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Julius Peppers: "I don't consider myself in the same class as these guys"

Julius Peppers

LAS VEGAS — Plenty of people have been telling Julius Peppers for plenty of years that he would inevitably be in the Hall of Fame.

He never believed it. For some reason.

But then, when he was checking into his hotel on Wednesday, he looked ahead of him at the front desk and saw Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders with his luggage, waiting to check in the same way he was.

That's when it dawned on Peppers that they weren't just two guys waiting at a hotel; they were now part of an exclusive club of 378 players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"I saw Barry Sanders last night, but I didn't get a chance to speak to him," Peppers said, grinning and looking a little star-struck at the memory. "Just me already knowing that I was going to be in the Hall of Fame with Barry Sanders. I'm looking at him in the hotel right before I checked into my room. He was right in front of us. I'm like, that's Barry Sanders right now.

"I'm in the Hall of Fame with Barry Sanders, guys. What is this? That's amazing."

The smile on his face said it all, as Peppers, famously a man of few words when he played, took it all in.

He just shook his head when Hall of Fame safety Steve Atwater walked by in his gold jacket (Peppers won't get his until August) and said, "Congratulations again, man, see you soon."

That was a thing that just happened. One of the hardest hitters the league has ever known just pointed at Peppers, gave him the nod, and acknowledged him as a peer.

It didn't seem real to him.

He sat uneasily during a press conference for the entire class, checking his constantly buzzing phone for texts of congratulations. He didn't look perfectly at ease in the moment, such that a man his size can get comfortable in a spare metal stool. So as the television screen nearby showed the memorial montage to the sounds of Boyz II Men, he swayed nervously, waiting for someone to call on him.

When they did, he talked about what it meant, how even when he was in Canton two years ago to see Sam Mills enshrined, he never assumed this day would come for him.

"I was hopeful that it might happen one day, but, you know, I don't like to make assumptions or have any expectations of all the things I don't control," Peppers said from the podium. "So, it was nice to be there to get us that moment for Sam. And, you know, I was grateful to be there for them."

Thursday night, his moment came. As quickly as you'd expect, even if he didn't.

"I mean, yeah," Peppers said, shaking his head as he processed it all.

240208 NFL Honors-167

His smile grew even wider when he recalled being in the wings at NFL Honors, as former teammate Christian McCaffrey won the offensive player of the year award just before the Hall of Fame class was introduced.

"I was on the lift watching Christian take his award," he said, recalling the feeling. "So, yeah, it was great, man. This is unbelievable."

He kept saying that. 

But it should be very believable. 

Peppers didn't become the 90th first-ballot Hall of Famer by accident. The honor came to him by virtue of his play, by being fourth on the all-time sack list, by being a two-time All-Decade pick, among so many other accolades. 

And because of that overwhelming body of work, this came quickly for him, quicker than he expected, and he admitted it was still sinking in.

"It hasn't set in yet," he admitted. "Like I said, I'm not sure when it will, but, no, I don't consider myself in the same class as these guys. If I'm being really honest with you. I mean, when you step back, and I guess when you look at it from the numbers and from that point of view, I guess I do. But, you know, most of the time, you don't. At least me, I don't view myself like that.

"A lot of  . . . all the people around me see me in a certain way, but you never actually really see yourself like that. So, that's just where I'm at with it."

That humility and his natural reluctance to seek the spotlight made these last few days difficult ones for Peppers.

"Honestly, it's been a little bit stressful," Peppers said. "From trying to keep a secret to getting everything organized, all the logistics of getting everybody tickets to come here and doing all of this stuff. But, you know, it's been worth it, it's been worth it. It's really been worth it. I was a little tired today. But it's one of those things where you deal with it, and you get it done, and it's over with now.

"But you know, I'm honored, man. It's humbling. I'm honored to be here and to be a part of something like this."

Somebody should tell Peppers in the next few days that something like this is now part of him, that he's now part of it.

And most importantly, that he belongs.

View 90 photos of the legendary defensive end from his time in a Panthers uniform.

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