Meet Chazz and Sage Surratt, two brothers on track for the 2021 NFL draft

Sage Surratt, left, and his older brother Chazz were never once on opposing sides for a game until Sept. 13, 2019, when Sage's Wake Forest team beat UNC 24-18. Now they're entering the NFL draft together. AP Photo/Nell Redmond

A FEW DAYS after North Carolina wrapped its regular season, Chazz Surratt opted out of the Tar Heels' bowl game and headed to Florida to train for the 2021 NFL draft alongside his brother Sage Surratt, who'd already been living there. Both were on the precipice of fulfilling a dream. Chazz, 24, is among the top-ranked linebackers available and likely to be selected in the first few rounds. Sage, a big, physical 23-year-old receiver with good hands, has been pegged as a mid-to-late-round selection.

Training together was fitting. That's how they'd grown up in Lincolnton, North Carolina, tethered by age and ambition, on ballfields or basketball courts, even heading to national chess tournaments together.

It had been years since the boys were living under the same roof, with Chazz at UNC and Sage at Wake Forest, but the pair quickly fell back into familiar habits.

Chazz: "He's still messy."

Sage, shaking his head: "Wow. Really? We're doing this?"

Chazz has always relished the role of dutiful caretaker. Sage grew up in his older brother's shadow, though he found ways to stand out.

On their high school basketball team, Chazz was the reliable point guard. Sage was the scoring machine. In football, Chazz was the star QB, throwing bombs to Sage downfield. Their mom, Brandi, remembers giving both boys an allowance as kids, but Chazz always felt compelled to pay for his younger sibling. Before Sage left for college, he handed his mother more than $1,100 to deposit at the bank.

"Where'd this come from?" Brandi Surratt asked.

Turns out, Sage had been socking away his allowance since the sixth grade because his brother was footing all the bills.

The Surratts have always been incredibly close and immensely competitive, but through twists and turns in their careers, they've always relied on each other to find their way. In Florida, they were reunited once more, though finally on equal footing -- both looking ahead to the next chapter.

"There was a moment down in Florida where it was just like, we're really training for the draft together, about to get drafted," Chazz said. "There's so many things that can take you away from that path, but we both made it here. It's surreal."

TALL WITH WIDE SHOULDERS and quick feet, Chazz Surratt could have played pretty much anywhere on a football field. In fact, as a freshman in high school, he almost did, lining up at six different positions during the season and finishing one game with four touchdowns -- two receiving, one rushing and another on a pick-six. But Chazz wanted to play quarterback. That was the dream.

He was good, too. Chazz earned Parade All-America honors and was a national player of the year as a senior, setting the state record for total yards and touchdowns in his prep career. At UNC, he was groomed as the heir apparent to Mitchell Trubisky, who'd been selected No. 3 overall in 2017. Surratt figured he'd follow a similar path.

"I wanted to be three [years] and done, and be an NFL quarterback," Surratt said. "That was my old dream."

The old dream began to wither soon after Surratt got his first shot at the starting job. UNC opened 2017 with five losses in six games with Surratt unsteady at the helm, and after a dismal performance against Notre Dame in which he completed just 19 of 42 passes, he was benched. He played in just one game in 2018, throwing 10 passes in a loss to Miami and also suffering a season-ending wrist injury. UNC slumped to a 2-9 finish, and head coach Larry Fedora, who had recruited Surratt, was fired.

As his wrist healed, Chazz began reconsidering his future. Mack Brown would bring in a new coaching staff and a new offensive scheme. Surratt still dreamed of the NFL, but he wondered if quarterback was a viable path. Linebacker was UNC's biggest need. He picked up the phone and called his dad.

"I'm thinking about moving to linebacker," he said.

Kevin Surratt didn't blink. Of course Chazz could play linebacker -- his father believes it's the most natural spot for his body type and skill set.

Chazz's next call was to his younger brother.

