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How the Hall of Fame surprised Julius Peppers with "the knock"

Julius Peppers, Bruce Smith

CHARLOTTE — Julius Peppers is not always an easy man to reach, or to pin down to a specific spot on a calendar. He'll tell you he wants to talk shortly, and you might not hear from him for days. Friends and former co-workers know going into interactions that if they call, he's probably not answering, and if they text, he might hit them back in a couple of weeks.

That's who he is; they love him for his consistency.

It does, however, make him hard to plot against, and harder to surprise.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame learned that lesson when trying to nail down the logistics for their "Knocks" show on NFL Network. That's when the members of the Class of 2024 were greeted by other Hall of Famers with the word of their selection.

In Peppers' case, it turned out to be as complicated as trying to block him during his 17-year NFL career.

"Yeah, that was a tough one," NFL Network host Steve Wyche said with a laugh and a shake of the head when recounting what it took to deliver the news to Peppers in person. "It took some work."

Of course, the juice turned out to be worth the squeeze, as Peppers was stunned to walk to the door of his Florida home and see Bruce Smith, the league's all-time sack king (and the only living person higher than Peppers on the sack list) standing there to welcome him to the club.

"To get a knock on the door and come outside and see Bruce Smith standing there was like, what's happening? Like, is this real? What's happening?" Peppers said. "It's just one of those things, man, it's one of those things where it's a surreal feeling."

Seeing Peppers that kind of surprised is why they do the show. Achieving that kind of surprise is more difficult to pull off.

But to understand how it comes together, you have to back up a bit to a time when the news came in a different way.

In years past, the Hall of Fame would host its annual selection meeting the Saturday before the Super Bowl, a day-long meeting that usually ended late afternoon. That required bringing all 15 finalists to the site of the final game, and Hall of Fame officials would knock on five doors to share the good news. That was still special, but it required sending 10 finalists home disappointed each year (some of whom heard someone else's knock and the jubilation next door), and it also didn't make as good of a television show.

So the selection meeting was moved earlier in January (the pandemic made it necessary to bring the selectors together virtually, and Zoom meetings allowed more lead time before the announcement), and the Hall decided to take the news to the players themselves. Having a Hall of Famer with some tie to them, sometimes a former teammate or someone at their position, was the next level of the production, as it adds to the gravity of the players being honored.

"It seemed natural when I got this role at the Hall of Fame," Hall president Jim Porter said. "The thing that I have the honor of handling is not the forefront of the Hall; the Hall of Famers are the forefront of the Hall of Fame.

"It just seemed to me that if you could give an opportunity and an honor — because it's an honor to knock on somebody's door as a Hall of Famer — then we're giving them the honor where it should be and seeing the thrill on the other side of the door. They're going to be thrilled when they get the news from anybody, but to get it from somebody they're connected to or that they've looked up to is magic for them, too. So for me watching kind of behind the scenes, just seeing it happen is just so special."

Julius Peppers, Warren Moon

It also puts a burden of secrecy on the players. Not talking about himself is easier for Peppers than many, but he admitted it was difficult for him not to acknowledge his now-peer Barry Sanders when he arrived in Las Vegas the night before his eventual announcement.

"The thing I'm more impressed with these new guys is how long they had to hold this information they've known for a couple of weeks, and their families have known that they haven't been able to tell anybody," Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon said of Peppers and this year's class (Moon got the news in a Detroit hotel in 2006).

"That's the impressive part. They were able to hold that. I don't know if I'd be able to hold that kind of news, you know. That's special."

That word keeps coming up in this discussion. And as with all special things, it takes a little work to pull it off.

Shortly after the selection meeting in January, the Hall of Fame staff, led by chief relationship officer Adrian Allison, got to work arranging what they jokingly refer to as "the sting." This is no small logistical feat, taking their staff, a Hall of Famer, and a camera crew to six locations in a condensed time. (It's normally seven, but honoree Steve McMichael is suffering from ALS and being cared for at home, so he received the news from former teammate Richard Dent via telephone this year).

There was some thought of taping the Smith-Peppers portion of the show on a Thursday, but Peppers and his family had decided to leave for an impromptu island vacation that day. So it became Wednesday night, which meant some shuffling and scrambling on many fronts.

That's when his wife Claudia and his longtime agent Carl Carey had to improvise.

"I didn't tell anybody, but the day after, I was leaving town on vacation for the weekend," Peppers said with a laugh. "At some point, my guy Carl called, and he was stressed out because he found out last second that I was leaving. He was like, 'What? You're leaving town? So, he had to come up with a plan. Claudia found out before I did, and the kids found out, so they had to hold on to that for a day.

"I guess it worked out where it was lucky, or it was a coincidence that they had it set for Wednesday night for me to find out."

Julius Peppers

It also took some acting on his kids' part to hang onto the element of surprise.

"One of my sons plays soccer, and I was supposed to take him to soccer practice that night," Peppers said. "So I was supposed to be at soccer practice at the time. But then he asks out of soccer practice. He made up some excuse like, I've got to do some homework; I need to miss soccer practice today."

Peppers was once a school-aged athlete; he understood how rare it was to want to skip practice to concentrate on your studies. So, he was immediately skeptical.

"Exactly," he said with a laugh. "So, you know, my antennas went up a little bit, but they didn't give it away."

