We often hear people tell stories about how one phone call changed their lives. For Terrell Suggs and the Baltimore Ravens, serendipity occurred in the form of a busy signal.
Everything the larger-than-life outside linebacker — now in his 16th season and the last remaining link to the franchise’s decade-plus of defensive dominance — has accomplished during his storied career with the Ravens wouldn’t have been possible if not for a busy phone line during the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft.
As longtime Ravens fans likely will recall, Baltimore worked out a trade with the Minnesota Vikings that would have allowed the Ravens to move up from No. 10 to No. 7 so they could select Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich. However, when Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome called the NFL’s draft headquarters to inform the league of the deal, as is required, the line was busy.
Newsome tried multiple times to get through but was unsuccessful. The deal was off, and the Vikings ran out of time to make a pick. The Jacksonville Jaguars jumped ahead of the Vikings and grabbed Leftwich. While the Vikings’ brass frantically tried to regroup, the Carolina Panthers also leapfrogged them.
The Vikings finally got their pick in at No. 9, and then it was the Ravens’ turn. Suggs, who most draft experts figured would go no lower than sixth, amazingly was still on the board.
All these years later, Suggs said he still thinks about how differently things might have turned out for him if Newsome hadn’t gotten that busy signal.
“I question whether or not I would have this longevity if I had been drafted somewhere else,” said Suggs, the Ravens’ all-time sacks leader and the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. “I question what type of player I would be if I hadn’t had veteran guys around me like Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Adalius Thomas, Bart Scott. I think about that all the time.”
It’s fitting that extraordinary circumstances brought Suggs and the Ravens together, because their relationship has been extraordinary. It’s one that has been typified by loyalty, love and, of course, longevity. But will it continue beyond this season?
Suggs, who turns 36 in October and is in the final year of his contract, reiterated retirement isn’t on his radar. He also made it clear he cannot envision ever putting on another team’s jersey.
“It just wouldn’t look right,” he said. “Because of the loyalty this organization has shown me, I’m dedicated to giving them every bit of good play I have left. As long as I can play and I can dominate and be ‘Sizzle,’ then I’m going to do it.”
That’s exactly what Ravens head coach John Harbaugh likes to hear. Harbaugh has been Suggs’ coach for 11 seasons, and he’d like to add the words “and counting” to that sentence.
“I think he’s on a mission, and I think he’s headed to the Hall of Fame,” Harbaugh said. “I want to see that statement made this year, next year and for as long as he plays.”
‘T-SIZZLE’ OF OLD
Suggs’ longevity in and of itself is impressive. Among active defensive players, only Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, who is in his 17th season, has played longer. But the fact that Suggs has spent his entire career to this point with one team makes his run even more remarkable. Only two defensive players in NFL history have played with one team longer, according to ESPN Stats and Information: Washington Redskins cornerback Darrell Green (20 seasons) and Ravens middle linebacker Lewis (17 seasons).
“I blush just thinking about it,” said Suggs, who will surpass Lewis for most games played in a Ravens uniform if he plays in all 16 games this season. “Some legendary Hall of Famers didn’t finish their careers with one team. Just to have the opportunity to do that is very humbling.”
Questions about Suggs’ age and durability began to surface after he missed 15 games in 2015 due to a torn Achilles and was hampered by a torn biceps the following season. Suggs squashed those questions last season, however, when he looked the like the T-Sizzle of old rather than an old T-Sizzle. He was named to his seventh Pro Bowl team after recording 11 sacks — tied for the fourth-most he’s had in a season — and he did not miss a game after having missed 24 games during the previous five seasons.
Suggs credits his resurgence in large part to Ravens head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders. Suggs had never participated in the team’s offseason conditioning program until doing so the past two offseasons. He knew it was paying off when then-defensive coordinator Dean Pees saw him in the weight room before the start of the 2017 season and remarked he looked like he was 25 again.
