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Carolina Panthers

For Julius Peppers, the difference was obvious

Julius Peppers

CHARLOTTE — It never took long for people to realize that Julius Peppers was just, well, different.

For one, he was bigger than the other kids from an early age, but as fast as the much smaller ones. Most people saw it immediately. But growing up inside the incredible vessel that was his own body, Peppers didn't really consider it — until he got to college, and he was still standing out in ways other people had long ago recognized.

"There were things in Chapel Hill we used to do, like sprints and stuff, the conditioning in the summertime, and I would roll with the defensive backs and the wide receivers, right?" Peppers said easily, which is just the way he says things. "Because, you know, I felt like whatever the big guys were doing, it wasn't enough, right? It wasn't challenging enough, it wasn't fast enough. So I did it differently.

"When I got to college, I was around other guys that were the best guys from around the country, the best athletes from everywhere. When you start moving up into those settings, you see differences between yourself and other people."

"So I did it differently" might be the five-word quote that best sums up his career, even if that's not how he meant it when he was speaking in the context of those UNC workouts. But it works.

The differences never stopped showing up. He stayed that way and still is that way, now that he's well retired and easing into the kind of borderline anonymity never afforded him as a player.

That constant awareness was part of the reason he left his home state at a certain point, but an acceptance of it was part of the reason he came back.

And now that he's home again, chosen to be enshrined in the Panthers Hall of Honor this fall, there's a new peace about Peppers.

Never apparently comfortable with his own place in the football world or in the locker room, there's an easier sense of belonging now.

He always knew how good he was. Now, he's at least a little more comfortable talking about it.

Other people were well ahead of him there.

Panthers vice president of player personnel Adrian Wilson was among those who spotted it early on.

He was a year ahead of Peppers in high school and two hours away in High Point. But the legend of the gigantic kid at Southern Nash traveled through the Piedmont as fast as Peppers himself. So when Wilson saw Peppers lining up for the 400 meters at the regional track meet, he figured there must be some kind of mistake.

"I remember looking like, this dude can't be in this race. Right?" Wilson said with a laugh. "Like, he was like the same size he is now. And I'm like, 'He's actually in his race?' Right."

He was (and would help Southern Nash to a state title in track and field). And Wilson would continue to see him and marvel at him over the years, from AAU basketball tournaments to playing against him in football in the ACC after he went to NC State before a brilliant NFL career of his own.

"This dude was like create-a-player," Wilson said of the high school Peppers. "Then all this hype and stuff started getting up around him. And it was for good reason."

Julius Peppers, UNC basketball

When he got to the NFL, the same thing was true.

Even though he was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, Peppers walked into a defense full of players here. Kris Jenkins and Dan Morgan had arrived the year before to set the stage for a fast climb. Mike Minter and Mike Rucker were there as well, stars in their own right. There were players at every level, and still, Peppers stood out. Veteran defensive tackle Brentson Buckner casually referred to the new kid as "the next evolution of man," and he was constantly doing things that defied physical explanation.

In 2004 in Denver, he famously took a fourth-down interception back 97 yards but didn't score when Broncos receiver Rod Smith eventually chased him down. The play before was as impressive, when a quite mobile Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer tried to bootleg one in from the 3-yard line, only for Peppers to come from the backside of the play and chase him down from behind. There really wasn't enough space for a mortal to cover that ground in that short amount of time, but the long run that followed allowed everyone a chance to juxtapose the laws of physics he was constantly defying.

"I remember the running, when he was running it back the whole way," Morgan, now the team's assistant general manager, said of that Broncos game. "And the reason I remember it is because I was dying. I couldn't even run because of the altitude. Like all of us thought we're dying, right? I think at the end of that, his legs gave out, and he kind of stumbled.

"But I mean, for him to be able to have the stamina, again, I think just up there in that high altitude, I think it just kind of goes to show you the type of athlete he was."

Morgan's not alone in retelling such tales. One of the easiest things to do with football players to get them talking is to ask about the time they saw Peppers do the thing. They all have a version of that story, largely because he did the thing so many times.

Wilson saw it in 2009, when he was playing with the Cardinals and Peppers had one of his four career pick-sixes.

"He was down in his three-point stance, and we were just going to throw a quick screen to one of our receivers," Wilson recalled. "He just flew off the ball, caught it in the air, and is in the end zone before you know it. It's like, how does he do it?"

There's a perpetual air of mystery when other elite athletes talk about him because none of what Peppers did over a career computes. The Panthers even tried to make him a receiver at times, and though that didn't work out (the one football act he never mastered, to the confusion of many), he still had the respect of the all-time greats.

