First Julius Peppers thrust his left hand into 338‑pound Donovan Smith’s chest and drove the Buccaneers’ offensive tackle backward. As Jameis Winston stepped up in the pocket, Peppers swiped his blocker aside and lunged for the quarterback, simultaneously wrapping his victim around the waist and using his right hand to tip the ball away for a strip-sack. It should have been a moment of absolute joy for the 37-year-old veteran of 16 years. The takedown, his 151st, moved the Panthers’ defensive end to No. 4 on the all-time list, past Chris Doleman, with only Kevin Greene (160), Reggie White (198) and Bruce Smith (200) ahead of him.
But that highlight from Week 8, on Oct. 29, also put him in an uncomfortable position: After the game, Carolina coach Ron Rivera awarded Peppers the game ball in that humid visitors’ locker room, and that meant that, per custom, he would have to give a speech. And that’s a problem.
“I get bashful in the spotlight,” says Peppers. “Even at home or at a birthday party, I hate that stuff. I don’t want no surprise birthday parties—everybody who knows me well knows [that].”
Setting aside his self-consciousness, Peppers’s Week 8 address was pretty standard post-victory fare. Stick with each other. Believe. Keep working. Let’s do this the rest of the year. In the end, even with a stumble and a little hesitation in the delivery, the team was engaged with his remarks. His work on the field had put him in this position before.
Just as the descriptors “monster” or “freak” have often been used for the 6' 7", 295-pound nine-time Pro Bowler, so too have “quiet” and “guarded.” This is how a guy can wreck the NFL for nearly two decades—Winston was eight when Peppers bagged his first pro QB—and still fly under the radar everywhere but on the scouting report. Peppers has at least seven sacks in 15 of his 16 seasons; he’s the most feared pass rusher this century. And yet there’s a good chance you’ve never heard the guy say a word.
Early on, “people mistook his quietness for maybe not being that smart—and that was not the case at all,” says Brian Foster, 50, who has known the D-end since Peppers was in middle school in Bailey, N.C. “He knew exactly what he was doing and did a real good job listening. I think that’s why he still keeps a small circle of friends.”
Foster, who would later be Peppers’s high school defensive coordinator (his wife, Kim, was also Julius’s art teacher), thought the teenager needed toughening up, so he would pick him up on Sunday afternoons for games of one-on-one basketball and needle him on defense, until one day Peppers landed an elbow that floored his elder. “I deserved every bit of it,” Foster says.
The Legend of Julius Peppers grew at Southern Nash High, where he ran the anchor leg of the state-champion 4x400 relay team and placed second in the triple jump . . . when he weighed 240 pounds. He tore up O-lines on defense and moonlighted at tailback, rushing for 46 touchdowns over four years. Later, at North Carolina, he ran sprints with the Tar Heels’ defensive backs, and won. In his first NFL stop, with the Panthers, teammates would rewind and gush over tape of him taking a cut block, spinning 360º in the air and landing on his feet, only to continue his pursuit. As a Bear, one teammate remembers him tossing a lineman five yards sideways during a one-on-one drill. Linebacker Luke Kuechly, when he first saw Peppers upon his return to Carolina this offseason, remarked simply, “Man, that’s Julius Peppers.”
Charlotte, as a pro sports city, was just a teenager when Peppers first arrived; fans hadn’t yet figured out exactly how to react to a superstar athlete when in 2002 the Panthers, the only professional team in town, selected the Tar Heels’ junior with the No. 2 pick in the draft.
Peppers won Rookie of the Year and helped Carolina to its first (and his only) Super Bowl the following season. The native son was delivering, and teammates were reaping the benefits. “I don’t know if I’ve ever told him this,” says Mike Rucker, who spent six years rushing passers opposite Peppers (and who previously held the Panthers’ sack record), “but to turn on the film after a game and to see him get -double-teamed [while] I had a one-on-one—I felt guilty if I didn’t get a sack or didn’t get pressure. That made me dig even deeper.”
Peppers got to the quarterback 53 1/2 times in his first five seasons, and yet Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, a self-made man who accumulated his wealth as the CEO of a fast-food group, must have figured his star needed a public kick in the rear. This was a misread.
“Julius, your time is now,” Richardson told Peppers at the 2007 retirement ceremony for safety Mike Minter. “This is your time to step up and show leadership. I’m not talking about sacks. I’m talking about leadership.”
Immediately coach John Fox tried to downplay the comments. Peppers, after a week of media silence, followed his coach’s lead; he didn’t make much of Richardson’s words, but suddenly he was being asked to be someone he wasn’t.
There are a number of theories about why Peppers left Carolina as a free agent following the 2009 season. He didn’t like his position coach. He and the Panthers were off by a few million bucks on an extension. He didn’t want to play under the franchise tag. But the one Peppers will cop to is that he just needed to get the hell out of the Tar Heel State. He’d grown tired of all the Jet Skis slowing down in front of his 8,810-square-foot Lake Norman mansion, trying to catch a glimpse of him.
“Yeah, it did [wear on me],” he says, “because I’d been here for forever. And there was a lot of attention. Not that I wasn’t ready to deal with it—it just wasn’t what I wanted.”
