but he grabbed every rebound.”

As a junior, Suh went out for track and field for the first time and qualified for the state meet in the shot put. Senior year, he won gold with a throw of 61 feet.

By 2005, every million-dollar college coach in America knew his name. He chose Nebraska. In the summers, he came home to help with high school football camps. Grant athletes watched the 300-pounder sprint on the track. Wow. They thought big guys stuck to the weight room.

The interview continues: “Something that I did well was get good grades. Something that I need to improve on would have to be” — Suh pauses — “grades.”

And next year? What are you going to do next year?

“I'm going to get good grades next year as a sophomore.”

Coaches and teachers cheered him at Nebraska, but it wasn't until last fall that he became a celebrity to ordinary Grant students. They watched him wreck Missouri's offense (and Blaine Gabbert's ankle). Watched him tear apart Texas (and Colt McCoy's Heisman hopes). Heard his mom mention Grant High on ESPN.

Each Monday, smiles rippled down that 150-yard-long hallway: Did you see what Suh did this weekend?

Then in January, Suh came home. He sought out the security guard and hugged her — he always hugs Marci. He made his way to the center of the hallway.

“Next thing you know,” said Diallo Lewis, head football coach, “kids were coming out with hall passes. ‘I gotta go to the bathroom. I gotta go to my locker.' Then coming up to him, ‘Hey, can I have your autograph? Can I get a picture?'”

Suh's exit interview is quickly coming to a close. Just one more bridge to cross, one more question and you're on your way to 10th grade, Ndamukong: What will you be when you're 24?

This Thursday night, April 2010 in New York City, 3,000 miles from Grant High and the lush green neighborhoods of Portland, 23-year-old Ndamukong Suh will hear the NFL commissioner call his name. He'll saunter to the stage at Radio City Music Hall and take one more step toward wealth and glory.

What will you be when you're 24?

That day, June 2002 in Mr. Cameron's Room 105, Suh didn't hesitate. He knew the answer.

“When I'm 24 years old, I'm going to be a pilot.

“Thank you.”

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