Terrell Suggs' infectious enthusiasm

BALTIMORE -- When he was 17, Terrell Suggs decided to shave his head. He did not have a barber do it; money was tight, so he used a cheap old razor and subsequently developed a significant rash on the top of his head. The whole ordeal was rather embarrassing -- here was the biggest, baddest football player in Chandler, Ariz., sidelined because of a bad haircut. For four days, despite his passionate pleas to practice, Suggs was not allowed to wear a helmet and was forced to watch. Some of the kids laughed at him.

Although it was good-natured, it wasn't exactly the first time one of Donald and LaVerne Suggs' boys had been stared at or made fun of. Their massive bodies cast such a shadow over the other kids at school that Donald had to take birth certificates to each first day of football practice to prove that yeah, the young lads were 8, not 13. It got old sometimes, and back then, there were two ways for a kid to handle being different: ignore it or fight.

Suggs, who at 6-foot-5 ended up being the runt of the family, went a different way. He laughed right back.

Terrell Suggs is having the season of his life, and he says he isn't really doing anything different. Maybe things seem easier because Suggs believes this is one of those charmed seasons in Baltimore, a season in which everything comes together and everyone has a blast. Last Thursday was no exception. It was a bye week, mind you, so perhaps that's why the cackles got so loud in the Ravens' locker room.

Safety Bernard Pollard, a chatty journeyman who recently won an award for being so accessible with the media, was doing an interview without his pants on, and his teammates exploded in laughter because, well, Pollard likes to walk around the locker room without his pants on so much that his prize from the local media was a pair of boxers. The day had an easiness to it, almost like the last day of training camp, when a team bonds after weeks of practices and rookie skits. Veterans boasted about their alma maters; defensive guys laughed it up with the offense. And Suggs reveled in the harmony.

The outside linebacker is quick to point out that he is not the leader of this Ravens team, much less the defense. That title belongs to Ray Lewis, a 16-year veteran who is known in this locker room as The General. But it is clear that the Ravens, who host the Houston Texans on Sunday in an AFC divisional playoff game, have built their chemistry around the team's unique personalities, and who could possibly fit the "unique" label better than Suggs?

If he played in a different town, alongside someone other than Lewis, perhaps he'd be one of the NFL's brightest celebrities. He is funny and outspoken and is having a season so dominant that, when the Ravens left the field on New Year's night with a 24-16 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals and the AFC North championship, coach John Harbaugh found the linebacker, pointed at him and said, "defensive player of the year."

It's not just the 14 sacks, the seven forced fumbles -- a Baltimore record -- or the game-saving turnover Suggs produced in the final minutes of that Bengals game that make this season so special. It's that the Ravens, who lost Lewis for part of the season to turf toe, have fed off Suggs' energy, humor and attitude.

It is Suggs who keeps the team loose in tense times. He once wore a T-shirt under his practice jersey that said, "You Bet Your Sweet A-- I Hate The Steelers!" He claims to be able to smoothly sing Celine Dion songs. His trash-talking is far-reaching. He once called Tom Brady "God's nephew," and said this of Steelers' rival Ben Roethlisberger: "His soul may belong to God, but his [butt] belongs to me."

"I'm a big kid, and I love to have a good time," Suggs said. "I don't think anyone should take themselves too seriously. If you can't laugh at yourself, then who can you laugh at?"

There was a time, years ago, when coaches wondered whether Suggs was ever going to take his life seriously. He was 6-3½ and 230 pounds of untapped talent. He never considered football as a way to make money. He couldn't keep up with his classes, couldn't even climb up the depth chart at Chandler High School.

But a new high school named Hamilton had just opened in town, and its coach, John Wrenn, had plans for Suggs. He'd get him to college -- only two people in Suggs' family, a cousin and an uncle, had ever gone to college -- but most of all, he'd get the young man focused.

"I wasn't going to waver," Wrenn said of Suggs, who transferred to Hamilton for his senior year. "I told him, 'I'm here to make sure you get an education. And if you really want to work hard, you could be player of the year in Arizona.' As a junior, he didn't want to do it. But senior year, he came to me and said, 'I'm willing to do the things you need to do to be great.'"

Wrenn named Suggs his starting running back, and, in their first game, a big win against a powerhouse team, the opposing coach told a Hamilton coach afterward, "I didn't know you were going to show up with Earl Campbell." But Suggs' senior year was far from easy. He had to go to Saturday school to make up some English credits. Some mornings, Wrenn had to knock on Suggs' bedroom window to wake him up for the Saturday class. Some nights, Suggs went from football practice to a job at a video store, slamming down a No. 6 combo from Jack in the Box on the way for sustenance.

"He'd work 'til 10 at night at the video store," said Deke Schutes, Hamilton's offensive coordinator. "Then he'd go to class all day. At practice, if he took a handoff, he'd run 60 yards and then sprint right back to the huddle and get excited and pumped up and try to get the other guys excited.

"I never saw him in a bad mood. He became the kid everybody wanted to be around."

His senior year was mythical. Suggs ran for 367 yards and five touchdowns in a single game against a team from Yuma, Ariz., and led the state in rushing for the season (2,274). It could've been much more than that, Schutes said. In roughly half of Hamilton's games, Suggs sat in the second half because Hamilton was so good it was blowing teams out.

Soon, the schools that had never heard of Suggs or were afraid he wouldn't qualify academically started calling. He visited Arizona State and raved to his coaches about how the hotel was nice and he got all the food he could eat. Schutes just laughed. It was like that everywhere, Terrell, he said.