In Chicago, in 2010, he became the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history, but he was far from the most popular. The Bears had Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman in a locker room where “they only let certain people—good people, real men [like Julius]—come in,” says Lovie Smith, Chicago’s coach during those years.
Peppers led with his actions rather than his words for four years until the Bears decided to go younger and cheaper. He then did the same for the Packers for three seasons, until management in Green Bay made the same decision Chicago had. (Note: After ranking in the top 10 in sacks each year with Peppers, Green Bay is 29th in 2017.) In both stops, at two storied franchises, Peppers found he wasn’t the guy, and that suited him just fine.
What didn’t suit him was the cold weather, and so he took up a permanent offseason residence near Miami, in Coral Gables. “You’d go out there and see [then Heat guard] Ray Allen at the grocery store,” Peppers says. “You’d see Dwyane Wade driving down the street, LeBron James over there. It’s not a big deal for someone to see me or know who I am. It’s a cool thing.”
Julius Peppers moved to South Florida to blend in.
Von Miller is selling you body wash. Clay Matthews is asking you to purchase shampoo. J.J. Watt is hawking an energy drink. Defensive players may be more marketable today than when Peppers broke into the league, but he has had his share of business opportunities too. Soft drink purveyors, grocery store chains and credit card companies all vied to make him their pitchman. Memorabilia groups sought his time for autograph sessions. He always declined.
“There were times I was scratching my head at the money he turned down to do things that would take a couple hours,” says Carl Carey, Peppers’s longtime friend and agent. “He felt he was compensated well for his work on the field, and so he focused on that.”
With 3 1/2 more sacks this season—after returning to Carolina as a free agent this summer he has 7 1/2 through nine games for the 6–3 Panthers, tied for eighth in the NFL—a salary bump will kick in, pushing Peppers’s career earnings beyond $160 million. He’s never really needed endorsement cash, but it would have been easy. Forbes has estimated that Watt brought in $7 million in 2015 alone from his various deals.
“I didn’t want to do media or appearances,” Peppers says. “You’ve got to do this and that, fly here to film something. I didn’t want to cut into my time for that. You can’t pay for your peace of mind and your sanity.”
Israel Idonije, a former defensive linemate with the Bears, remembers seeing Peppers turn down an offer of a free car from a high-end Chicago dealership in exchange for a handful of appearances. No one becomes fast friends with Peppers, but over three years of sharing a locker room, the two grew to trust one another. They caught up in late October, when the Panthers visited Chicago (Idonije retired in 2014 but keeps a residence in the area), and huddled over a joint commercial real estate venture, which Peppers got into after attending a symposium at the University of Michigan. They also talked about another of Idonije’s projects, a free coding and computer engineering camp for kids from underserved Chicago communities, which Peppers wants to replicate in Charlotte.
Peppers has always been a thinker. Rucker describes him as well read; Idonije and Carey use him as a sounding board on social issues. But he didn’t tell anyone he’d protest during the national anthem in Week 3, two days after President Trump referred to anyone who “disrespected” the American flag as a “son of a bitch.”
In a way, Peppers was the loneliest protestor of all that Sunday. On some teams, handfuls of players took knees or raised fists; in other places, entire squads waited until after the anthem to take the field. But in Charlotte, Peppers alone stayed in the Panthers’ locker room during the anthem, even though it had been made clear that Richardson would frown upon any protest.
After the game, Peppers stood near his locker, sweat beading on his forehead and a slight tremble in his voice. He explained that his protest was “about me making a decision as a man on my own two feet.”
Here was a guy who shuns the spotlight, having to accept it to take a stand. “Sometimes you’ve got to do things you don’t want to do,” he says. “Doing the right thing is not always comfortable; it doesn’t always feel good. I just felt like I needed to do it. That was something I had to deal with.”
“I don’t really know if it’s all that impressive, to be honest with you,” Peppers says of his accomplishments this season, becoming a rotational lineman—getting only 28 snaps per game, mostly on passing downs—and tearing down QBs at a clip of roughly one per game. At 37. “It’s been done before. All the ones who are at the top did it.”
Yes: Greene, White and Smith all had double-digit sacks when they were 37. What impresses Peppers’s peers about him is his quiet modesty. “Here’s a prime example of him being a leader,” says Rucker. “This dude’s a Hall of Famer, and he’s not necessarily starting. That doesn’t happen in today’s world. This is a me world. I’m a Hall of Famer. I need to be starting. My name needs to be called. He’s not making a bunch of noise. From Day One he’s never sought the cameras; he’s worked in the shadows.”
Says Carolina tight end Greg Olsen: “It’s so refreshing to have a guy who doesn’t want to hear everyone else tell him how good he is.”
In October 2016, when Peppers was still in Green Bay, the Packers hosted the Bears on a Thursday night, giving him a weekend off. Rather than jetting back to Miami, he headed to Wilmington, N.C. Foster, his old mentor, had been by the side of his wife and younger son, Zack, for the past week after the two were in a car crash. Each underwent five surgeries and was facing months of rehab.
Peppers had gotten word of the accident and went quietly with his girlfriend, Claudia Sampedro, and mother, Bessie Faye. Kim remembers the visit, but Zack was a little hazy when the future Hall of Famer came by.
Peppers stayed in Zack’s room for a while to chat. Brian still wonders what they could have talked about for all that time.