"I took a picture next to JP every year," fellow Hall of Honor wideout Steve Smith Sr. said. "And I have gotten numb to how mammoth of a man he was. Because I stood next to him, people don't know this, but I'd stand on my tippy toes. In every picture, when you're standing next to a guy like that who is so athletic, you start to forget how big he is. And then I started to lose the sense of being able to know what's big and what it's called because I was always standing next to him. And then to be able to do what he did on a football field. Remarkable."

Smith's respect is obvious (though he didn't always love Peppers taking his red zone chances), as is every player you talk to.

Steve Smith visits Julius Peppers during Panthers practice on Thursday, September 6, 2018.

Former Panthers tight end Greg Olsen saw it when he played alongside Peppers with the Bears in 2010 and then again when Peppers came home to finish his career. Even when Peppers was in his late 30s, there were daily reminders that he was not like the other guys around him, which sometimes made it difficult to contextualize what you were seeing.

"He would do something in practice, you'd be like, 'I've never seen anyone do that before,'" Olsen said. "And then the next day, he would do something you say, 'I've never seen anyone do that before.' But then, another time, he would do something that you'd never seen before. And no one even stopped. Like no one even broke stride. It became normalized, which is so hard to do.

"But when you are so exceptional amongst your peers, and you do it on such a regular basis, you can't throw the guy a parade every day, right? And it probably wasn't fair to him that we all just expected greatness on such a regular basis."

They expected it because he delivered it on a regular basis.

This is the part of the story they call the nut graf in journalism school (it's usually higher, but when you're talking about Peppers, it's easy to get carried away). It's the one with all the salient facts and figures about a particular person or event. With Peppers, they tend to run longer than most, because he did so many of the things. The short version is he's fourth on the NFL's all-time sack list (behind just Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and Kevin Greene) with 159.5. He also had 11 career interceptions and is the only player in league history with 150 and 10 in those two categories. The nine Pro Bowls and six All-Pro honors don't do it justice. He was so good for so long that he was named to the All-Decade team twice, for the 2000s and the 2010s. Normal people don't do that.

But normal was never really part of the deal with Julius Peppers, and it didn't take him running the length of the field or jumping over people or doing some other superhuman thing for it to be obvious.

Captains Julius Peppers, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Ryan Kalil and Greg Olsen at midfield for the coin toss during a game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, November 26, 2017.

Even among alphas, he was always the capital A, and they always knew it.

"I think a lot of times in practice like you knew when he was kind of fed up with things," former Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. "In a game, if somebody rubbed him the wrong way, or grabbed him or said or did something, like you knew when when when Pep was going to do the Pep thing and take over a football game. You don't want to poke the bear. And too many people did."

For that switch to flip usually took something dramatic because Peppers wasn't prone to being demonstrative on or off the field.

"The funny thing about Julius is, like, he's so calm and chill. But then, he gets out there on the field, and he's got to like another side to him," Morgan said. "He's got a little dog to him now.

"He's just like the ultimate competitor. When you talk to him, and you see him outside of football, he's real chill. So you think like he's got that basketball mentality. But that's not him. Out on the field, he'd get pissed. And if you really get him pissed, that other team's in for a long day, and he'll just take a game over."

Julius Peppers high fives Luke Kuechly during a game against Green Bay Packers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, December 17, 2017.

Sometimes, it's hard to square that with the Peppers you're used to seeing in interviews — or not seeing, as the case may be. During his early playing days, he came off as painfully shy. Answers were short when they were reluctantly delivered at all, and he was perfectly content to get a reputation as a bad interview because that meant there were fewer requests.

But there's a difference between talking and having something to say. And in Peppers' case, a difference between having things to say and being willing to share them. He was thoughtful; he was well-read, and not just playbooks. It wasn't unusual to see something meaningful and weighty like James Baldwin sticking out of his travel bag, though he didn't advertise it since he wasn't looking to join your book club or anything.

"I really want to say that, it was just trying to keep outside of that stuff; you want to try to keep a little bit of privacy," he said recently of that early reticence. "Whatever you want to have, you want to own, or you want to try to keep that a little bit.

"With everything here the whole time, it was like everybody was watching my every move. And you know, it was it was a lot. So maybe a little bit of anxiety, just dealing with people."

That much attention would be tough for anyone to bear, but given his circumstance, it was nearly impossible not to be in the spotlight. For one, his sheer physical dimensions made it hard to hide. Eyeballs find you easily when you're 6-7 and 280-plus pounds. (When he was getting fitted for his new Hall of Honor jacket, he copped to being around 305 now and said, "I don't want that too tight." It's not a loose 305, though; he still looks like he could play — in the NFL or the NBA. Other than the flecks of gray in his beard and a few by the temples, he could pass for 33 as easily as 43.)

But when you grew up in this state, starred on a Final Four basketball team at UNC in addition to your football exploits, and you're drafted to be a difference-maker for a team still young enough to be shiny, it was set up for him to be the city and the state's brightest star, bigger than Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning, bigger than Richard Petty or Ric Flair even.

