'I Signed Up for This': Terrell Suggs Isn't Letting a Changing NFL Change Him

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterMarch 27, 2018

Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (55) celebrates after sacking Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — He likes The Godfather. No. Loves The Godfather. No. This is the greatest movie of all time, and it's not even close. Seriously, he cannot get enough of it. Which one? I. And II. Terrell Suggs recently Instagrammed a shot of the Don with the words, "Mindset for 2018: Vito Corleone." When asked about that post, it's very clear very quickly that it wasn't an offhand reference about his preparation for the 2018 season. And that once he gets going about the movies, you don't want to stop him.

The dinner scene where Michael Corleone guns down Sollozzo and McCluskey is right up there, no doubt. But the No. 1 scene, in Suggs' book, is when Vito warns the heads of all mob families that if Michael is "struck by a bolt of lightning," he'll blame people in this room.

Visible chills shiver through Suggs' body.

"That scene was a masterpiece!" he says. "It was brilliant."

Before long, he's shifted the conversation to his favorite movie mastermind: Quentin Tarantino. The gory violence that doesn't give a damn about your feelings. The ruthless murder of main characters. The bizarre camera angles. The spasmodic flashbacks to explain how and why. The swing of a hatchet at political correctness. And, oh, did he mention the gore? The blood?

"Everybody in his film is going to die," Suggs says. "Your favorite character? I'm going to shoot him in his head. He's going to die in this thunderous glory. Quentin Tarantino … he wants to offend you. He knows the power of the word 'n----r.' He knows how to make people cringe."

Like, say, in Django Unchained?

"Oh my God! In Django, they said it 177 times. Probably more."

Another favorite? Suggs calls Martin Scorsese a genius. His mind was blown when he learned in a documentary that Scorsese bases many movies on people who grew up in his neighborhood. Inform Suggs you haven't seen The Departed and—"What! Legendary! Oh my God! Oh my God!"—you'll understand what it feels like to be a Browns quarterback who's staring down 265 pounds of fury.

He doesn't stop at directors. Turn the topic to keeping an edge after 15 years of tearing muscles, snapping tendons and getting knocked out cold in pro football, and Suggs has a quote cued up from Jean-Claude Van Damme's character in Lionheart: "Don't ever lose your Lionheart because you'll never get it back." Suggs says he'll never, ever lose his edge. "Until I fall short for the last time, I'm going to keep trying to go at it."

One director, one actor, one scene to the next, his words barely keep up with his mind. Count on Suggs to produce a $500 million blockbuster someday. He appreciates the art of creating a story as much as lifting a weight or studying game film. There's something special about intertwining a plot, a twist, a cliffhanger on paper and then seeing it come to life.

Sitting here on his couch at a relaxing 45-degree angle, it hits Suggs.

He's penning his own epic. Right now. In Year 16. At age 36 in October.

This is precisely when all athletes in all sports have their fairy-tale stories hijacked by Father Time and limp off the screen in embarrassment. This cool day in the desert, however, it's obvious Suggs is in control. He returns, again and again, to that movie "in a class of its own." To the Godfather, the Don, that Corleone mindset. Indeed, Suggs will be the one in the Ravens locker room who warns players it's Barzini they need to worry about, not Tattaglia. He'll be the puppeteer who dictates precisely how this 2018 season, and his career, unfolds.

"A boss mentality at all times," Suggs says. "Everything you do, you have to remember that you're the head of the family. I have to have the mindset of Vito Corleone in everything I do."

So no. There are no worries of losing an edge.

Maybe you'd think there should be, sitting in Suggs' immaculate home, as hired workers vacuum and clean while Suggs lounges in a hoodie, shorts, Orioles cap and gold "No. 4" necklace. (That's his basketball number. See that hoops trophy on the kitchen counter? He's not supposed to play basketball, but yeah, his "Ultimate Hoops" semi-pro team won a third straight title in Las Vegas last May.) He's currently binging The Office. Michael Scott's blank expression fills the 85-inch screen on pause. And when he's not watching this, he's reading The Alchemist now and A Tale of Two Cities next.

