CHARLOTTE – Julius Peppers and Thomas Davis shared a locker room early in their lengthy careers, and after seven seasons apart they’ve done so again the past two seasons.
Both were on the quiet side in their younger days. Peppers still is.
But in what could be the future Hall of Famer’s final season, he’s figuratively found his voice. A player who always let his actions do the talking for him on the field has become a man of action off the field.
And Peppers may become, like Davis, the NFL’s man of the year.
“As the years have gone on, I’ve definitely seen a change in him. I’m excited about Pep and the person that he is,” said Davis, who was the 2014 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year.
Now Peppers is the Panthers’ nominee for the award, which is presented by Nationwide and is among the most heralded honors an active player can receive.
“I’m definitely excited to see Pep be the recipient for our football team,” Davis continued. “Understanding and knowing the work he’s done to try to help those families out and help them recover from that storm, it’s definitely been huge for them. It’s also been big for Pep as a person to be able to give back to his home state.”
“That storm” was Hurricane Florence, which tore through Peppers’ native North Carolina the second week of the NFL season and left destruction in its wake that is still being felt along the Eastern Seaboard.
Days after the storm, Peppers announced the launch of the Julius Peppers Hurricane Relief Fund, which to date has raised $530,000. He got it off the ground with a $100,000 donation, a sizable commitment but one within the means of a 17-year defensive end who ranks fourth in NFL history in sacks.
But then, he went above and beyond the dollar signs. Two days after the Panthers’ victory over the Giants in Week 5, Peppers traveled across the state to lay eyes and offer his helping hands to hurricane victims in Robeson County in North Carolina. Two weeks later, two days after a victory over the Eagles, he traveled to Marlboro County in South Carolina to do the same thing.
“The cool part was him doing it during the season, on Tuesdays – on his off day,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “The off day for a lot of guys is the best day of the week obviously other than game day because you can hang out and relax. So for him to do it on his day off really shows how important it was. Obviously it’s really important to him because guys don’t give up that day.”
The impact Peppers made in those communities – and continues to make – came through clearly on the faces on those he interacted with in his quiet and calming way. Head coach Ron Rivera recalls seeing a photo from Peppers’ outreach efforts of a woman who had simply asked for a hug.
“For a lot of those people, just bringing hope - that’s important,” Rivera said. “What he did with the hurricane and getting involved, not just contributing his name, but going and seeing it and bringing attention and awareness on his own time. I think that’s tremendous.”
Rivera has long tried to take advantage of the platform the NFL provides to effect positive change, something he’s seen Peppers do as his playing career winds down.
“He’s had the realization that he can impact and change things. He’s done a tremendous service to our community,” Rivera said. “He looked at it as a responsibility. That speaks very well for who he is as a person.
“I’m just very proud that I’m able to say I was one of the many guys who got a chance to coach him.”