Terrell Suggs calls on a late Sunday morning.
The Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker is eight weeks from the start of his 16th NFL season, nearly three months from his 36th birthday. Ask former teammates and coaches how the former Chandler Hamilton High standout has played at such a high level for so long, and they have few answers.
Suggs’ attempt: “I’ve been very fortunate. The more I talk with my teammates now, I understand just how rare it is. I’m just grateful.”
With 12 sacks, Suggs will reach the top 10 in NFL career sacks, putting him in Pro Football Hall of Fame territory. He’s twice won AP Defensive Player of the Year honors. He’s been named to seven Pro Bowls.
It hasn’t all been rosy.
On the field, Suggs twice has battled back from Achilles’ injuries. He has played through a torn biceps. Off the field, although he never was charged with a crime, he has faced serious domestic-assault allegations. In addition, he’s had other brushes with the law, drawing attention from the league office but not a suspension.
His journey into fame started at Arizona State, which is the reason for this phone call. Suggs’ monster 2002 season served as a launch pad of sorts. His 24 sacks set an FBS record that still stands. A former teammate describes that season as “magical.” Then-ASU coach Dirk Koetter simply says “unbelievable.”
“I didn’t know people still talked about it,” he said.
How could they forget?
Wanting to be the best
After the 2001 season, Ted Monachino met with Suggs in his ASU football office.
The defensive line coach knew Suggs had been disappointed with his sophomore season. After earning 2000 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors, Suggs had posted just 10 sacks the following year, so Monachino asked Suggs directly.
“How good do you want to be?” he said.
Monachino paid close attention to how Suggs answered. He didn’t say I want to be the best I can be. He didn’t say I want to be the best in the Pac-10.
“I want to be the best,” Suggs said.
“When he said that, that allowed me to hold him accountable,” said Monachino, who later coached Suggs with the Ravens and spent last season as the defensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts.
“So every day in practice, if there was a down that I didn’t think met that standard, I just asked him: ‘Do you think the best practices that way? Do you think the best puts a rep like that on tape?’ And he bought in and was a completely different young man from that point on.”
Looking back, Suggs said his coaches might have understood his potential better than he did. Yes, he knew he was good. All-American good. But perhaps the best defensive player in school history?
He remembers strength coach Joe Kenn calling him out before spring drills.
“He said, ‘Sizzle, you’re the best guy on the team,’ ” Suggs said, using the abbreviated version of the defensive end’s T-Sizzle nickname. “This team is going to go as far as you lead them, and it starts with your spring and summer workouts. We need you here every day.”
No one questioned Suggs’ habits on the field.
“The thing about Terrell was, he loved football,” said Brent Guy, ASU’s defensive coordinator at the time. “And not just on Saturdays, he loved practicing. If I barked at somebody, he was right behind me barking. He wanted everybody competing.”
And at times, that caused problems.
In team drills, ASU’s first-team offense usually lined up against the second-team defense. But to start practice, the starters squared off in a two-minute drill. This part wasn’t much fun for certain people.
“Every snap I had to know exactly where he was lining up,” quarterback Andrew Walter said of Suggs. “I had to get the ball out as quick as I could. I mean, you just couldn’t hang on to it. The (seconds) are counting down and he’s going to be in the backfield to hit you in the head.”
Suggs failed to record a sack in ASU’s opener against Nebraska. Then he caught fire, posting three each against Eastern Washington and Central Florida. After posting just one the next two weeks, Suggs exploded for four against North Carolina, giving him a career-best 11 just six games into the season.
“Coming from the boundary side, he was just killing,” former safety Jason Shivers said. “It was magical to watch. Guys were scared of him. They were scared of his speed and they were scared of his quickness.”
But it didn’t all stem from athletic ability. Each Friday night, Guy gave the Sun Devils a defensive quiz. Here’s the call – what are you doing? Suggs mastered it each time.
“Terrell would fill out the test, and he would put all 11 players on there, where everyone was going, the pressures and the calls they were going to make,” Guy said. “He didn’t just understand the front and what was happening, he understood the whole package. You don’t see many defensive linemen like that.”