In high school, their roles had been well-defined. Coach Mike Byus remembers working with the pair on passing drills one day after practice. Chazz threw a laser. Sage hauled in the catch, then tossed the ball back to Byus. The coach handed it back to Chazz, and the whole scene repeated itself. Eventually, Byus interrupted the proceedings with an idea to cut out the middleman.

"Sage," Byus said, "why don't you just throw it back to Chazz?"

Sage grinned as he jogged back to the line.

"No, Coach," he said. "Chazz throws 'em, and I catch 'em. That's how it works."

When Chazz said he wasn't sure he wanted to be the guy throwing the passes anymore, Sage understood. They'd had a dream -- two brothers, one a QB and one a receiver, playing in the NFL -- but their on-field roles had never been the part that really mattered.

"It'll be good," Sage told his brother.

A few days later, Chazz walked into the office of linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen, hoping to sell the staff on his decision.

"It's about time," Thigpen said. "I've been waiting for you to come over here."

Thigpen joked that the move would make the former QB a lot of money in the NFL. It's exactly what Chazz needed to hear.

After the meeting, Chazz called home and spoke to his mom. When she hung up, Brandi turned to Kevin nearly in tears.

"That's the happiest Chazz has sounded in three years," she said.

Still, the switch wasn't easy. Chazz Surratt, at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, may have looked the part athletically, but the position was entirely new. He spent the offseason learning the ropes, and since UNC was so thin at linebacker, Thigpen had few options beyond giving Chazz all the reps he could handle. When the 2019 season opened against South Carolina, Surratt was the starting middle linebacker.

On the Gamecocks' second drive, tailback Tavien Feaster took the handoff, hit the hole and found Surratt out of position. Feaster delivered the blow, broke the tackle attempt and sprinted 34 yards for a touchdown. Chazz looked like a QB playing defense.

"He missed a couple tackles that were big, big misses," defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said. "But by the end of that game, he was making them."

He finished with 12 tackles and a sack as UNC pulled a stunning upset over an SEC opponent.

A month later, Surratt was arguably the best player on the field as the upstart Tar Heels utterly frustrated Trevor Lawrence and top-ranked Clemson. Surratt finished the game with seven tackles (two for a loss), three QB hurries and two pass breakups. Only a missed 2-point attempt at the end of the game prevented UNC from getting a win.

By the end of the season, Surratt had posted six games with double-digit tackles en route to All-ACC honors. In 2020, he was one of the league's top defenders, leading the Tar Heels with 91 tackles.

"I think it's the best story of the year," Brown said. "The things he learned as a quarterback really helped him when he was learning the plays on defense. And he's just got a feel.

"He'll be one of the better linebackers out there in the draft, but his upside is unbelievable because he's only played two years. There's no telling how good he can be."

IF SAGE WERE an inch or two taller, Chazz Surratt said, he might be training for the NBA draft right now, not the NFL's.

At 6-foot-3, Sage could drive to the rim and showed a nifty outside shot on their high school team, but where he really excelled was with his midrange jumpers, coach Neil Hodges said.

"He just had a sweet 15- or 17-foot jump shot," Hodges said.

Hodges loved the brothers' confidence. They had "chutzpah," he said, joking that Chazz and Sage both thought they were better shooters than Stephen Curry. During gym class, they'd tap a few teammates to serve as judges for their dunk contests. And when a game was on the line, they wanted the ball in their hands.

Sage still ranks second in North Carolina state history in scoring with nearly 3,000 points. Wake Forest football coach Dave Clawson watched Sage play hoops in high school and joked that a perfect stat line was 58 points and no assists. Passing the ball was Chazz's job.

"He always talks about how many assists he had," Sage said. "And I tell him, 'It's easy to get assists when you're just throwing the ball in for me to score.'"

Even Chazz admits there was a clear difference in talent between the two.

"He could play shooting guard in the NBA," Chazz said. "Me, I'm a football player, but Sage was that good."

