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'Despite everything, I’m still here': Entering 16th season, Ravens' Terrell Suggs looks back and ahead

Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs talks about playing with Ray Lewis and being with one team for his whole career. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

The conversations typically take place during organized team activities in the spring or at training camp in the summer. An NFL veteran new to the Ravens will ask Terrell Suggs how long he’s been in Baltimore.

The exact number of years changes from season to season.

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The message does not.

“They’ll be like, ‘What year is this for you?’ and I’ll be like, ‘16,’ ” Suggs said after practice Monday. “And it’ll kind of hit ‘em, and they’re like, ‘You ain’t played nowhere else?’ I’ll be like, ‘No.’ And it all kind of humbles me again.”

While the now 35-year-old Suggs has blurred the line between humility and hubris at times over his likely Hall of Fame career, there is no doubt that he is more appreciative now than he’s ever been.

“I'm not surprised I’m still here, because I know this organization,” he said. “I do understand the business of it. That’s why I am grateful and flattered and humbled. That’s why I approach my business every day with so much humility. I understand the business of it, but for me to be in one spot for 16 of 'em, it’s flattering.”

The idea that he would likely finish his career where he started it — he was the Ravens’ No. 10 overall pick in 2003 — began to sink in while watching former teammates such as Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata go elsewhere toward the end of their respective careers.

“Despite everything, I’m still here,” Suggs said. "Two Achilles [tendon tears]. Two biceps [tears], pulled pec[toral muscle], and I’m still a Raven. … That’s very humbling and flattering, because I’ve learned that not everybody gets to do that. A lot of guys, before they’re done, get to play on two and three teams.

“To have the opportunity to play for one organization, it just goes to show the kind of organization we have, and it’s very flattering. It’s very flattering. We’ve seen a lot of Ravens that will always be known as Ravens not have the opportunity to finish their career here. I plan on being a Raven as long as I’m playing football.”

A year ago, it seemed as if the choice might not have been Suggs’ to make. Coming off his second torn Achilles tendon, suffered in the 2015 season opener, Suggs had just eight sacks in 2016 — his lowest total in a season with at least nine games played since 2009.

While the Ravens missed the playoffs for a third straight season last year, Suggs rebounded, finishing with 11 sacks and being named to a seventh Pro Bowl. Though not the dominant, disruptive force he was in 2011, when he was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Suggs showed that there was still a spark left in “T-Sizzle."

“To me, the things that stand out are the fact that he’s a very unusual level of athlete — that’s the one factor — and he’s worked so hard,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “He’s trained at a higher level than he’s ever trained before, by far. Those are the two things to be the factors in how he looks right now.”

Harbaugh, who has coached Suggs for 10 seasons, doesn't expect one of the league's most vocal and flamboyant players to become mostly silent and vanilla.

“Is Terrell Suggs going to get nostalgic, sentimental?” Harbaugh said. “I’m not anticipating that. … He does talk to the guys about the Ravens’ history and about tradition and what it means to ‘Play Like A Raven’ and what the standard is. He does it in his unique way. It’s very effective.”

Defensive tackle Brandon Williams looks at Suggs with the kind of admiration Suggs had for former teammates Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

“He’s the best player I see out here every day,” Williams said. “He’s always being the best pro, working on his body, always getting in the weight room, working out, and for him to say that about me, it means a lot. I feel honored. I feel privileged to be on this defense alongside him and with the rest of the history of the Ravens.”

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As the countdown to Lewis’ induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame approaches its final week, Suggs is reflecting more on what it meant to have played alongside Lewis and Ed Reed, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer himself.

Asked what made Lewis special, Suggs said: “I think it was everything about him: his work ethic, his desire to be the best football player that he can be. He just woke up and he was just Ray Lewis, so he did pretty much everything great. He was a great teammate. He was a great brother, so [I’m] really going to be excited to see him go in and reach football immortality.”

The opportunity to play with Lewis and Reed at the height of their careers — not to mention a few seasons with Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden — can’t be overstated, Suggs said.

“It was everything,” he said. “I wouldn’t be there player I am if it wasn’t for those two big, pivotal pieces in my life. Also, it doesn’t hurt to practice against the best offensive tackle [Ogden] that’s ever lined up. That can help your game, too.

“But as far as the defensive players’ standpoint, as a mentality, as the way they approach the game, as the way they prepare for games and for seasons, I don’t think we can find two that have done it better than those two. Just their brain, just their commitment to just being dominant, it was very flattering.”

Suggs readily concedes that he didn’t quite grasp how special a group it was until it was dismantled.

“That’s one of the biggest regrets that I always tell these younger guys,” he said. “When I was young, I took them for granted. I thought, ‘I will always be playing alongside Ray Lewis, and Ed, A.D. [Adalius Thomas], Haloti [Ngata], Chris McAllister.’ I took that kind of personnel for granted, like, ‘We’ll always be together,’ and that’s not true. So, it’s very important that you take advantage of the time that you have, especially with icons and legendary players like that.”

Iconic in his own right, if not quite a legend, Suggs will one day be talked about with a reverence that betrays his own irreverence. On Friday, Suggs got a kick out of driving Steve Bisciotti’s golf cart onto the practice fields — and then getting caught “with hands stuck in a cookie jar” by the team’s owner.

But his chief concern is leading back to the playoffs a team that he acknowledges is starting from “ground zero.”

“You’re not riding off the Ray Lewises and the Ed Reeds,” he said. “You’ve got to do it [on] your own. Like I always used to say when I was younger, your big brothers ain’t always going to be there to fight for you. I think that’s kind of the mindset we’ve taking this offseason. It’s like, ‘Yo, we’re tired of missing being in the second season.’ We want to be playing football in January.”

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And another season or two after this one does not seem so far-fetched to Suggs.

“You don’t want to start thinking about the end, because this time that you have here, it’ll pass you by,” he said. “Make the most of the time you have. I’m not thinking about the end.”

After Suggs asked the reporter who had posed the question whether he thought the veteran should call it quits, a sobering thought popped into his head.

“Time is undefeated,” Suggs said. "It eventually will happen. I just hope it’s sooner — I mean, later rather than sooner.”

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