Photo by Tyler Dunne

It's peace. It's quiet. But do not let this utopian scene fool you.

On that same TV, Suggs also binges pass-rushers, dissecting Chandler Jones and Jadeveon Clowney for hours. And hours.

He glares down at his body like it's a cadaver in a college biology class. Suggs points to both Achilles tendons, both biceps, one of his pecs, one meniscus. Yep. Tore 'em all.

The only injury he's nursing this offseason, though, is that Week 17 loss to the Bengals. That 4th-and-12. And the only prescription for it is an actual game seven months from now. OTAs won't help. Neither will training camp. But Suggs also knows this: He's a master of his craft in total control.

A fan of the straightforward "three-act" movie structure—a setup, a conflict and a resolution—Suggs says he's just beginning his third act.

He's directing the show and knows how it'll end.

"Definitely I'd write it with me winning another one and probably having some more kids and hopefully with a Hall of Fame nomination. That's at the very end, the last scene.

"But we'll see."

             

First Act: The Game That Was

Roller-coasters terrify Suggs. The only one he'll ever ride with his girlfriend is the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Disney. That pit in his stomach? The drop? No, no, no.

Small planes terrify Suggs, too. He's traveled around the world from Brazil to Spain to Hawaii on a Magellan-like quest to find the best beaches, but mention Barbados as a possibility and he cuts in with a quick "I don't do small planes!"—even though, yes, large aircraft do land in the country.

These are the things that make a man who's played 213 NFL games squeamish. Long-term brain damage, on the other hand, does not.

Lob those three damning letters at Suggs—C-T-E—and he swats 'em away. His girlfriend and mother may be worried about wires crossing, and he admits several Ravens teammates have told him they're never letting their sons play this game, but Suggs sincerely is not concerned.

"Us as gladiators, that comes with it," he says. "My mom doesn't want me to do it anymore, but I signed up for this. You know what I'm saying? Whatever comes with it, I'll take it."

Enthusiastically. You can hear the fire.

And see it, in the scowl when you mention the word "Steelers." That rivalry is Tarantino-like to Suggs—because the trash talk wasn't restricted to pillow fights on Twitter. No, he remembers real meet-me-in-the-alley threats.

"We're going to talk s--t. We're going to back it up," Suggs says. "We might get into a fight while we're doing something. You know what I'm saying. It was personal. It was personal. We wanted to kill Hines Ward. I had to threaten him before every play like, 'If you crack me, I swear to God I'm going to break your f--king neck.'"

Associated Press

Ward was a villain in their eyes, a coward who'd crack back on unsuspecting linebackers. After one of Suggs' many warnings, he still blindsided Bart Scott. Ward would've tagged Suggs, too, if Suggs didn't dodge him at the last split-second. After Ward broke the jaw of Cincinnati's Keith Rivers, Suggs' threats sharpened.

"I swear to God, if you hit me like that, I'm getting thrown out of the f--king league," he remembers telling Ward. He meant it. Ward knew he meant it. And Ward still tried teeing off.

Suggs shakes his head.

Part of him respects Ward, because, damn it, "you'd love a tough motherf--ker like that on your team." Players like that shaped Suggs. Fed a ruthlessness.

One other rival comes to his mind: Kellen Winslow Jr. The ex-Browns tight end used to waltz through the Ravens' pregame stretch and shout, "None of you motherf--kers are going to cover me!" which promptly made Suggs and Scott erupt and nearly get tossed. "Kellen Winslow, if I ever catch this motherf--ker coming across the window, I'm going to kill him," Suggs says, past and present blending as he speaks.

Of course, no player shaped him more than two former teammates who were among the greatest defensive players in NFL history. Nothing—literally nothing—meant more to Ray Lewis and Ed Reed than football. Lewis attacked every second of every day as if it was the Super Bowl, Suggs raves, while Reed possessed the greatest football "brain" he's ever seen. He was a genius. During the Ravens' third-down meetings, coaches weren't allowed in. Lewis and Reed ran the show.

They'd eat, sleep, breathe the game in a way no one does today.

"They took it home with them," Suggs says. "They trained together. It was all work for them—very little play. … They were football gods. Hall of Fame is the highest pinnacle we can reach. But they were football gods."

