RALEIGH — It never looked hard for Julius Peppers to get to the quarterback, or get to the rim.
Getting to the point when he felt comfortable describing how he did it took years. But as inevitably as he recorded sacks, or grabbed rebounds, he got there.
And he did it the same way he excelled on the field. Naturally.
Peppers, the former Southern Nash High School, University of North Carolina, and Carolina Panthers star, was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame Friday night.
Peppers knew about the honor for some time, but said the weight of the moment didn't descend on him until he saw familiar names when walking through the Hall's exhibits, and realized he'd be among them.
"Knowing I'd be up there, it's humbling, it's humbling man," Peppers said quietly before the induction ceremony. "I never really thought about it. It wasn't a goal or a vision of mine to be in places like this or to be honored this way."
That might be Peppers in a nutshell. Understated, and underplaying his own role in history.
His older sister Yolanda, who accompanied him to the ceremony, said that's been the case for decades.
"As long as I've known him, he's never been a big talker, he's never felt like he had to be saying something all the time," she said. "But when he had something to say, you knew he meant it, and you knew it mattered."
So when he talked about his past, and the fact he's now a peer of so many Hall of Famers, it was emotional for him.
Peppers talked about the impact of seeing former Wilson Fike basketball coach Harvey Reed coach when he was a child, not knowing he'd go on to play in the same gym, much less join him in the Hall. He talked about trips to Rocky Mount to see Phil Ford and Buck Williams, and being in awe.
"I'd see their banners when I was there," Peppers said. "So seeing their names took me back."
Now, he's among those legends. Fellow Hall of Famer Debbie Antonelli joked that she wasn't using all of her time to speak, so he could have more. He just nodded and smiled, and accepted a fist bump from Mack Brown from their seats on the dais.
He did not, however, use all that time.
He spoke easily and eloquently about his background, and what that background meant to his journey.
He told stories about Southern Nash football coach Ray Davis asking him to try out for football, when he thought he was simply running track to stay in shape for his future NBA career. He recalled playing pickup games at UNC's Woollen Gym, and getting a call later from Tar Heels guard Ed Cota, telling him he belonged.
Those moments, in this moment, overshadowed all the highlights that followed.
"It's not about what I did," Peppers said. "It was about the people and the moments that shaped what became. And that's special."
And it clearly has been a special journey, from growing up in the small town of Bailey, to starring in two sports for the Tar Heels, to becoming the No. 2 overall pick of the Panthers in the 2002 NFL Draft. For a man who expects nothing, Peppers left the NFL with 159.5 career sacks, the fourth-most of all time (trailing only Hall of Famers Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and Kevin Greene).
But for those who were around Peppers as a player, the graceful prose might have seemed out of character. He was a man of few words as a player, by choice rather than merit.
"One thing I love to do is write," he said of preparing his speech. "It comes naturally; it comes easy. I don't necessarily like to get up and say those things all the time, but the writing comes easy.
"It's my story, and nobody knows it better than me. Thinking about all the things I went through, and all the people that helped me, that's what makes tonight special."
The years have softened Peppers a bit, leaving a few flecks of gray in his beard, adding to the gravity of a man who always had it. While he might have preferred to keep a low profile, it was hard to maintain it because of his play.
Stars draw a crowd. And it took him years to not spend so much effort avoiding them.
"When I came to work, it's not that I was two people, but I had a certain persona and a certain thing that I was there to do," he said. "Whether it was right or wrong, I look back on it now, and think I could have been a little more approachable, a little more personable with people. But at the time, I didn't think that was what I was there to do. I was there to play football. I had media obligations that we had to do, but I wanted to keep that minimal. But it is what it is. The people who know me know me, and that's all that really matters to me."
Those people surrounded him Friday, from the parade of well-wishers before the ceremony, to the hugs from Brown and Roy Williams, to the quiet stories he shared with Panthers owner David Tepper beforehand.
Whether he liked it or not, people were there to celebrate Peppers Friday night.
He laughed and acknowledged it takes some getting used to, being celebrated, being embraced, being loved outside his small circle.
He got there, even if it was eventually. He made the transition from incredible talent to incredible leader, and now, an icon in his home state.
"I think I realized it, near the end, on the way out," Peppers said of the recognition that came with the passage of time. "As you get older and you try to pass down your knowledge and lessons to the younger guys in the locker room.
"It's a learning process all the way through. I learned that a little late, near the end, but I learned that."
View photos of Peppers alongside UNC coaches Roy Williams and Mack Brown and Panthers owner David Tepper at the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.