That's what Clawson thought, too. He'd hoped to recruit Sage to Wake Forest, but the kid's basketball talent was so extraordinary that he assumed it was a long shot. Harvard offered Sage a chance to play both sports, and even if he eventually settled on football, Clawson figured Sage would follow his brother to UNC.

Sage eyed the Harvard offer, but about a month before signing day, he called Clawson.

"I'm rethinking my plans," he told Clawson. "Would you guys still have interest?"

That fall, with his brother off at college, Sage finally got a chance to play football on his own terms, a season in which he was just Sage rather than "Chazz's younger brother."

In his first collegiate action in 2018, Sage caught 11 passes for 150 yards in a win over Tulane. He finished his redshirt freshman year with 41 grabs and nearly 600 yards receiving, both second best on the team.

A year later, Sage blossomed into one of the country's most prolific pass-catchers. On a 14-yard grab in the fourth quarter against Virginia Tech, Sage crossed the 1,000-yard mark for the season with four games left to play. After the catch, though, Sage was hit on the shoulder by a Hokies defender. The injury required surgery. His season was done, and after the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to shut down the 2020 college football season, it turned out that so was his college career.

In mid-August, Sage told Clawson he was opting out of the season. At the time, it looked doubtful the ACC would play football after the Pac-12 and Big Ten shut down (they would return to action months later). While his brother was still building his résumé at linebacker, Sage hoped he'd already shown enough on film to impress NFL scouts.

Sage had received positive reviews from NFL analysts, though he wasn't viewed as a first-rounder. Dozens of other players had opted out, some far less secure in their professional stock than he was. And so much was unknown about the virus, his father said. But sitting out still felt entirely antithetical to the way Sage approaches sports.

"That was a tough time," Brandi Surratt said. "It was a really hard thing for our family. We lost sleep over it."

Sage moved to Florida full time to train for the draft but still took online classes to earn his diploma and made the dean's list. Still, he was away from both family and teammates for the first time in his life.

"I think a lot of people had this idea that Sage was out having fun because he was in Florida," Brandi said. "It wasn't a fun time. He was alone from pretty much September to December."

What Sage did have, however, was a brother still playing college football, and Chazz's 2020 season proved a necessary diversion.

"I watched Wake games and I watched Chazz's games," Sage said. "It was tough not being out there on Saturdays, but I'd talk to Chazz throughout the week, and it's great just to have someone like that on your side."

THERE IS A SLIM CHANCE that Chazz and Sage will land on the same NFL roster. They've thought about it. The past three months preparing for the draft together have been a pleasant reminder of how much fun it was to share a dream and a roof.

"I'd just tell people," Kevin Surratt said, "they didn't lose many games when they were on the same team."

The Surratt parents sure wouldn't mind if it happened again. Maneuvering through overlapping college careers was no easy task.

In 2019, Kevin was in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, as Sage and Wake Forest played Boston College, while Brandi was watching Chazz and the Tar Heels nearly pull the upset over Clemson, texting updates every few minutes. When UNC drove for a potential game-winning TD late in the fourth quarter, a flurry of texts zoomed from Chapel Hill to New England debating the merits of going for two.

If there was a respite, it came in 2019 when UNC and Wake faced off, pitting the brothers against each other for the first time in their lives. Both ended up having big games. Sage finished with nine catches for 169 yards and a touchdown in a 24-18 Wake win. Chazz had eight tackles, including one for a loss, helping the Heels' defense to a near-flawless second half. And the brothers even got their one-on-one battle, as Chazz made a tackle after one of Sage's catches along the sideline.

"He tried to get me with a cheap shot," Sage said. "I had to talk to him about that."

Still, the odds are against them landing with the same NFL team, which means that those three months in Florida are likely to be the last time the Surratt brothers share living quarters. That's OK, Sage said.

They haven't always been on the same sideline, but they've always been on the journey together.

"Whoever goes first, we're not going to be happy until both our names have been called," Chazz said. "We're still going to be sitting on pins and needles."