BALTIMORE, MD - JANUARY 06:  (L-R) Ray Lewis #52 and Ed Reed #20 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrate after they won 24-9 against the Indianapolis Colts during the AFC Wild Card Playoff Game at M&T Bank Stadium on January 6, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Ph
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Those same gods, of course, supplied Suggs his two worst concussions. Once, while chasing down Carson Palmer in 2004, he was smacked by Lewis and "blinked" himself awake. Then, Reed inadvertently knocked Suggs out. He's not sure how long he was out—only that Reed woke him up with a loud, "Sizzle, Sizzle, you all right?!" and he again needed to "blink" himself awake.

Concussion protocol then? "Those were the days," Suggs says. It usually consisted of true-or-false questions, so players had a 50-50 shot—or, as Suggs recalls, the following:

Do I have any fingers up?

Yeah, you have some fingers.

All right, you're good to go play!

Today, Suggs admits to forgetting "little s--t" but says he can still remember plays so, hell, that's good enough for him. Plus, wasn't the NFL trying to curtail concussions? He's never seen more players concussed in his career than he has the last three seasons. He rants about new helmets that were allegedly supposed to help and rules that pollute the minds of defensive players. It was understood in the early 2000s, Suggs explains, that football is a game of instinct and at "100 miles an hour" you don't have time to hesitate and contemplate, "Am I going to get fined?"

He still doesn't understand why he was chastised for hitting Sam Bradford low on an option play when, say, nobody blacklisted Lawrence Taylor for literally snapping Joe Theismann's leg in half a generation before. If anything, LT was glorified.

"He broke his knee. Hey man, it's part of the game."

How would he fix this all? He starts at the top.

"I would definitely change the commissioner," Suggs says. "This guy gets paid more than any coach, any player. I would definitely change everything about that. I just don't agree with it. It's my personal stance on it. … Before I thought he was just a dictator who showed his favoritism. They've stripped some of the things that he's done, but I don't know. I'm just not a fan of the commissioner."

Roger Goodell, to Suggs, has overreacted to the concussion crisis in the name of "business." He loathes the general dictatorship and the suffocating of individual expression equally, sniping: "Who are we to tell Deion Sanders you can't wear high socks? You have to let us be us."

He's never met Goodell. Not once. It blows his mind that the man in charge of the country's most powerful sport doesn't seek input from players in his sport. So be it. As livid as Suggs seems to be…he's not. Really. Nothing Goodell ever says or does will change him. Take a look at his sack total: 125.5. He can realistically work his way into the top five all-time with three more healthy seasons. He has survived, and thrived, through different eras.

So throw all the flags you want.

In this movie, Roger Goodell is an antagonist who pesters, nags and agitates but does not win. Suggs has remained the same player every season, every game, every play.

"If I get fined, I'll worry about it after," he says. "I'm going to play. I'm going to be Sizzle."

He's earned that. Especially considering where he was two-and-a-half years ago.

           

Second Act: In a Dark Place

The bedroom door was shut and Suggs was horizontal. He ignored family, friends.

He wanted to be left alone.

I'm not doing anything, he told himself. I'm not moving anywhere.

Suggs had suffered yet another torn Achilles tendon. He'd already snapped one, in 2012, and it was hell. That sensation of a cord firing up the back of his leg like a window shade was the worst pain he'd ever felt, soon followed by the worst recovery ever. So after snapping the other in September 2015, he was crushed.

Ron Chenoy / USA Today

Family would try to convince Suggs to hobble out of his bedroom for daylight, but he remained a hermit.

Showering was painful. Getting in and out of cars was an odyssey. Everything, he emphasizes, was "strenuous," because this was "the most excruciating pain ever." Scared he'd fall on that reattached tendon and tear it again, Suggs shut down and put on an embarrassing amount of weight.

He was, by any definition of the word, depressed.

"You're starting at negative-50," Suggs says. "I just stayed up in my room. I was in a dark place."