“Steve Saunders has been a breath of fresh air for me,” Suggs said. “He’s kind of rejuvenated my career. I think a large part of me being healthy [in 2017] was the work I was able to do the previous offseason and working with him all year. I think last year was the healthiest I’ve been throughout my whole career. My body didn’t hurt. I didn’t have any nicks or bruises.”
For Suggs to be in such great shape after all the years of wear and tear on his body, Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale jokingly chalked it up to divine intervention.
“There’s some people that God touches once, and there’s those, like Sizz, that He’s touched twice,” Martindale said. “I mean, it’s amazing to me.”
‘CRAZIER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED’
Amid all the chaos surrounding the Ravens’ unsuccessful attempt to move up in the 2003 draft to acquire Leftwich, the team’s brain trust had no doubt it had landed a special player in the 20-year-old Suggs, who was one of the youngest players ever drafted.
Suggs was coming off a dominant junior season at Arizona State, during which he set NCAA records with 24 sacks — a mark that still stands — and 31.5 tackles for loss. NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN had the defensive end as his fourth-highest rated player in that draft, but a disappointing 40-yard time of 4.84 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine raised a red flag for some of the league’s talent evaluators.
“Some were saying he was a great college player but he’ll be a step slow,” Kiper recalled. “[They said] he’s going to be one of those guys who gets hurries, not sacks. There were a lot of studies done that great pass rushers need to run 4.65 or less. If you’re a metrics guy, you wouldn’t take Suggs, but as I said at the time, ‘I thought we were looking for football players, not workout warriors.'”
When then-Ravens head coach Brian Billick was asked after the draft if he was concerned about Suggs’ subpar 40-time, he quipped, “If quarterbacks started taking 40-yard drops, then I’d be a little concerned.”
Rex Ryan, who was the Ravens’ defensive line coach when the team drafted Suggs before taking over as defensive coordinator from 2005-2008, still gets fired up when discussing Suggs and the roller coaster of emotion that was the 2003 draft.
“Ozzie occasionally would have me look at some of the top players before the draft, and he had me look at Suggs,” said Ryan, now an NFL analyst with ESPN. “I looked at him and said, ‘You have to be kidding me. There’s no way in hell he’s going to be there when we pick.’ He said, ‘You know, Rex, he ran a bad 40.’ I said, ‘Ozzie, all people have to do is watch the tape.’ He said, ‘I know, but crazier things have happened.’
“Sure enough, the draft starts and a whole bunch of things happened and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, we may get this kid!’ Eric DeCosta [then the Ravens’ director of college scouting and the current assistant general manager] comes by and says we’re going to make a trade. I’m like, ‘Holy s—, we’re trading up to get Suggs?’ And he says, ‘No, we’re gonna take Byron Leftwich.’ I was so bummed. And then that trade falls through, and everybody’s on the clock and they’re taking guys, and the next thing I know we wind up with Suggs. It was unbelievable.”
After Suggs got off to a slow start in training camp prior to his rookie season, Ryan said Newsome and Billick told him they were taking Suggs out of the linebackers’ room and putting him in Ryan’s room with the defensive linemen. Ryan was ecstatic.
“I told my D-lineman, ‘Guys, we’re gonna have the rookie of the year in our room,'” Ryan said. “Sure enough, the kid ends up being [defensive] rookie of the year. He just needed to get a little swag back, and soon as he did, it was on.”
Suggs — who also owns the NCAA record for career sacks at 44 — recorded a sack during each of his first four pro games, which tied an NFL record, and finished the season with a team-high 12 sacks. He also got to sit under the learning tree of Lewis, who won his second NFL Defensive Player of the Year award that season.
BLUEPRINT OF A RAVEN
Suggs and Lewis would be teammates for 10 years and win a Super Bowl together during Lewis’ final season, but their first meeting actually took place when they filmed a commercial together for the 2003 NFL Draft. In the spot, Suggs brags to Lewis about his NCAA sacks record, to which an unimpressed Lewis responds by presenting him with two sacks of dirty laundry.
