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Julius Peppers named to Pro Football Hall of Fame on first ballot


LAS VEGAS — Julius Peppers has been called many things during his athletic career.

Franchise-changing draft pick. North Carolina legend. Basketball prodigy, even. One teammate even liked to refer to him as "the next evolution of man."

Tonight, Julius Peppers gained another identifier, and the most appropriate one yet, considering a career spent changing the game.

First-ballot Hall of Famer.

Peppers was announced as part of the seven-member Class of 2024 of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Thursday night at NFL Honors and will be enshrined in Canton, Ohio, in August. He was joined in the class by modern-era classmates Patrick Willis, Andre Johnson, Devin Hester, and Dwight Freeney, along with seniors candidates Steve McMichael and Randy Gradishar.

He's the second Panthers legend in three years to be inducted (following linebacker Sam Mills in 2022) and the first player drafted by the Panthers to be inducted into the Hall.

His individual accomplishments made this an easy call for the Hall's selectors, as he became just the 90th player chosen in his first year of eligibility (there are now 378 members of the Hall, meaning fewer than a quarter earn that distinction).

In his 17 years, he had 159.5 sacks (fourth all-time), 52 forced fumbles (second all-time), and 11 interceptions (second-most for a defensive lineman). He's the only player in league history with more than 100 sacks and also 10 interceptions, showing the kind of one-of-one player he always was.

Julius Peppers

But for all his individual brilliance, Peppers also preferred to fit in, even when talking about coming to the Panthers as the No. 2 overall pick in 2002 and immediately helping turn the league's worst defense in 2001 to one of the best and helping lift them from 1-15 to a Super Bowl appearance in two short years.

There was a lot of attention on him as there always was, but he was content to be part of a larger whole, fitting in with teammates like Dan Morgan (now the Panthers GM), Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins, Brentson Buckner, Mike Minter, and others.

"It was fun. Those days were just fun," Peppers said of his beginnings. "It wasn't really about the stats to me; I wasn't even concerned about where we ranked. We were not like that; it was all fun at the time, like passion and love for the game. And it was a collective, including myself, Dan, the linebackers, even Will Witherspoon, and the guys on the back end like Deon Grant; it was kind of a team of unknowns, really.

"Nobody really knew you on a national scale; nobody knew about us. I knew I knew the guys individually, so it was fun being in that kind of position."

Peppers might try to choose anonymity, but that's always been difficult for him. People his size who move the way he does are rare. At 6-foot-7 and around 300 pounds (and still able to run 4.7-second 40s), he was always going to stand out in a sport of giants, especially when he started intercepting things with one hand and returning them for touchdowns.

The sheer physical dimensions made him unique, and what he did with it made it more so.

Julius Peppers, Steve Smith Sr.

"I took a picture next to JP every year," former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. said of those team pictures when 89 and 90 made quite a mismatched pair. "And I have got to know how mammoth of a man he was because I stood next to him. And people don't know, 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 big is because I was always standing next to him. And then to be able to do what he did on a football field. Remarkable."

That kind of astonishment, even from the greats of the game, is a common refrain.

Tight end-turned-announcer Greg Olsen, who played with Peppers in Chicago and again here, said it was hard to remember just how special what they were seeing truly was because Peppers made it look so natural.

"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."

Morgan arrived here the year before Peppers, the first-round pick in 2001, so he had a close view from the start. And from the day he walked in, Morgan (who's now looking for "dogs" of his own) said there was an immediate recognition that this man was different.

"I think that was pretty much every day," Morgan said. "Every day that he was out there, he was tipping a ball and intercepting it, right, like he was known for that. The funny thing about Julius is he's so calm and chill. But then he gets out there on the field, and he's got to another side to him; he's got a little dog to him.

"But easily the most athletic guy that I ever played with. He would come out, he wouldn't even have to stretch, and just put his jersey on and go right into it. I had already stretched for about three hours before that. And he just comes out and just like takes off and does all that."

That mentality was often obscured by his athletic achievement, but the guys on the field with him saw it often. For linebacker Thomas Davis, who arrived in 2005, saw the peak of Peppers' gifts, and then the older version in 2017, the ability to flip that switch stood out.

"I think a lot of times in practice like you knew when he was kind of fed up with things," 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."

Captains Julius Peppers, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis 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.

Of course, the story of Peppers and the Panthers leans heavily into the superhuman feats — "doing the Pep thing" — but also the very human personal arc.

His leaving in 2010 for Chicago was part of a personal journey, just as the coming back allowed him to close his football story on his terms, the way he wanted to. He doesn't regret the leaving, but he appreciates the coming home in a new way.

He mentioned it last summer when he was inducted into the Panthers Hall of Honor, and he's continued to build on his legacy in ways that transcend time.

Just as he's from and of North Carolina, he's forever linked to the Panthers.

"Congratulations to Julius on his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2024," owners David and Nicole Tepper said in a statement. "On the field, he was blessed with the athleticism and intelligence to make a hard game seem simple en route to becoming one of the best players in NFL history, regardless of position. Beyond his accomplishments, we've had the privilege of getting to know Julius as a person. He is humble, thoughtful, wise, and quietly commands respect in any setting. We can't think of anyone more deserving of being a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer."

Peppers' inclusion in the Hall of Fame also puts the appropriate cap on a storybook life on the field, a story that often defied belief — or often the laws of physics.

People from Bailey, North Carolina, aren't necessarily expected to end up in Canton, Ohio. People his size aren't supposed to do the things he did. And to be able to do it with the grace of a man who became a star, left home, and came back again brings the story full circle.

Last summer, Peppers mused about his eventual inclusion in the Hall of Fame and said casually: "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."

The Peppers who prefers his privacy from time to time might wish for that.

But with the announcement of his election Thursday night, his story is now part of the mythology of the sport he dominated for so long.

The story of football can't be told without Peppers now, and the story of the Panthers never could to begin with.

Just as he came back to his professional home, he'll now live among the legends of the sport in the way he lives in the hearts of so many fans back home.


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