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Carolina Panthers

For Julius Peppers, his first steps inside the Hall of Fame were solemn ones

Julius Peppers, Sam Mills

CANTON, Ohio — It's beginning to become a little more real for Julius Peppers. Still not quite something he expects, but slowly, it's dawning on him that he belongs to this club now.

But his voice still drops when he walks into the Gallery, and he's not even sure why.

Meeting the moment Monday, as he stood inches away from the bust of his former coach Sam Mills and the other 371 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Peppers got even quieter than his normal quiet. And he's very quiet.

He's been to the Hall property a few times before, but he was always outdoors, celebrating someone else's induction (like in 2022) or almost playing in a game before it was canceled at the last minute because of field conditions (2016).

"This is my first time ever being in this room," Peppers said softly as he walked by the rows of bronze sculptures.

Since he hadn't stepped foot in the museum he was going to reside in soon, it was a little like walking into church without realizing he was now a venerated saint. As he walked in with Hall of Fame president Jim Porter Sunday night, the shift to their solemn voices was noticeable.

"I'm talking loud now, but Jim was joking about it," Peppers said Monday afternoon. "There's no signs or anything that say keep the noise down or be quiet in here. But when you come in here, it's quiet. Nobody's talking.

"It's kind of like a sanctuary where you just come in, you just look, and you just admire the greatness on the walls, and you keep the noise down. So it's really interesting because, like, they don't tell you that, but everybody just does it."

Soon, in August, Peppers will live there too, just a few feet of wall away from Mills with the rest of the Class of 2024. It's the last spot of open wall in the room's current configuration, next to the doorway that begins with the first class. The gravity of that moment has been hard for Peppers to comprehend; he admitted as much in Las Vegas when he said he didn't feel like he belonged.

But he belongs. That was evident Monday morning when the Hall's entire staff and some fortunate guests were there to greet him on his first full day in Canton. Included in the receiving line were Jason and Will DeRuyver from Fowlerville, Mich., of course. They had no reason to expect what they were walking into, as the father had just brought his son down for a quick college spring break trip. Dad was wearing his vintage Lions Herman Moore jersey, and his son was in a University of Michigan JJ McCarthy, but at that moment, they looked like Panthers or 49ers fans.

That's because by being in the right place at the right time, they got to meet and shake hands with Nos. 377 and 378, as Peppers and Patrick Willis were there for their freshman orientation session.

"This is insane," the elder DeRuyver said, beaming. "We just met Julius Peppers and Patrick Willis. That's insane."

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That's the impact these guys have on fans, like the two younger boys in Lamar Jackson Ravens jerseys who were waiting patiently around the corner when they saw Peppers, so they quickly got into position to pose for photos and get some autographs when he came around the corner.

At the Hall of Fame, running into a Hall of Famer is something that just happens sometimes on a spring Monday afternoon.

And those reactions are mirrored in their own.

Peppers and Willis got the full tour of the Hall as part of their visit. They walked to the spot where they'll give their speeches in August; they went to the archive room where the Hall keeps the history of the game in their own library.

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Peppers nodded quietly when Hall vice president of museum and archives Jon Kendle showed him then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue's notes regarding whether or not to play games the week after 9/11. The league didn't, of course, and the next document Kendle produced was a letter from former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson commending him on the decision.

"Big Cat," Peppers said with a respectful nod.

Then they went through other artifacts, like ancient thigh pads made of bamboo, the first contract of Pudge Heffelfinger (the first player to receive money in exchange for playing this game), the original letter from Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, suggesting a catchy name for the championship game like maybe "the Super Bowl."

Then, Kendle waved them to another table nearby, short on Willis artifacts but with a striking blue jersey and pair of gloves with Panthers logos in the palms.

"This was the jersey and gloves Julius wore when he became the first player ever with 150 sacks and 10 interceptions," Kendle said.

"Sheesh," the former 49ers linebacker said, trying to wrap his mind around anyone being able to do that.

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That kind of astonishment seems to be the norm in Canton. Many people pass through, admiring the heroes of their youth. But the true Hall of Famers react the same way, which is something that it takes a second to process.

That's why walking into the Gallery and seeing the Sam Mills bust is an emotional sight for Peppers. That one is close to his heart.

He was on the practice field that day in January 2004 when Mills, fighting cancer, gave the Keep Pounding speech. So it's natural for that one to feel like a reverent moment. Peppers had seen the bust in another setting when they brought it to a family party in August 2022. But when Mills was in his place on the wall (parallel from Peyton Manning), it hits differently for Peppers than in any other setting.

"I had seen it before, but to see it in here amongst all the other ones, that's what really been tripping me out about it because I knew this guy," Peppers said. "I actually knew him. I spent time with him in the locker room. I went to war with him. So that's what makes it special. I know his family, his wife, his kids, everybody."

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Peppers joked that at that party two years ago, Sam Mills III (who was also on the Panthers' staff when he was playing) kept telling him he'd be there soon. But as with all attempts to predict his future, Peppers tried not to dwell on it, perhaps afraid to jinx it, or get ahead of himself.

"Sam Three, he used to always tell me, like, you're next," Peppers said. "And I used to always just laugh it off like, yeah, maybe, we'll see. But he called it, he called it. So this, it's still kind of hard to put in words, but all of this, even at this preliminary point in the process. I know we've still got a little bit more to go. The official enshrinement in August is going to be the big, big thing. But it's still kinda like hard to wrap my head around it."

"Like, I'm going to be up here with these guys. It's kind of crazy."

Seeing Peppers in awe of anything is still jarring. Anyone that large, and that accomplished, should seem untouchable. But he's obviously touched by all of this, eyes wide, an innocent grin glued to his face. It's pure. For a man who was surprised at his door by Bruce Smith recently, seeing that bronze Bruce Smith around the corner brings it home for him.

When he was realizing how good he was at football as he was enrolling at the University of North Carolina, he watched film of Smith, he watched film of Reggie White. And they're right there, and over there now, feet away from where he'll be.

"I used to watch Bruce; I used to watch Reggie," he said. "I think my game was a little bit of a combination of both of those guys."

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He mentioned Michael Strahan, and even former Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice (who isn't here), and other veterans he tried to draw from. But when he went to Chicago in 2010 and played for legendary line coach Rod Marinelli, his education into the history of the game went even deeper.

Instead of spending all their time watching current film, some days Marinelli would put on tape from years gone by, of players Peppers hadn't even heard of (even if they're now peers). It was graduate school every day.

"Sometimes we would come to the meeting and we wouldn't even watch any of the practice tape or watch any game film or anything like that," he said. "He would just put on an old video of the Fearsome Foursome or the Purple People Eaters. Or we'd watch the tape of the Deacon Jones head slap and stuff like that. He would tell us about Doug Atkins and all of these former players, some of them I didn't know who they were.

"But I was thankful that he put us on to all of these players and taught us the history of the game because I learned a lot from him about pass rushing."

And now, he's part of it, months away from being on that wall with so many legends, a legend himself.

With every visit, with every trip, it becomes a little more real to Julius Peppers. Walking into the room and seeing how he fits in, and where, gets him a little closer.

See the Panthers Legend tour the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, where he met NFL fans and fellow Class of 2024 member Patrick Willis, and immersed himself in the museum's rich history.

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