Driven by emo­tion

Col­or­ful line­backer poised for a lead­ing role

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY RICK MAESE IN NEW OR­LEANS

n 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 lineback-

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“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.” Ter­rell Suggs, Ravens line­backer on his re­cov­ery from a torn Achilles’ last off­sea­son that threat­ened to side­line him all sea­son

er 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 on­field 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 side­line 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.”

PA­TRICK SMITH/GETTY IM­AGES

TACK­LING CON­TRA­DIC­TION: Ter­rell Suggs is still a lo­qua­cious jokester, yet Ravens play­ers re­spect him as much as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

SEAN GARD­NER/REUTERS

KNOW HOW TO PLAY HIM: Baltimore Coach John Har­baugh jokes with line­backer Ter­rell Suggs as the Ravens pose for their team pic­ture this week at me­dia day. “Noth­ing I do is scripted,” Suggs says.

PA­TRICK SMITH/GETTY IM­AGES

FIND­ING FORM: Suggs has el­e­vated his game in th­ese play­offs, tal­ly­ing 19 tack­les.

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