During a break in filming, Lewis told Suggs the Ravens might get him with the 10th pick.
“I was like, ‘Ten? No way,'” Suggs recalled. “I said, ‘Arizona is at six. That’s the lowest I’m going.’ And then it happened. It just goes to show that when you’re a 20-year-old you really don’t know anything.
“I guarantee he was excited: ‘Oh, I get to terrorize this rookie.’ But it dawned a great relationship. Not just teammates, but family. He’s always been a big brother, and I attribute a large amount of my success to Ray.”
When Lewis retired after the 2012 season, Suggs assumed the role of team leader. Like Lewis, Suggs can be loquacious, fiery and animated, but he was fully aware that Lewis was irreplaceable.
“After we won the Super Bowl, pretty much the only ones left were me and Haloti [Ngata],” Suggs said. “We were left to take over the reins and hold everybody to playing that style of Ravens football, that Ravens standard. But can’t nobody fill Ray Lewis’ shoes. There’s not even a generic brand of Ray Lewis.”
Comparisons to Lewis aside, Suggs has earned praise from his coaches and teammates for his mentoring and leadership skills.
“Sizz is good with all of them in that room,” Martindale said. “He is fantastic, and he can break down each guy’s game and say, ‘Here’s what I need to see from you.’ It really sounds like a coach, but obviously, it means a lot more when Sizz is saying it to them — a guy who has been Defensive Player of the Year and all his accolades, Pro Bowls and everything else.”
Of course players listen when Suggs speaks, but defensive tackle Brandon Williams, who is in his sixth season with the Ravens, said players also can learn from Suggs simply by observing him.
“He’s pretty much the blueprint of what a Raven is,” Williams said. “If you’re not watching what Sizz does, and how Sizz prepares — how he studies his film, how he works out here on the field every day — then there’s something wrong with you. You shouldn’t be out here.”
‘BORN TO DO THIS’
It’s unclear when life after football will begin for Suggs, but there’s no doubt he’ll keep himself busy. A movie buff since he was a kid, Suggs formed Team Sizzle Worldwide, an independent film company, in 2008.
Suggs has co-written two films, and his company has produced five films overall — one feature and four shorts — and just shot a TV pilot, with another TV pilot and short scheduled to be shot this upcoming season. All of his films have been dramas, but Suggs said he wants to branch off into action “and then just grow from there.”
Suggs has appeared in front of the camera as well, most notably in cameo roles playing himself on the HBO football comedy-drama series “Ballers,” which stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In one memorable scene, Suggs scuffled with Johnson’s character.
“I got to push The Rock. Not everybody gets to do that,” Suggs said with a smile.
Suggs also proved to be a valuable resource behind the scenes on “Ballers,” said Bret Slater, a former producer for the series.
“He was instrumental in the writers’ room,” Slater said. “His insight helped craft the direction and kept the stories we were telling very grounded. He was amazingly candid with us to give us firsthand stories of what it’s like not just to be an NFL player, but someone who is still playing at his level. … He gave us full access to his life. There was no question we couldn’t ask him.”
Time will tell if Suggs’ playing career will have a Hollywood ending, but there’s no questioning his love for the game and commitment to helping the Ravens win another championship.
To illustrate that point, Harbaugh relayed a conversation he had with Suggs the day after the team returned to Baltimore late at night after Lewis’ Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony in Canton, Ohio, in August.
“I said, ‘You know we will be practicing,'” Harbaugh recalled. “He laughed, and I said something to him after practice — he had a great practice — [and] he said, ‘Coach, I was born to do this. I’m a football player. I get up in the morning, I play football. What else am I going to do?'”
When Suggs was asked how he’d like to be remembered after he’s finished playing, he did not hesitate to answer.
“A Raven,” he said. “I would love to be considered on the Mount Rushmore of Ravens. Just knowing I gave everything I have to this organization, to this city, to my fans, and that I was one of their own.”
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 247: September 2018