"And it was set up for that," Peppers acknowledged. "The plan was set up, right, to go that route. But that's not what I wanted. I didn't want that. For whatever reason, it just wasn't my personality. I didn't want it."

In any discussion of Peppers' career here, the full scope of it, there was that awkward (for others) interlude in the middle. After the 2008 season, he had played out his first seven-year contract with the Panthers and earned every nickel of it and then some. But he wasn't looking for money. For all the eyes that had been looking in at him for decades, he was looking out. He wanted another challenge, but mostly a new area code. But the Panthers franchise-tagged him in 2009 and didn't budge on requests to trade him. A year later, the team let him walk away, and he ended up in Chicago, a new city, one in which he was about the 45th biggest sports star (behind all the Cubs, maybe a pair of White Sox, a Bull or four, a handful of his new Bears teammates and a bunch of retired football stars who owned restaurants and hosted radio shows).

"I was happy with my experience," Peppers said. "I wouldn't change anything. Well, I would maybe change a couple of things. But as far as leaving and going somewhere else, seeing other how other things work in other places. I was happy with it.

"There were a lot of things going on at that time. But yeah, the personal growth was one of the things that was like a driving force and that decision. You know, I loved it here. I love the Carolinas. But there was a part of me that just wanted to go, go see something different. I think that if I had gone to high school here and gone to college in, I don't know, Miami, or New York or wherever, anywhere, any other city, right, and then got drafted by the Panthers, I probably would have had a different feeling.

"But the thing from being born and raised, going to school here, coming to the Panthers, it was lovely; it was a perfect scenario. But I think I got a little bit fatigued with the whole thing. It was overwhelming at times. Whatever you want to call it, the celebrity, you know, it was a little bit much at the time."

He was able to breathe in Chicago. And again in Green Bay, stacking up more and more honors, racking up more and more sacks, and adding to the legacy.

But there was one thing left.

Julius Peppers, Cam Newton

He wanted to win a Super Bowl. And he wanted to do it here. In 2017, he'd be back for the last full, healthy year of peak-form Cam Newton. The Panthers also found a rookie in Christian McCaffrey to go with the team's all-time leading rusher in Jonathan Stewart, and already had all the stars on defense led by Luke Kuechly and Davis and so many others.

He knew he was coming to the close of a brilliant career, but he also knew he had something left. When discussing that homecoming and the fact he retired after the 2018 season a half-sack away from third on the all-time list, he casually said: "If I just wanted to get stats, I could have played a couple more years." And he's right. He had 11.0 sacks as a 37-year-old in 2017 and 5.0 more at 38 in 2018.

"I was never really a stat-chaser. I really didn't care about having this amount of sacks in a season or a career. I just looked up one day, and I was like at 140 or so. I could have chased another spot on the list, but for what? It was just time. It was just time."

And now that some time has passed, it's time for Peppers to be honored. On Oct. 29, he'll see his name on the top of the stadium, alongside his old coach Sam Mills, teammate Smith, and the others, and he'll know he belongs.

But he walked in the door knowing he belonged in 2002 while knowing he was very, very different.

Now, he's even more different, in ways more comfortable than a jacket that's maybe a size up from the one he wore as a player.

Images from the Class of 2022 Hall of Fame Parade, Enshrinement Ceremony & Sam Mills Private Party in Canton, Ohio.

There's an ease about Peppers now. You saw it last summer at the Hall of Fame festivities when he came to pay homage to Mills and moved naturally among the all-time greats. He'll join them soon enough, as he'll be eligible to go to Canton next year.

But enough time has passed since his playing days that there are days he doesn't think of himself as an athlete at all — such that it seems possible.

It doesn't take many steps out the door for someone to remind him. He'll go out with his family, and someone will see a giant walk into a restaurant and ask if he played — or still plays — sports.

"I'll say no, I don't play, and I just go on about it," he said with a laugh. "And my kids, when they leave, it's like, 'Why you didn't tell them?' I'm like, look; I used to play, I don't play anymore. It's just not something I'm really comfortable talking about. You tell somebody you play or you used to play, and then it opens up a whole other set of questions and a whole conversation. But you know, I'm getting better at it. I'm getting better at it.

"You know, this is a big honor. Just, you know, when they called me, and they told me about it. I was happy, and I shared it with my family. Everybody loved it. And you know, down the road one day, hopefully, if we go to the Hall of Fame, that'd be the end, and I would close the book on everything football."

After all these years, he's getting better at receiving acclaim (better than he was at catching passes intended for him, anyway), but he's still Julius Peppers.

He better get used to it. There's more coming.

When you're as different as Julius Peppers, people are going to notice you.

So you do it differently.

View photos of former defensive end Julius Peppers, during his Hall of Honor photo shoot.

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