July 21, 2005
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NEW ORLEANS - This is the story Ryan Sutter didn't want anyone to read, at least not two months ago.
So secretive was "The Bachelorette" star and local firefighter about his invite to the New Orleans Saints rookie minicamp in mid-May that he didn't even tell his parents.
Had he made the roster for the team's upcoming training camp, Sutter said, the secret would have been out. Sutter won't be flying out to training camp in Metarie, La., next week, however.
The former Big 12 all-conference safety from the University of Colorado tore his left Achilles tendon in the final minicamp practice May 13, thus ending his pro football comeback.
"It's been a tough go trying to make it in the NFL," said Sutter, whose first stint in the pros in 1998 ended when he blew out his shoulder as a rookie with the Carolina Panthers. "Two times I got close, and two times I got hurt."
Sutter was originally drafted in the fifth round by the Baltimore Ravens in 1998 following a brilliant senior season at CU. The fifth-year walk-on recorded 170 tackles from his free safety spot for the Buffs during the 1997 season, including 98 solo stops. The mark still stands as second on CU's all-time career list for a single season.
Sutter was released by the Ravens during training camp, but was picked up by Carolina and made the practice squad for the '98 NFL season. He made the team's active roster during the 10th week of the season, but dislocated the shoulder on the opening kickoff of his first professional game.
One play. Nine seconds. That was it.
In 2000, Sutter played safety for the Barcelona Dragons of NFL Europe, but walked away from football after the season to pursue other things. The rest of the story is the one America knows so well.
When Sutter won the heart of Trista Rehn on ABC's "The Bachelorette," the sensitive firefighter from Vail and the former Miami Heat dancer became the darlings of reality TV fans across the country.
As for his previous football success, it really wasn't the reason US, In Touch and People were putting the pair on their covers.
Sutter's short-lived stint in the pros, and his decorated college career were footnotes - if anything - in all the hype surrounding the dynamic reality duo.
Oh yeah, and he used to be a good football player was the token line.
Not a promotional stunt
Ryan and Trista mania has dwindled since the pair were married live on ABC in 2003, but even so, Sutter tried to keep his dreams of an NFL comeback secret when he floated the idea to his pro agent this winter.
After Sutter qualified for the Ironman World Championships last fall in Hawaii through an exemption, there was an unexpected backlash from the public scolding him for using his celebrity as a way to cut corners. He didn't want people to think trying out for the Saints was a shameless promotional stunt.
"I got an exemption spot to do the world championships and I just received a crap storm of letters," Sutter said. "There were a lot of supportive letters, but also lot of letters saying, 'You don't deserve to be there. You've got earn your spot to go to Hawaii.' I didn't know that was coming, or I probably wouldn't have (used the exemption). This time, I knew what was coming, so I just said, 'I'm going to keep it quiet.'"
A number of Web sites picked up the story anyway, and People ran a blurb, but Sutter's quest to earn a spot on the training camp roster went mostly unnoticed, even in the New Orleans papers.
If he'd made the training camp roster, the story would have definitely sweetened and Sutter would have most likely found himself in the midst of a media circus when the Saints opened camp next week.
It's a circus he doesn't have to face, all because of one step.
"Coming into the very last practice of the very last day, I was in a very simple special teams drill," Sutter said. "I took a step forward, like an accelerating step, and it felt like someone had hit me in the back of the ankle with a cane or something."
One step. One tear. Comeback over.
First his leg went numb. Then the intense pain came. The injury was confusing, Sutter said, because it was such a routine thing - just taking a step forward.
When he was examined by team doctors, however, he learned that he was staring down surgery, followed by a 4-6 month rehabilitation process.
"I never would have done it if I didn't feel like I had a legitimate chance," Sutter said. "That's why I didn't tell anyone. It was a personal quest that I wanted to try and see if I was able to do. I'm really not that disappointed. It didn't work out, but at least you know."
A human bowling ball
Sutter has never shied away from throwing himself into things.
He walked on at CU in 1993 and quickly made a name for himself on special teams after his redshirt year, sacrificing his body over and over to show coaches how badly he wanted to be on the field.
"He was a special teams kamikaze for the first three years," said Dave Plati, CU's sports information director. "We keep special teams points here and I believe he pretty much set every record there was to be set. He'd run down and throw his body into a wall of four guys and kill himself. Then he'd get right back up."
Sutter still owns CU records for most special teams tackles with 64, and most accrued special team points with 123. From 1994 to 1997, he tallied 28 wedge breaks.
"That's some of the fiercest hits you'll ever see (on special teams)," Plati said. "Guys are going full speed with more open field. This is the Big 12 conference. You've got to be crazy to run down a field and throw your body into the wedge in front of three or four guys. He was in tremendous shape to do that. (Former CU coach Rick) Neuheisel loved the guy."
When he earned a starting spot in the secondary as a senior captain in 1997, Sutter made the most of it. Teamed with strong safety Ryan Black, also a former walk-on, the duo quickly became one of the fiercest hitting tandems in the conference.
Sutter's desire and willingness to do whatever was asked by his coaches was what helped him latch on with the Panthers in 1998, after being released by the team who drafted him.
Ironically, after getting up from a number of vicious special-teams hits in five years of college football, Sutter didn't get up from his first such hit in the NFL.
The first eight seconds of the play were perfect. The last was sheer agony.
Sutter, fittingly, threw himself into other things - including firefighting, modeling, snowboarding, writing poetry and being a devoted husband - after using up what seemed to be his nine lives on the gridiron.
Completing the grueling Ironman worlds course last fall put him in the best shape of his life, however, and he felt his body might be ready to try football again.
He threw out the idea sporadically, then his agent used his contacts with scouts in the NFL to see what turned up.
The Saints flew Sutter out for a workout in January, which then led to the invite to rookie minicamp in May.
Far from a rookie at 30, Sutter said the minicamp offer was so the team "could evaluate and see if I could play in an active football setting."
Sutter said he didn't have a wild dream of earning a starting safety spot, just a spot on the team as a role player in the secondary and a special teamer.
"I figured, 'Why not?'" Sutter said. "I'm 30 years old and I'm not getting any younger. I figured if there was ever a time, this was really the last chance I'm going to have to do something that is that physically demanding. ... I've always been able to pick up defenses really well. I thought I could go in as the fifth safety and a special teams player. That's what my career was built on in college and that's that what I was good at."
His dream was close to taking the next step forward, too, if not for the snap he felt during that one push with his left leg.
Two months into his four-month rehab, Sutter has no regrets. He's off his crutches and looking forward to getting back to full strength.
"I still can't run or jog or balance on that leg, and I have a hug scar, but the strength is starting to come back," he said. "Every day it gets a little bit better, and hopefully I'll be able to go back to work in another month or so and try and take it from there. I think I'm going to try and get back into endurance sports, like triathlons in the summer and try and continue on that way."
When asked if he thought Sutter's attempt to return to the NFL was a promotional stunt Plati laughed, then turned serious.
"It's the NFL," he said. "If you're coming in on a publicity stunt, I think the other people there - especially the veterans - they're not going to like that. I know Ryan pretty well. I can't see him doing that. I think they saw his love for the sport and they gave him a shot. I think his love's always been there for it."