The only time the outside world heard from Suggs, in March 2016, was when he crashed his BMW into a wall and was arrested for driving on a suspended license and leaving the scene of an accident. He didn't have a drop of alcohol in his system, but the resulting video was leaked to TMZ. Such is the scene for most falling stars. Suggs sat on a curb—weak, confused, a has-been.

"The bastard cop sold the damn tape to TMZ," he says. "I wonder how much he gets. $500?"

It was as if the screen on his own movie, his own epic, was fading to black. Torn Achilles have expedited the demise of Kobe Bryant and Chauncey Billups in the NBA and Arian Foster and Steve Smith in the NFL, among countless others. Now this? Throw your popcorn away. The exit's that way.

In a sense, he was buried alive in a casket like Uma Thurman's character in Kill Bill. After all, he loves Tarantino's use of flashbacks, his willingness to risk losing an audience to take you on a journey. And he particularly loved this sequence. Just as Thurman's mind raced back to her training with Pai Mei to survive, Suggs thought back to the moments that made him.

How are you going to get back? How do you do this again—for the second time?

"Remembering who I was," says Suggs. "I set the goals I set. I wasn't done."

He thought back to Mom throwing college coaches out of the house in high school because she didn't believe her son could play football for a living. She never imagined such a life. Not when you come from the south side of Chicago.

"None of us believed in the miracle," Suggs says, "before the miracle happened."

He thought of his cousin who died in 1998, at 16 years old. They were tight. Very tight. But this cousin's dad was also a legendary gangster in Chicago and wanted that life for himself. He sold drugs, shot people, was shot at and was eventually murdered. The last thing Terrell told his cousin was he'd buy him a car if he made the NBA. The cousin's response? He simply wanted a pound of weed. They never spoke again.

And one flashback absolutely returned, one he hardly ever vocalizes.

Back in college at Arizona State, his then-girlfriend from Calabasas, California—land of the Kardashians—asked Terrell to take a trip with her and friends to Vegas to celebrate her brother's passing his bar exam. Problem was, Suggs had no money in his wallet. Mom gave him $52, and after one group dinner he was down to $20.

Suggs went to the bathroom and cried his eyes out.

"How am I going to f--king eat for the next two days?" he asked aloud. "In f--king Las Vegas?!"

"I had to compose myself because I didn't want them to know I was in the bathroom crying," Suggs says. "I was like, This will never happen again. It just fed a monster. I was determined. This will never happen to me again."

Whenever his crew went out to eat, he lied that he was going to gamble and found fast food on the Vegas strip to get by. Somehow, he made it through the weekend.

A torn Achilles, Suggs repeats, "ain't for everybody." As he puts it, "You learn about yourself."

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Most of all, as Suggs lay in that bedroom, his mind raced to those glory days with the football gods. What would Ray Lewis and Ed Reed do? They'd tell him to get off his ass. Sizzle emerged, rehabbed and proceeded to play through a torn biceps in 2016—after all, Lewis gritted through a torn triceps in his final season. Into 2017, Suggs believed he was spearheading a Super Bowl contender…only to see that contender stun-gunned in the regular-season finale. As Tyler Boyd pranced into the end zone on his turf, Suggs felt that bedroom pain return. That sting. He told the world, moments later, this was the most devastating loss of his career.

But he didn't retreat to seclusion. No, he vowed to return in 2018.

Three days later, he promised to bring a Corleone mindset.

        

Third Act: The Climax

There are other NFL warriors just like him. Suggs is sure of it.

"James Harrison is still playing. He's older than me."

True. But he's more Instagram Hero than Quarterback Slayer now, a snarling artifact nobody wants in the antique mall this offseason.

"Dwight Freeney's still playing."

If you call it that, Terrell. The dude has played for four teams the last three years and, like Harrison, is mostly washed up now.

"Is Gates still playing?"

Hardly. Antonio Gates averaged fewer than two receptions per game last season.

Suggs leans back, mutters "Damn" and realizes he does stand alone. No non-quarterback is playing at his level at his age with his bill of health. This is the best Suggs has felt in five years, so he promises to crank everything up to "full throttle." Hoops. Lifting. Film. Getting a six-pack for his next beach trip. He loves the smell of the Arizona air on a Monday at 8 a.m. Tom Brady may be making money off his "TB12 Method," but Suggs has a secret, too: peaches.

