TAMPA — Ndamukong Suh's first love was soccer, but he was so much bigger than the other kids, they scattered like bowling pins when he attacked the ball, drawing gasps from parents and whistles from referees.
"I moved away from soccer because I got too many red cards," said Suh, who once lifted an injured kid off the ground by his shorts with one hand.
Suh was built for football, but in youth league, that XXXL body didn't just enable him to disrupt the opposing backfield, he made his own huddle.
"One time in little league, I tackled three people," Suh said. "They ran. And I came through, and the quarterback, he didn't know who to give it to. So I just grabbed everybody. They were all right there, and I was like, 'How do I play this.' Everybody looks at you like, 'Did you just grab three people?'
"That should let you know how big of a kid I was. I might have been … 11, maybe. When I was 12 years old, I was 238 pounds. When I weighed in — because you always had to weigh in — I wanted to be a running back. I knew I had some moves. I just wasn't as fast as everybody else. We weighed in. And I got in the car, and my sister said, 'How much do you weigh?' I said, 'Just 238.' She said, 'You're 12!' "
When Suh got to Nebraska as a defensive tackle, the Cornhuskers defense was so pathetic, he considered transferring until Bo Pellini was hired as coach.
"What I like about Suh the most is that three years ago, he really was an okay player," said Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud, a fellow Cornhusker. "He wasn't a super freak or nothing like that. But he's got an attitude that he really wants to get better. His attitude is like mine. But I made myself into an … early second-round pick, and he's made himself into probably the best player in college football."
Suh might be the best player available in this week's draft, but he's not head and shoulder pads better than Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
When McCoy was 2, his father, Gerald senior, put a miniature helmet on his head and placed him in a three-point stance. At the imaginary snap of the ball, the little boy hurled his body toward the couch and ricochet backward following the collision.
All these years later, many scouts look at McCoy's ability to fire off the football like a 100-meter sprinter and believe he might be better-suited for more defenses in the NFL game.
Suh or McCoy? McCoy or Suh?
The debate rages on, even at One Buc Place. But the truth is general manager Mark Dominik would feel like a lottery winner if either were available with the third overall pick.
And here's the best news of all for Bucs fans: One of them probably will be.
"In my opinion as a coach, you go out and do what those guys do particularly well," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "You let those guys go out and play and be productive. I don't want to make a zebra a horse. I want to let that zebra be a zebra and be his best self. I'd like having the opportunity to coach either one of them."
While both players want to go No. 1 overall — although it seems more likely McCoy's teammate, quarterback Sam Bradford will be selected first by the Rams — there is no rivalry between Suh and McCoy.
"Me and him are real good friends," McCoy said. "The thing about us is everybody is expecting us to be bumping heads. 'Oh man, I hope you don't do good, or I hope he don't do good.' It's not like that. We met on the field when we played them this year. He said, 'Go out there and ball out. Go get that money.' And I said the same thing to him. And it's been like that ever since."
Both men come from strong families.
Suh was as precocious in the classroom as he was on the field. His mom, Bernadette, was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, and was a school teacher. Her ex-husband, Michael, was an engineer from Cameroon. Suh wasn't allowed to play football unless he had a 3.0 grade point average.
McCoy's parents, Gerald and Patricia, who worked as a human relations specialist at an Air Force base, were equally insistent on their son and two daughters excelling in school.
But on the Father's Day prior to McCoy's first game at Oklahoma, Patricia McCoy started complaining of severe headaches. Doctors discovered she was suffering from brain aneurysms. Three weeks later, she was dead.
"The thing I'll say about those two young men is they both come from really strong backgrounds," Dominik said. "They're two kids you would put up on the podium in front of anybody and say, 'Here's a first-round selection, and you'll listen to them.' You'll hear them, and you'll be very proud how they handle themselves both on and off the football field."
Traditionally, defensive tackles aren't taken in the top five of the draft. The last one taken No. 1 overall was Dan Wilkinson by the Bengals in 1994.
But both Suh and McCoy were so productive in college, most NFL coaches agree they will be impact players at the next level. Suh had 82 tackles and 12 sacks as a senior, including four in his highlight reel game against Texas in the Big 12 title game. McCoy had 32 tackles and six sacks last season.
Both had remarkable workouts at the scouting combine. Suh leaped 35½ inches in the vertical jump, the best for a defensive tackle in 10 years. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 32 times and posted a 4.98 time in the 40-yard dash. McCoy wasn't as strong, benching 225 pounds 23 times.
Suh or McCoy? McCoy or Suh?
"You don't get disappointed with either of those guys," Ruud said. "They're both going to be really good pros. All our coaches are high on both those guys."