But Tempe was a chance to stay close to his family, so Suggs committed to ASU. He'd already decided by the end of his senior year at Hamilton that he wanted to play defense again. He wanted to be the one delivering the hits.

He broke 10 Pac-10 records at Arizona State, and, in his junior year, he set an NCAA single-season record with 24 sacks. At the end of the season, Suggs decided to declare for the NFL draft. He wanted to help his mom pay the bills.

Suggs was the second of five children and was born on Oct. 11, his mother's birthday. LaVerne said he was the only present she got for her birthday that year in 1982. It was plenty. She never understood football. But she always understood Terrell. She calls him "bubbly," which might sound unusual for an NFL linebacker, but she doesn't know how else to describe his personality. He just has a way of drawing people in.

Wrenn, who's now the director of football operations at Arizona State, calls Suggs a member of his family. He keeps a framed picture of him in his office. Suggs signed the photo.

It says, "Thanks for changing my life."

Suggs was 20 years old when he was drafted with the 10th overall pick by Baltimore in 2003, making him one of the youngest defensive players in the NFL. To get an idea of how immediately fleeting life in the NFL is, and how dated eight years can seem, here is a sampling of other big names from that draft: Byron Leftwich and Kyle Boller were promising young first-round quarterback selections in '03; Larry Johnson was embarking on an NFL career that would wind through four teams and six coaches.

Suggs was lucky. He landed in a place that has become sort of a rare haven of stability. There were Lewis and Ed Reed and Jarret Johnson, who was drafted three rounds after Suggs. All of them are still wearing Ravens uniforms. All of them are tightly bound together.

"You've got a respect for them," Suggs said. "It's like, yo, this man has bled and sweat with me at a time when the only people I had to lean on were my teammates, and, no matter how bad we were doing, they were there and we stuck it out and went through it together."

Suggs plays with an almost childlike enthusiasm, and it's infectious. When he poked the ball out of Jermaine Gresham's clutches in the waning minutes against Cincinnati, it was classic Suggs, Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth said -- always hustling, never solely relying on his gifts.

"If I was going to create a player on the 'Madden' football game, I'd create somebody just like Terrell Suggs to play on my defense," Whitworth said. "Physically, he is the biggest, fastest, strongest and most athletic guy you're going to face in this league. He's everything you'd want in a defensive football player."

Whitworth, who stands 6-7 and weighs 335 pounds, has been one of Suggs' most formidable matchups the past few years, big enough to hang with Suggs but also smart enough not to get enamored with what he calls Suggs' athletic "freakiness."

He knows that Suggs has a strong personality and an acid tongue and has been known to jaw with many of his opponents. But when Whitworth and Suggs meet, they don't say a thing. Whitworth is guessing it's out of a mutual respect because, on the field at the end, they exchange pleasantries and say, "See you next time."

But in most cases, Suggs does not bite his tongue.

During pregame introductions of a night game this season, when the starters proudly gave their alma maters for the TV audience, Suggs yelled, "Ball So Hard University!" It's a line from one of his favorite rap songs.

"There can't be a team in the league that has a funner practice than we have," Harbaugh said, "and, to me, Terrell is a huge part of that.

"He always says something pretty outlandish, pretty outrageous. But I think the thing I'm learning about him is there's always a point behind it. There's always a message, and, usually, it's a challenging message whether it's for teammates or coaches or himself. He's always challenging guys to take it to the next level."

On Thursday afternoon, before the Ravens scattered for what they hope will be their last weekend off for the next few weeks, Suggs grabbed a microphone inside the team facility in Owings Mills, Md., and held court for about 10 minutes with the media.

He was asked what he has improved upon this season. Suggs said his jokes have gotten better.

"I don't care what y'all say," he said. "I became a lot better looking."

The question was asked again.

"Where have I gotten better?" he said. "I don't know. I think it's just the anticipation of my game. Just kind of enjoying it and not really getting caught up into everything that really don't matter but the overall goal."

Suggs isn't going to lie. He'd love to be the NFL's defensive player of the year. It appears he's the underdog, especially after Vikings defensive end Jared Allen's 22-sack season. But Suggs has a shot at something bigger, something that has eluded Allen.

"I've won some awards in the past, you know, high school and college," Suggs said. "But at no level in my football career have I ever won a championship. So it would definitely be an honor to win [player of the year]. But I'd be more disappointed if we fall short."

Back in the Ravens' locker room, Pollard tried to explain what Suggs means to the team. Pollard has not been lucky like Suggs. He has bounced from team to team, finally finding a home in Baltimore. He has told Suggs that he's disappointed his other five years in the NFL couldn't have been in this locker room. Suggs usually tells him the same thing: "You were born to be a Raven."

Pollard glanced over at Suggs' empty locker. Inside was a certificate with a gold seal and a picture of a strange-looking man. The certificate was written in what appeared to be Chinese. Pollard had no idea what it meant.

"He probably doesn't know what it means," Pollard said of Suggs. "Terrell is just one of those dudes."

They can't explain this 12-4 season. Suggs can't say that he has done all that much different. But before every game, the defensive line has a ritual. The Ravens sing the Ace Hood song "Hustle Hard" together, and Suggs bounces around and belts it out, most likely off-key. He doesn't really care how it looks or sounds. This is how they get pumped up in Baltimore.

People close to him have wondered what makes him so different, what makes him so loud out there. Maybe, one of his old coaches surmised, it's because he was a middle child and craved the attention.

Suggs says it's not nearly that deep.

"I just try to enjoy it because these times are priceless," Suggs said. "When the roller-coaster ride is over, you want to say, 'I enjoyed it; I had a great time and did everything there was to do.'

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.