OWINGS MILLS, Md. – So there Terrell Suggs sat, with his show turned off; stoic for once and not baying about the "Ball So Hard University" or the dreadful things he'd do to Tom Brady or whatever spills from his mouth when the camera light goes on. He sat on an empty Gatorade cooler in a hallway of the Baltimore Ravens' headquarters and dropped his gaze to the carpeted floor.
"I do owe him," he said.
This was about the man who may have saved him; the one who came into his life with no expectations, no motive, no personal gain, nothing more than a belief a teenage Terrell Suggs could be something big in life. What John Wrenn, who coached Suggs his last two years of high school, offered was a lifeline, a chance to grab the world. And maybe recognizing this as the best opportunity to come along, Suggs seized it. Then he rode to a life no poor kid from Chandler, Ariz., could have ever dreamed.
Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are the leaders of Baltimore's defense, but there is no doubt as to this team's best defensive player. The Ravens, who play the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC title game, would not be a win away from the Super Bowl without the linebacker who overwhelmed the NFL this year with 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles. Most around the team expect he will be named the NFL's defensive player of the year. Yet where would they be if not for John Wrenn?
By the time a teenaged Suggs decided to transfer from Chandler High to Hamilton, the new school across town, he was precariously close to going nowhere. His first two years of high school had been a lark – filled with all the pranks and jokes that get you laughs in the classroom but D's on the report card. His junior year didn't show much improvement despite the fact he had become a dominant running back on the field, towering over the kids on other teams. Colleges wanted to recruit him as either a running back or linebacker, but Suggs didn't have much of an academic record to show them.
At the start of that last year, Suggs had a dilemma. He needed to get A's or B's in nine core classes just be eligible for college. For the big kid who barely went to class, let alone pay attention, this seemed an impossible task. Wrenn pulled him aside. "You need to get a 3.5 GPA," the coach told him. "You're going to graduate on time. You're going to pass your tests to get into college."
"He was bright," Wrenn says. "You could see that. He was a really intelligent kid."
He just needed motivation. So Wrenn pushed. One of the classes was a seven-hour session that met Saturday mornings. Wrenn drove to Suggs's house, woke him up, drove him to the class and then picked him up at the end of the day. He monitored Suggs' work and drove him to his SAT and ACT tests. And a strange thing happened: Suggs started to do well.
"You know your parents will always believe in you and trust in you but this came from an outside source, someone who wasn't a family member AND he was white," Suggs said. "Having those two things come into play, you say, 'Wow this man believes in me.' Not only is it that I'm black and he's white, he believes in me."
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Suggs stopped and gazed down the hall. "It doesn't matter," he said about race, but then he nodded. For in many ways it does.
"Where I come from you don't see white people doing something for you without getting something in return, you know?" he continued. "We played our football season and he continued to take me to class, he continued to take me to my tests. He cared about me as a person. That's why it was so important.
"At some point every kid in the inner city they need that kind of Jiminy Cricket character in their life who says: 'OK this is your road you can go left or you can go right.' With Coach Wrenn he said, 'You can go left or you can go right' but he wanted to make sure I was walking down the right path so I didn't stray."
After a while Wrenn realized his concerns were needless – Suggs would get his grades.
"He's got this great personality," Wrenn said. "He's able to adapt his personality to people. And you could tell his teachers loved him."
One day, while looking at the player's schedule, he noticed Suggs was taking a foreign language class. Such things were always traps. With all the other courses Suggs was taking, how was he going to get an A or B in French? "You've got to get out of this class," he told Suggs. The player smiled. "Don't worry," he said. "I'll be fine."
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When Wrenn visited the classroom he found the teacher, in fact, adored Suggs. All those silly jokes and funny lines mixed, at last, with a real attempt to do his work clearly charmed the teacher. Suggs would get his A or B, just as he did in all his core classes, delivering that 3.5 GPA necessary to get into college, which would be Arizona State in nearby Tempe, a school he chose over the flood of big universities who sent mail every day.
The next fall Suggs enrolled at ASU, switched from running back to linebacker and grew steadily as a player. He was so good his junior year that he entered the NFL draft and became the first of the Ravens' two first-round picks in 2003. Now, he is the player who makes their defense go.
And yet where would he be had Wrenn not come along? Suggs stopped talking for a moment and stared down the hall again.
"If I hadn't have pulled that year together," he says. "I think about it." Pause. "But I did pass fortunately."
Over the phone from Arizona where he is now an assistant athletic director at ASU, Wrenn's voice caught.
"He could have done what thousands of other players do and take the easy way out," Wrenn said. "He is a true success story."
Instead Suggs came to make it here, to this team, to this week where earlier in the day he boomed into the locker room, shouting to his teammates, his laugh rolling off the walls. He moved past the two lockers he has for himself which include what the other players call "an entertainment center," filled with speakers, DVD players and a television screen. Around here he's "T-Sizzle" the gregarious defensive star who announces his presence with a rumble. But the name is just a façade, a moniker dropped on him years ago by cousin D'Marr Suggs who played basketball at Idaho State and was known as "D-Sizzle."
Sitting on the Gatorade container, T-Sizzle was gone. Instead, he's introspective, reflecting on his journey. "I excelled because I was playing for my coach," he said. The same thing is true for Ravens linebackers coach Ted Monachino, who was also his position coach in college.
"I want them, at the end of the day, to say 'that's Wrenn's boy' he's playing his tail off' or 'that's Teddy's boy, he's out there playing his [bleep] off," Suggs said.
Meanwhile, running back Ray Rice bursts out a door wearing a T-shirt that read "Ball So Hard" as in the fictitious university T-Sizzle announced as his alma mater on TV. It's become something of a mantra among the Baltimore players.
"Ball so hard!" Rice shouted.
"We gotta do this!" Suggs called in reply.
Then Suggs dropped his eyes. Ball So Hard. The Brady threats. The shirts pronouncing his disdain for Pittsburgh?
"That's just all talk, you know?" he said.
A few minutes before, a Ravens employee had frantically run toward the room where Suggs had participated in a media session. In her hand she held a giant belt like boxing champions wear with gleaming jewels and the words "AFC North Champions."
"Terrell wanted this for his press conference," she said breathlessly to the team official in charge of the session.
The team official stared at the belt and must have imagined the vision that would settle so nicely in the locker room of the Patriots.
No, the official said. Absolutely not.
Back in the hall, the woman now with sad eyes explains how they wouldn't let her give him the belt. Suggs, with T-Sizzle turned off, smiled shyly.
Yes, he said, that probably wouldn't have been such a good idea.
Better to be Terrell Suggs, the kid from Chandler who almost didn't make it and understands just how good it is that he did.
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- Terrell Suggs