Fortunately for the Hall, some of Peppers' classmates lived nearby, so they were able to schedule their trip to his house on a Wednesday night after they went to Dwight Freeney's place earlier in the afternoon with Tony Dungy.

So they collected Smith, and he was the relaxed one of the crew. His job was to ride along with Wyche in the back seat of a large SUV, so it was relatively easy. He was just the talent, but he could tell the tensions were running a little high among those getting him into place.

"I wasn't necessarily worried about that part; that was not under my control," Smith said.

But even though the Hall and NFL Network were able to keep Peppers in the country and keep him at home that night, the job still wasn't finished.

With a night off from shuttling the kids to activities, Dad was just hanging out in the front of the house. They needed him to be in the back so they could move a small fleet of SUVs into place and set up cameras and lights without him realizing people were entering his property.

Wyche said it was a bit of a panic, as they were in contact with Peppers' wife Claudia to time their arrival to preserve the surprise.

"We're texting back and forth at the last second," Wyche said. "It's like, we're pulling a bunch of cars in, so he needs to be not sitting in front of that window."

Somehow, they diverted his attention (again, he's as hard to plan for as he was to block), and the team was in place in front of his house.

Then, Smith knocked on the door wearing his gold jacket, leaving Peppers in a pair of shorts and a casual blue T-shirt, standing there in a state of shock.

"I think he was frozen," Smith said. "He was speechless. It made me a little bit uncomfortable because when we see one of our own, we embrace them. And I say more than a few words. I mean, it's just that love for your fellow Hall of Famer-slash-teammate. And I was given instructions to knock, and stand back, and wait for him to come to the door.

"After I made my statement about 'Welcome to the Hall of Fame,' I had to stay multiple feet away from him. Because they just want him to have that moment and for all of us to feel what he was or see what he was experiencing at that moment.

"Now, I see why they do it because it is, it's probably going to be one of the more memorable moments of a lifetime for someone that was just given the news about going into the Hall of Fame."

The look on Peppers' face said it all. That's Bruce Smith standing there. He's wearing a gold jacket. There are lights and cameras. Something's up.

None of this was what he was expecting when his son faked his way out of soccer practice.

"Exactly," Peppers said of the realization of what was happening at that moment.

Asked what was going through his mind in that instant after he said, "Bruce, what's up?" Peppers just shook his head.

"So, I don't even know. I think I just blacked out," he said. "I was just like, what? Again, my first thought was, what's going on? Is this even real? This is unbelievable. I didn't believe it. I didn't believe it.

"When I opened up the door, he was like, 'I want to welcome you to the 2024 class of the Hall of Fame. Welcome to Canton.'

"I was in shock; I was speechless, you know."

Of course, Peppers knew he was a finalist, and he knew his case to become just the 90th first-ballot Hall of Famer was a strong one. His 159.5 sacks trail just Smith (200), the late Reggie White (198) and the late Kevin Greene (160). He was also a two-time All-Decade player, the elite of the elite. Still, he couldn't take it for granted until there was a large man in a gold jacket standing in his driveway. One he didn't realize was going to be there that night.

"Knowing that it was a possibility was one thing," Peppers said. "And again, everybody around me was always saying, oh yeah, you're going to be first-ballot, that's a no-brainer, this that and the third, but I didn't see it that way.

"So, you know, it was shocking to me, still with everybody telling me that it was going to happen. It was still a shock."

Seeing that reaction is why they do the show, and it makes all the legwork on the front end and all the last-second texts to move a 300-pound man out of his own living room worth it.

"There's just a constant communication, but it's all worth it," Porter said. "They were all surprised, and Bruce was thrilled to do it to do something like that.

"I mean, when you look at that, just to see those two together, I think the word I used earlier, it was a magical moment. It really was the respect you could see immediately for Bruce that Julius had, and then to see them interact while we were inside the house was just absolutely amazing."

For Peppers, it was astounding. For Smith, it was profound because even though he didn't get this kind of reception, the time he spent with Deacon Jones made an impact on him. Now, he gets to do it for the next generation.

"It's a night that you'll never forget," Smith said. "To be welcomed into football history by one of your peers, it's just a moment that you'll never forget. They weren't doing it when I was in the announcement (2009, in Tampa, Fla.) So I just think that this adds a dynamic and a historical moment for the recipient to be able to cherish for a lifetime."

240208 NFL Honors-040

Of course, the moment was also fleeting, and before you knew it, some more history was being made.

Amid the celebration and the football immortality that was happening, there's still a house full of kids. And Peppers' sons are full of energy anyway — in Las Vegas, he said one of their highlights was running through the hallways at Caesars Palace, knocking on random doors and sprinting away.

So, even though the top two living sack artists in NFL history are hanging out having a moment and making NFL history, the boys wanted to play video games.

So they sat Bruce Smith down to play Madden, of course. Bruce Smith had never played Madden before. Bruce Smith is gracious; he played, and he played along.

"Yeah, they were teaching us how to play video games," Smith said with a laugh. "They were just excited to be around dad and to have company, and they knew it was exciting news.

"I don't think they understood the significance of the moment."

Smith did. Peppers clearly did. And now, so does everyone who saw it unfold.

At least once they actually got him to stand still in the right country in the right room on the right day at the right time, which, with Julius Peppers, can be as hard as reaching the Hall of Fame.

Go behind the scenes of Julius Peppers' experience at the NFL Honors weekend in Las Vegas, where he was named a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2024.

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