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College football: When Steve Suter returned a punt for a score in the Gator Bowl, his ailing father was foremost in his mind.

College Football

September 17, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - He was out of breath, he was emotionally exhausted, and he was covered in sweat. Inside Alltel Stadium, 78,892 people had just watched Steve Suter return a punt 76 yards for a touchdown, giving Maryland a 17-0 lead over West Virginia on New Year's Day in the Gator Bowl. But at that moment, Suter wasn't thinking about any of them. He was only thinking about his father, George, 800 miles away, watching the game at home from his couch in Manchester.

As fans celebrated, and teammates tried to hug him, Suter ran past a television camera and blurted out what had been on his mind since the moment he crossed the goal line.

"I love you, Pops. That was for you."

George Suter had never missed one of his son's games before, not once since Suter started playing peewee football at age 9 in one of Carroll County's recreational leagues. George Suter had watched his son become a star at North Carroll High School, had come to all the games at Maryland after Suter earned a football scholarship and cheered until his voice was hoarse as his son became a star for the Terps.

Each step of the way, people openly questioned whether Suter, at 5 feet 9, was big enough to succeed, but each time, George Suter watched his son prove them wrong. He was 185 pounds of muscle and lightning, and even the biggest and strongest defenders seemed to have a habit of ending up in Suter's rearview mirror.

As a sophomore, he was named first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference as a return man, and as a junior, he repeated the feat. Every catch, every return, his father was in the stands looking on, beaming with pride.

"He's been my biggest fan since Day 1," Suter says. "He's so loud, I can always hear him over everyone yelling."

But in December 2003, George Suter's world started to get a little blurry. It was hard to read the newspaper, hard to see things in certain light, and he kept getting headaches that wouldn't go away.

"I'd just gotten new glasses a few months before that, but I went back to the eye doctor to see if it was just my vision," George Suter says. "He said, `No way. There's no way your vision should have changed this much in four months.' He sent me to have a [magnetic resonance imaging] done that same day."

That night, George Suter's doctor called. Come to my office, he said. And bring your wife, Lynn. We need to talk.

"When a doctor says something like that, you know it's pretty serious," George Suter, 60, says.

On George Suter's brain, a tumor was growing. After some tests, his doctors were fairly certain it was benign, but to be certain, George Suter would need to have surgery in February. Until then, all anyone could do was say a few prayers.

"I was pretty upset," says Steve Suter. "You ask yourself, `Why does he have to get one? Why does it have to happen to my dad?' I think anybody in that situation starts to ask those questions."

By the end of the month, Suter and Maryland were headed to the Gator Bowl, but George Suter had to stay behind. His doctors were concerned the change in altitude might cause him discomfort on the flight to Jacksonville, Fla., so he and his wife were forced to stay behind in Maryland.

"They were pretty upset they couldn't come down," Suter says. "When I was getting ready to walk out of the locker room before the game, I saw a marker laying around and I was like, `I'm going to write DAD on my wristband.' Hopefully he'll see it and he'll know I was thinking about him."

Of course, Suter did something much more dramatic than that. As he wove through West Virginia's defenders and raced up the sideline that day, his mind was a blur. But when he crossed the goal line, the gravity of the moment hit him.

"I didn't even care about making the play," Suter says. "Just knowing they got to see it, and that they were proud of me, made me feel good."

In Manchester, the Suters were overcome with emotion. Their son pointed to his wristband in the third quarter after he made a leaping, juggling one-handed catch where he tipped the ball to himself in mid-air while battling a defender. Maryland won, 41-7, capping off its third straight 10-win season.

"We were pretty emotional watching it all," George Suter says. "I think all of us got a little choked up."

In a perfect world, the story would end a month later, with George Suter undergoing successful brain surgery, and recovering fully in time to watch his son's senior year. By July, he was feeling good again, and teaching himself to play golf after watching his son fall in love with the game several years ago.

"It's something Steve loves to do a lot, so I figured maybe I could learn and we could do it as a father-son thing," George Suter says. But during a checkup with his doctor, George Suter learned that his PSA count - a number determined by a prostate-specific antigen test that is used to monitor cancer activity in the blood - had nearly doubled. He had prostate cancer.

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