On the most important business trip of his professional life, Terrell Suggs walked onto the grass field at Tulane University for the week’s first practice and quickly spotted the camera, the only one allowed anywhere near the Baltimore Ravens. If nerves were wound too tightly in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLVII, Suggs never showed it, shoving his face in the lens and providing an impromptu rap performance as his teammates got to work.
Just another day at the office for one of the most important men in a Ravens jersey. Ray Lewis might be the face of the vaunted defense, its spiritual base. Ed Reed might be its silent, stoic leader. But to find the heart — the place where the wheels never stop moving and the lips never stop flapping — you have to find Suggs’s locker.
You have to ask him to ignore the DVD player, which is always on — volume way up — and playing anything from “The Godfather” to “Shrek.” You have to ask him to stop singing — is it Celine Dion today? Eminem? You have to try to forget how immature and unprepared he used to be, and how, at 30 years old, the linebacker has finally managed to strike a balance between work and play.
Suggs is all-encompassing and contradictory, as playful as he is menacing. And as Lewis heads into retirement and Reed approaches an offseason of uncertainty, it’s Suggs who has evolved from an on-field role player and an off-the-field jokester to the man who holds all the keys.
“I’ve seen a maturity and maturation in Terrell that’s substantial,” said Brian Billick, the NFL Network analyst who was the Ravens’ coach when Baltimore selected Suggs with the 10th pick of the 2003 draft. “He’s a much more complete person and a much more complete player than when I was there. It’s good to see.”
Suggs has emerged as one of the league’s top pass-rushers and was named the NFL’s defensive player of the year for the 2011 season. The 12 months that followed, though — the year that led up to Sunday’s showdown against the San Francisco 49ers — were full of pitfalls, both professional and personal.
In the offseason, Suggs tore his Achilles’ tendon, putting his 2012 season in jeopardy. Suggs vowed that he’d return, though many around the league realized that a blown Achilles’ typically requires up to 12 months of recovery time.
“I just refused to accept that,” Suggs said last week. “What drove me to work so hard was the possibility of being here. I knew we had a team that was right there on the brink. . . . I didn’t want to watch the season on the sideline and I definitely wanted to help my teammates reach this point.”
Suggs was back on the field by Oct. 21, but bore only a passing resemblance to the player who was so dominant a year ago. There was no burst off the ball. Getting past offensive tackles became a chore. He posted 14 sacks in 2011 but managed to get to the quarterback just twice in eight regular season appearances.
“What we wanted to do when he first came back was just really bring him back slowly and try to figure out what he could do,” Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “We didn’t want to put him in harm’s way out there and take him out there and all of the sudden he gets hurt again and really do some damage. It took a little bit to try to find out where he was, and we took our time doing it.”
Still, his teammates say just having Suggs on the sidelines and in the game was important. His contributions aren’t solely measured in stats. He’s the one talking them through plays, offering encouragement and motivation, keeping them loose.
“Terrell’s passion and fire to come back was amazing,” Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata said. “I think it made Ray Lewis want to come back from his triceps injury. I think it trickled down throughout the whole team. I don’t know if people understood how significant Terrell is to our team.”
Suggs’s play has improved significantly in the playoffs. While he had only 23 tackles in those eight regular season games, he posted 19 in three playoff games. He also got to the quarterback twice and forced a fumble.
“He’s getting closer and closer to the old Suggs,” Pees said.
Away from the field, some of Suggs’s contradictions are still on full display. As he battled to return from the injury, his fiancee alleged Suggs punched her in the neck and dragged her alongside a car that contained the couple’s two children. She filed a temporary protective order and Suggs was ordered to turn over seven guns to authorities.
Suggs didn’t face criminal charges and filed a custody complaint against Candace Williams saying she’d endangered their children on multiple occasions. Within days, though, the temporary protective order was dropped and Suggs and Williams were married.
Through it all — since the day the Ravens drafted him, really — Suggs has sought counsel from Lewis. Win or lose Sunday, Suggs will go forward without the benefit of having Lewis across the locker room, barking in the huddles and helping in meeting rooms. Not only that, Suggs’s role with the Ravens will have to further evolve to fill the void left by Lewis’s absence.
“You’re not going to replace Ray Lewis in that capacity, totally,” Billick said. “You can’t.”
But the former coach noted that the growth he’s seen in Suggs suggests while he might not lead exactly like Lewis — Suggs is more likely to quote Will Ferrell than the Bible — he can still lead. “A little rawer, a little more in your face,” Billick said of Suggs’s style. “But still on the field, being there, and the preparation off the field. That wasn’t there before.”
“I don’t think it’s about replacing me,” Lewis said. “I think it’s about carrying on their legacy and doing whatever they’re going to do.”
For Suggs, it’s about striking that perfect balance. Showing up for work but also having fun. Case in point: team picture day.
In 2009, he photo-bombed the offensive group’s photo, flying through the frame with a spirited ballerina leap. In 2011’s team picture, everyone else kept their arms to the side, looking straight ahead. Suggs lifted his hands to the sky and screamed to the heavens. And on photo day last year, Suggs laid on his stomach like a dreamy-eyed teenaged girl at a sleepover while his teammates stood like statues behind him.
“Nothing I do is scripted,” he reminded reporters last week.
As one of the league’s most unvarnished and unfiltered players — he told the Patriots to enjoy the Pro Bowl after the Ravens ended New England’s season last month — Suggs was a popular target on Super Bowl media day. He waxed philosophical about everything from Beyonce to movies. One reporter asked him where he’d vacation if the Ravens win the Super Bowl.
“Ball So Hard University,” he said. “I will go there first, go to my alma mater. Then I will go to Hogwarts. We stop at Hogwarts and then I will take my lovely family to the lost city of Atlantis.”
Suggs filled a lot of notebooks but as the week progressed and kickoff neared, he knew when the fun ended and the work began. Even if the past year didn’t go exactly as planned, the bumpy path led him to the sport’s grandest stage. There was no way he was ever going to let an Achilles’ injury keep him from this.
“I guarantee you,” he said, “come February 3rd, when the clock reads 0:00 in the fourth quarter, if the score reads how I expect it to read and how I want it to read, I promise you I won’t feel any pain.”
Kent Babb contributed to this report.
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