The longest-tenured player in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry—his first NFL sack came against Tommy Maddox in 2003—is going strong as ever, thanks to a new body, a throwback style, and a little help from the Force
Terrell Suggs was watching with the rest of the sports world in April when Kobe Bryant played his last game for the Los Angeles Lakers. If you remember, there was some curiosity at the time about what Bryant would do. He hadn’t really been the same player for the last few years, after his body had been ravaged by a number of injuries, none of which was more debilitating than the Achilles tear Bryant suffered in 2013, when he was 34 years old.
Suggs could relate more than most. He had torn both his Achilles tendons in a span of three and a half years. He did his right Achilles in 2012 reportedly playing basketball in the offseason, though he claims it was while he practiced for a conditioning test. Then he tore his left Achilles in the Ravens’ 2015 season-opener, a month before his 33rd birthday. That night last spring, watching Bryant, Suggs was in the middle of his second torn-Achilles rehab.
Bryant, of course, scored 60 points in a vintage Kobe performance.
“The significance of what he did…” Suggs said in a phone interview this week. “When you’re Kobe Bryant, you’ve got every little young guy coming at you every night, and it’s you who’s still got to carry the team. When he tore his Achilles … I just felt bad. I knew he was going to come back and be Kobe Bryant. But to see him score 60 to go? That was impressive.”
Not all athletes recover from an Achilles injury, and even fewer return to peak form. Which makes Suggs’ performance this year perhaps more impressive than Kobe’s. Suggs leads his team with eight sacks, he looks as if he’s in the best shape of his life, and now, if he propels the Ravens to a win over the rival Steelers on Sunday, Christmas Day, they will be in position to win the AFC North for the first time since 2012.
And, mind you, Suggs is doing this all with one arm, too. He tore his left biceps in October and suggested that such an injury would end the season of a lesser player, just like a second Achilles tear might end a career. He vowed to keep playing because that’s what someone from his “era” would do. Somewhere, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were nodding in unison.
“I have played with a torn bicep before,” Suggs told reporters after a game in mid-November. “I have come back from a torn Achilles before. So I guess it’s just in my DNA. My mom and dad did something special when they made me. Ozzie [Newsome] knew what he was doing when he drafted me. I have Raven in my DNA. I only know one way to play.”
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When Suggs tore his second Achilles, he was in denial. After his first tear, the doctor had told him there was a 98, 99 percent chance it wouldn’t happen again. The first time it happened, too, he hadn’t been able to walk after. The second time he was able to walk off the field on his own. But then he had an MRI and was forced to face the truth.
In the months that followed, under doctors’ orders to stay off his feet, Suggs’ weight ballooned. How much did he gain? He’s too embarrassed to say. He didn’t spend much time around the team then, he says, and the few teammates who spoke with him at the time described him as depressed. In January, Steve Smith said Suggs was “a little vulnerable right now.”
“It’s your own personal battle,” Suggs says now. “It’s how much you’re willing to work and how much you’re willing to do to get back on the field. I had to make significant changes.”
The most significant change came in his diet. “Basically I just stopped eating,” Suggs says, laughing. He cut out alcohol, sweets and soda. He stopped eating after 7 p.m. He ate salads for dinner, and lots of fruit throughout the day. Of all the fruit, he took a liking to peaches in particular. “I eat a lot of peaches,” Suggs says, “and it definitely helps.”
As a result, Suggs lost a considerable amount of weight. Some of his teammates had never seen him so skinny. How much did he lose? If he said, you might be able to figure out what he weighed before. (The Ravens list him at 6'3", 265 pounds) But, he says, “This is the most weight I’ve ever lost in my life.”
The first time the rehab had been easier, perhaps because Suggs was younger. Since the Ravens were contenders in 2012, he rushed back and rejoined the team five and a half months after the injury, in late October, in time for the playoff push. He recorded two sacks in the regular season and another two in the playoffs—both came in the divisional-round win at Denver, where he also had 10 tackles—on the way to a Super Bowl title.
For the second tear, Suggs at least had more time, because the Ravens, decimated by injuries to other key players over the course of the 2015 season, too, were on their way to a 5-11 record. With no urgency to return for a playoff drive, Suggs essentially had an entire year to slim down and rehab. Still, he didn’t feel in top shape until Week 3 this year, when the Ravens played a close game with the Jaguars and he had two sacks.
On the first, Suggs bull-rushed the left tackle, shed the block and dragged Blake Bortles down as he tried scampering away. The left tackle Suggs beat was Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 overall pick from the 2013 draft, and, after the play Suggs celebrated with a little dance, gyrating his hips with his arms extended. Later in the fourth quarter, with less than a minute left, Bortles saw the pocket collapsing again and tried rolling out. But as he pointed downfield, looking for a receiver, Suggs got free, charged, and spun him to the ground.
All right, I’m back, Suggs thought to himself. I’m making myself-like plays again.
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At some point before Baltimore and Pittsburgh play on Christmas Day, the Ravens will huddle, and Suggs will deliver a pregame speech. He’s been supplying energy on Steelers week for years, going back to when Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Bart Scott and Trevor Pryce were in the room, back when Lewis knocked out Rashard Mendenhall, and Ryan Clark clobbered Willis McGahee, and both teams played as if they were trying to decapitate the ball-carrier. That was in 2008 season, when Suggs was 26, still the young guy in the room.
Eight years later, Suggs is the only member of that defense remaining. He calls himself “the last member of the old regime,” and he considers that to be an “honor.” He also views himself as a member of a dying breed leaguewide. With the NFL (rightfully) cracking down on violent hits, the modern player doesn’t play with the same viciousness. Not like they did during those knock-down, drag-out Ravens-Steelers games of yesteryear.
After Suggs returned from the second Achilles tear, he drew on that idea in creating a new nickname. For years he had called himself Sizzle, or T-Sizzle. Now he wanted to be called “Darth Sizzle,” after Darth Vader. He referred to himself as Darth Sizzle in the team statement when he first returned to practice, and he wore Darth Vader shoes around the team facility. Star Wars fans know: Vader was the final member of the Order of the Sith Lords.
“I’m basically like Darth Vader,” Suggs says. “I’m the last of my kind.”
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