This is where it gets confusing. In 2001, Dwight Freeney of Syracuse set the NCAA season record with 17.5 sacks. But since the NCAA didn’t recognize sacks as an official stat until 2000, the ASU and Pac-10 records of 19 were actually higher.
Suggs realized both were in reach.
In front of seven NFL scouts, he tied Freeney on Oct. 26 with 4.5 sacks against Washington. His 6.5 tackles for loss that day ranked as the fourth-most in FBS history.
“He annihilated us,” then-Washington coach Rick Neuheisel said. “We couldn’t block him, and I’m standing over there ticked off because he almost came to Washington.”
Why Suggs chose ASU
Suggs was a standout running back at Chandler Hamilton, rushing for 2,274 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior, but most schools viewed him as a defensive prospect. Neuheisel thought Washington had a chance.
“Terrell wanted to come on the same (recruiting visit) with Terry Johnson of McClintock (High),” he said. “For whatever reason – I think it was an SAT score – our people couldn’t let him come. And I was like, ‘He’ll take it again. Trust me, you want him to come.’ ”
Years later, while Neuheisel worked with the Ravens, he brought this up to Suggs.
“Sizzle, I’m going to be totally honest with you,” Neuheisel said, according to Suggs. “We weren’t sure you were going to pass your test.”
“Rick,” he said. “I’m going to be totally honest with you. I wasn’t sure I was going to pass my test.”
Former Chandler Hamilton coach John Wrenn said Tennessee pushed hard, but he always thought Suggs would end up at ASU. So did Kevin Wolthausen, the lead recruiter for Suggs on coach Bruce Snyder’s staff. (Snyder was fired after Suggs’ freshman college season.)
“I don’t want to throw anybody under the bus, but yes,” Wolthausen said when asked if he was confident the Sun Devils would land the local star.
Suggs remembers it differently.
“We can say this 16 years later – Florida State was where I was going to go because they were just a bigger school,” he said. “They were kind of like Alabama is now. FSU was it for me. I liked Tennessee, but it was cold there. Even though I’m from Minnesota, I did not like cold weather. FSU was my favorite.”
That changed once Suggs informed his family. His father told him that he probably wouldn’t make any games because of the travel to Tallahassee.
To Suggs, that was a deal-breaker. His dad had attended every game since he was 10. He eliminated FSU and narrowed his choices to ASU and Arizona.
“I just thought: I live in Chandler; Tempe is 10 minutes away from here,” Suggs recalled. “Why would I leave?”
ASU season provided confidence
When Andrew Walter thinks back on Suggs, one play stands out. It unfolded in the Holiday Bowl against Kansas State. Walter remembers watching it from the sideline.
Suggs rushed into the backfield. Kansas State running back Darren Sproles – who, despite standing 5-6, would go on to have a productive NFL career – positioned himself to block, but Suggs went right through him.
“And it wasn’t like Sproles wasn’t trying to meet him and block him in the hole, he absolutely was,” Walter said. “Terrell literally ran through him like he was a ghost.”
In 14 games, Suggs finished with 24 sacks, which set ASU, Pac-10 and NCAA records. His 31.5 tackles for loss did the same. In addition to being named a unanimous first-team All-American, he won nearly every national defensive award. His career 44 sacks remain a Football Bowl Subdivision record.
“As a pro coach, when we’re getting ready for the draft, we talk about a guy being a good pass rusher because he had 10 sacks the previous year,” said Koetter, today the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “You think about Terrell having (24) in one year, it’s just unbelievable.”
He could’ve had more.
“Terrell actually missed two or three sacks that year,” said Guy, the defensive coordinator. “He missed the quarterback because he was trying to get the ball out. That record could be a lot higher.”
As he enters the final phase of his NFL career, Suggs looks back at 2002 fondly. He thanks his coaches for pushing him. He thanks his teammates for helping him. Together, they showed him what was possible.
Six days after ASU wrapped up the 2002 season, Suggs declared for the NFL draft. On April 26, 2003, the Ravens selected him with the 10th overall selection. Of the nine players drafted ahead of him, eight are out of the league.
“I tell everybody: I never believed in the miracle until the miracle happened,” Suggs said. “It kind of like happened right before our eyes. ASU was where everything started for me. My confidence grew because of that season.”