No Holds Barred Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers will do whatever it takes to restore his reputation

September 07, 2003

Julius Peppers watched impassively as the images flicked across
the television screen. He was relaxing at a friend's home in St.
Louis in early July when news reports revealed that Los Angeles
Lakers star Kobe Bryant had been accused of rape. Within seconds,
everyone else in the room had concluded that Bryant must be
guilty of some criminal act. Not Peppers, the Carolina Panthers'
second-year defensive end. He told his pals that they didn't have
enough information, and without knowing the facts, they shouldn't
be judging the man. ¶ Peppers's stance wasn't based merely
on due process. He has an intimate understanding of how hasty the
court of public opinion can be, and how harsh. He's heard the
rumors that he was juicing after he was suspended for four games
at the end of last season for violating the NFL's policy on
anabolic steroids and related substances--and he's spent the last
nine months working to repair his tarnished image.

In Peppers's mind, there's no reason to celebrate his 12 sacks in
12 games and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2002. His
pride has been wounded, his integrity damaged. "It's crazy that
people talk like I had to take steroids to help my performance,"
says Peppers, who insists that the positive test was the result
of taking a diet supplement given to him by a friend. Fuming as
he recalls last year's Pro Bowl snub, Peppers says, "Believe me,
they're going to have to vote me in this year."

There are certain moments in sports that clearly bear watching:
Barry Bonds settling back into the box after a brushback pitch,
Shaquille O'Neal responding to a flagrant foul and now Peppers
returning to the field, against the Jacksonville Jaguars on
Sunday, intense and incensed. His half-brother, Stephone, can't
remember the last time Peppers was this upset about anything. As
Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio says, "Julius Peppers with a chip on
his shoulder is a scary thought."

As he showed last year, the 6'6", 283-pound Peppers, the second
player selected in the 2002 draft, has exceptional speed,
quickness and agility. He improved a line that already included
tackle Kris Jenkins, who was an All-Pro last season, as well as
end Mike Rucker (10 sacks in 2002), and helped transform the
Carolina defense into the league's second-ranked unit after it
had finished last the year before. Now he's getting serious. When
he wasn't participating in the team's off-season conditioning
program, Peppers was lifting weights and running sprints this
summer at North Carolina, his alma mater. He has given up red
meat and has drunk only bottled water and fruit juice. While on
vacation he'd hustle to a nearby gym or go for a run. "I've never
seen Julius this focused," says Indianapolis Colts linebacker
David Thornton, Peppers's college teammate. "He wants to redefine
his position, and he knows that he has to really study film, hit
his playbook and learn the subtleties of the game. I'm not saying
he didn't do that before, but he's always been able to just line
up and intimidate people."

As a rookie Peppers showed surprising instincts at times. "The
guy sniffed out a couple of screen passes against us just by
noticing I had lined up in a softer stance," Atlanta Falcons
tackle Todd Weiner says. "That's what 10-year veterans do." But
he discovered that his football acumen was limited and that he
had a lot to learn about such things as the proper technique for
getting off the ball. "The coaches would tell me to do one thing
against a certain formation and another if a guy shifted, and I
had no idea what they were talking about," Peppers says. Still,
he dominated. He had three-sack games against the Dallas Cowboys
and the Detroit Lions and two takedowns against the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers.

This preseason, says defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac, "he's
starting to dictate the action. If a tackle gets wide on him,
he'll go underneath; if a lineman jumps out on him, he'll freeze
and change directions." In one drill during an April minicamp
Peppers, who relied mainly on finesse moves last year,
bull-rushed a lineman into the quarterback. "He's added power to
his game," strong safety Mike Minter says. And it's obvious that
Peppers has been doing his homework. "He's recognizing more plays
before they happen," says defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, a
10-year veteran. "He's even starting to tell me what to look for
in certain situations."

"I understand the game much better," Peppers says. "I have a lot
to learn, but I'm not just listening anymore. I'm telling people
what I know. I want to make sure I'm not the weak link up front."

Perceptions have been a preoccupation with Peppers since his
suspension last November. He maintains that on three occasions he
took diet pills--Peppers won't identify the acquaintance who
provided them--to combat fatigue. As it turned out, Peppers says,
those pills contained an ephedralike substance that's banned by
the NFL. (The league doesn't comment on suspensions.) "It was an
honest mistake," Peppers says. "People make them all the time."

On Nov. 14 Peppers issued a statement apologizing to his team for
testing positive, and his agent, Marvin Demoff, announced that
the suspension was due to a dietary supplement Peppers had taken.
Sources cited in reports indicated that he had had a substance
similar to or a derivative of ephedra in his system. Still,
Peppers says, that didn't stop some of his NFL colleagues from
advising him how to avoid getting caught while taking steroids.
He was stung that his peers would believe he had resorted to
juicing. "Julius wasn't trying to beat the system," says Del Rio,
Carolina's defensive coordinator last season. "He's a good kid
who was a little naive."

A loner in college--one of his former roommates claims that
during one semester Peppers scarcely uttered a word--he was
suddenly making new acquaintances. "Julius can be very nonchalant
about things," says Carl Carey, Peppers's former academic adviser
at North Carolina, who remains a mentor. "There were situations
in college where he was borderline academically and close to
losing his eligibility, and he'd say everything was fine. When
this suspension came up, I told him there are some mistakes you
can make and some you can't."

While Peppers says that sitting out the four games last year
didn't depress him, Carey sensed his pain during daily telephone
conversations. Back in Peppers's hometown of Bailey, N.C. (pop.
690), his mother, Bessie Brinkley, saw it in his slumped
shoulders. Peppers barely watched those four games. "It crushed
him," Carolina coach John Fox says. "He was on his way to
breaking records." Then, one day in January, Carey and Peppers
were talking, and Peppers quietly said, "I'm coming out of this
better."

Since then Peppers has taken charge of his life. Once reluctant
to do interviews, he's consenting to more of them to tell his
side of the story. He has become less trusting, remaining closest
with former Tar Heels like Thornton and New York Giants
linebacker Quincy Monk. Of course he says he is done with
mysterious supplements, too. "Even if he's taking cold
medication," Carey says, "he's showing it to the trainers first."

Peppers can't say exactly what it will take to satisfy his hunger
for redemption this season. He knows it won't be easy, though.
There will be more double teams, more exotic blocking schemes.
"He won't sneak up on anybody," Fox says. "But Michael Strahan
had 22 1/2 sacks once, and everybody saw him coming too."
Peppers's main priority is clearing his name. "People are going
to see a better version of everything I was last year," he says.
"I want to remove all doubt that I need any help to play this
game."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS IN THE GRASP After Peppers's 12 sacks as a rookie, teams like the Giants paid extra attention to him during this preseason. COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE BITTER PILL Peppers tested positive for an ephedralike substance, but some players believed he was using steroids.

Says Del Rio, the Panthers' defensive coordinator last season,
"Julius Peppers with a chip on his shoulder IS A SCARY THOUGHT."

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