TAMPA — When Ernestine Brower looks back, she sees miracles.
She sees problems that could have grown bigger, but didn’t. She sees holes that could have swallowed her son, but couldn’t. She sees obstacles that blocked his path, but were tackled.
That is, after all, what Ernest Suttles does. He tackles.
Quarterbacks, running backs, problems.
The Gaither High School defensive lineman — strong enough, quick enough, nasty enough to play inside or outside — took a circuitous route to national signing day, where he signed up for college Wednesday at Nebraska.
He has traveled from Harlem to Tampa, from basketball to football, from tragedy to triumph. And in a span of just two years, from unknown prospect to top recruit.
When Brower looks forward, she sees sunshine.
• • •
When Suttles was in eighth grade, his mother sent him from 150th and Broadway in Harlem to live with his father in Tampa.
His parents had split when he was 5, and Brower had done all she could. She was an excellent mother, Suttles says, and taught him to be everything he is today.
“I could not,” she said, “teach him to be a man. He needed to be with his dad.”
So for 18 months, George Suttles took over the parenting.
Suttles enrolled at Hillsborough High, where he played basketball for Stephanie Crawford. He bonded quickly with his first-period math teacher, Suzanne Cooks.
Both women grew to adore him and became close friends with Brower. She considered them family, sisters even, and before long they filled that role full time.
In 2010, 18 months into a stronger, better relationship with his son, George Suttles died of emphysema. “That was tough on Ernest,” said Brower.
Cooks and Crawford said they would help her find a job, a place to live, but Brower’s daughter, Raven, was in school at Syracuse.
She needed to be in New York.
But Suttles, she agreed, needed to be here. “They embraced him. I felt like I was leaving him with blood relatives,” she said.
With Cooks and Crawford to watch over him, he moved in with his godmother, Chea Adkins, and transferred to Gaither.
“It was good to have a relationship with my dad,” Ernest said. “It was an experience I’ll never forget. At the end of the day, my dad was one of the best dads there was. Because of him, I signed today. I wouldn’t have been in Florida without him.”
And he probably wouldn’t be a football player if not for Gaither coach Jason Stokes, who almost immediately noticed the new 6-foot-4 kid roaming the halls.
He talked him into coming out for football. After starting out as a tight end and fullback on the scout team, it took just one play — where Suttles bowled over two would-be tacklers — for defensive line coach Greg Hamlin to say, “I gotta have you.”
“Once I went to my hand in the dirt, I fell in love with it,” Suttles said.
And after overhearing a coach from the University at Buffalo, there to see a teammate, say how much he liked the way Suttles played, his life changed forever.
He studied harder. He practiced harder. He worked harder. He played better, then schools like Missouri, West Virginia, Iowa State and Indiana were offering.
“A complete 180 turn,” he said.
By the end of a senior year in which he had 12.5 sacks, Suttles had needed just two seasons to become one of Tampa Bay’s best.
“God put the right people in my life at the right time,” he said. “I’m blessed.”
• • •
Suttles is exceptionally polite, sprinkling “sir” into conversations almost every other word.
He is described by those who know him as funny, even quirky.
On a serious day, he wore a very non-serious hat, a Herbie Husker knit cap with pompoms at the end of two dangling tassels.
“I’m a little different, my personality,” he said, smiling. “I wanted to show that on my signing day.”
He hammed for pictures as Crawford aimed her iPhone, trying to catch the perfect pose.
Mom arrived Saturday for the big day. She wore a Nebraska T-shirt. She beamed as she sat at a desk, and why not?
George Suttles Jr., 31, is working on his second masters degree in philanthropic studies at Indiana.
Raven Suttles, 25, has graduated from Syracuse and teaches third-grade math at a charter school in Brooklyn.
And now Ernest has signed up for at least four years at Nebraska.
“The Lord scripted this,” she said. “There’s no doubt in my mind about it.”
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.