Photo by Tyler Dunne

And then he arrives at the climax of his cinematic masterpiece—the two forces that will define his third act.

One he's in control of: He's not letting the blip of a thought of retirement enter his mind. Walking away now would eat at his insides. Suggs would love to meet Barry Sanders to ask him, point blank, why he quit. He's got a feeling the legend has a pit of regret in his stomach.

"When I'm done with football, I want to be done with football," he says. "I don't want to have, Oh, did I leave too early? This is the best I've felt in five years! … I can be Sizzle on the field."

That's the other force at play. He wants to play forever—but he absolutely does not, cannot, resemble a fading star masquerading as "T-Sizzle" in name only.

He refuses to be a has-been who must be scraped off the field like Emmitt Smith in Arizona, Franco Harris in Seattle, Deion Sanders in Baltimore, insert pathetic sight here—because Suggs is obsessed with never hitting such a "cruising altitude." And he honestly believes he's trending in one direction and one direction only.

He hopes Baltimore feels the same. There's zero loyalty in this sport, and he knows it.

"Especially in this business," he says, "you never know."

His cousin, DeMar, appears, and Terrell is quick to explain that the nickname "T-Sizzle" started with DeMar on the basketball court. DeMar passed it on. Terrell wants that handle to keep its bite.

"I can never rest," Suggs says. "I need to always do more. I always want to do more. I'm never going to be satisfied. That's it: Never be satisfied."

He definitely thinks the Ravens can get back to the Super Bowl with Joe Flacco, defending his embattled quarterback on a five-minute soliloquy. He also believes his Ravens defense can return to its ass-kicking form of yesteryear. Suggs didn't mind that Super Bowl LII turned into a game of Madden. He knows how that game was won.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

With a forced fumble, with defense, with what he does best.

"In the good days, it was an appreciation for everything," Suggs says. "You loved the high-flying offense, but you also loved the hard-hitting defense. You loved to see those two clash.

"I'll make them still appreciate the smashmouth, hard-hitting football."

Them being the Ravens, the NFL, you, me, everyone—because Suggs knows we all think we know how this movie ends. But he's the one in control of this script.

Two years ago, he watched Zach Orr's career end on the spot. The linebacker suffered a neck injury and never played another snap after an MRI revealed a congenital condition. Watching the football soul leave a friend's body forever, at age 24, was one massive "holy s--t" moment to Suggs. A reminder to treat every snap of every game like it's his last because that's precisely what made those football gods special.

Lewis and Reed didn't care about legacy—gold jackets are a mere byproduct of diabolical focus. Of a fire for the game, for life, that doesn't go out.

Our conversation naturally ends as it began. Talking Godfather. As much as Suggs loves I and II, like everyone III makes him cringe.

How would Suggs have written that 1990 flop? The man who's already producing one TV pilot with his girlfriend, Shade, and one short film about that cousin who was murdered in Chicago pauses. Stares ahead. Thinks. Right here in his living room, the wheels are churning.

He's got it.

Suggs would've cast Andy Garcia as Michael Corleone's son in the final chapter. He would've put Michael right in Vito Corleone's shoes. He would've made him feel a son slip, slip, slipping away into his underworld.

"I would have retold that story somehow—Michael doesn't want his son in the family business, but his son ends up taking over the reins anyway. I would've done that. Full circle."

Boom. Chills.

Instead, we all try our damnedest to forget Part III altogether.

There's a decent chance we forget Suggs in the years to come. A chance, years from now, we neglect to remember the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Award, the seven Pro Bowls and the 2012 Super Bowl title if his play suffers. Or maybe Suggs keeps churning out double-digit-sack seasons and enters a stratosphere only occupied by the Bruce Smiths, the Reggie Whites, the Lawrence Taylors. He could throw a gold jacket on and become a football god himself.

No, his narrative will not derail like Godfather III.

He won't allow it.

Once more, Suggs flashes that wide grin and laughs his deep bellow of a laugh.

"The book isn't closed," he says. "The book isn't finished being written."

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