GREEN BAY, Wis. – If Carl Carey believed superstition had anything to do with it, he wouldn’t even talk about this. But Carey – who has known Julius Peppers for 18 years, first as his academic adviser at the University of North Carolina and now as his agent – understands luck has very little to do with his client’s NFL longevity.
Those around here know Peppers has not missed a practice or even appeared on an injury report since he joined the Green Bay Packers in 2014. But that’s not the half of it.
In 14 NFL seasons – and counting – Peppers has never had an injury that required surgery. In a business where knee scopes have become as routine as an annual flu shot, Peppers is the anomaly.
“I joke with him sometimes that he’s a man of steel, and he can’t be injured,” Carey said. “He assures me that it’s really his experience that helps him avoid injury.”
Peppers played in 12 games as a rookie in 2002, when the Carolina Panthers drafted him second overall. Since then, he’s missed exactly two games, the final two of the 2007 season because of a sprained MCL in his right knee, which, of course, did not require surgery. David Carr, the first pick in that draft, last played in an NFL game in 2012. Joey Harrington, the third pick in that draft, last played in 2007.
Peppers, a native of Wilson, North Carolina, wasn’t even sure what sport he wanted to play coming out of high school, so he didn’t pick one – at least not until more than halfway through his college career. For two years at the University of North Carolina, he played both basketball and football (more on his basketball career coming in a separate story). He went to a Final Four and played in a bowl game within a year of each other before he settled on football for his third and final college season.
Few remember that he redshirted as a freshman, in part because Tar Heels football coach Carl Torbush wasn’t sure where to play the 6-foot-7 Peppers, who was “a freaky-looking tailback in high school,” according to Torbush.
“We didn’t know if he was going to be a running back, a tight end, a defensive end or what,” recalled Torbush, now the head coach at East Tennessee State. “He’d have been definitely an all-conference tight end and maybe an All-America at tight end with his size and athleticism and his hands. For us, obviously it turned out the best.”
And for Peppers, too.
Ten years. That was his NFL goal. Rack up a bunch of sacks. Make a pile of money and get a Super Bowl ring. He’s got the first two – last year becoming the first player in NFL history with 100 sacks and four interceptions returned for touchdowns – but is still chasing that ring. In his second NFL season, the Panthers went 11-5 and lost to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
He hasn’t gone back.
It’s why after the Chicago Bears cut him in March 2014 and Peppers had offers from seven or eight other teams, according to Carey, he came to Green Bay. At age 34, he signed a three-year, $26 million contract that some thought was really a glorified one-year contract because of all the NFL snaps his body had endured.
“I felt like this was the best chance for me to win,” Peppers said in an interview this week. “And I felt when I came here to meet with everyone, it just felt like the place I needed to be. Nothing more than that. I make decisions a lot off of feel, and it felt great here.”
After Peppers recorded 9.5 sacks (including the playoffs) last season, it was a no-brainer for the Packers to bring him back even with an $8.5 million base salary this season.
Through seven games, Peppers has a team-high 5.5 sacks, a total that ranks tied for eighth in the NFL heading into Sunday’s homecoming game at Carolina.
“I didn’t really have a plan,” Peppers said. “I just wanted to play. Ten years was the number. That was as far as I could see at that time.”
Those who know Peppers best say his longevity can be attributed to two things: discipline and genetics.
The discipline part took time. Torbush remembered an incident early in Peppers’ college career when he missed a class.
“I called his mom and told her about it,” Torbush said. “She came walking in that door when Julius was in my office, and I’m telling you his eyes got big as saucers, and he was scared to death. As soon as she walked in there, that was the last problem I ever had with Julius Peppers.”
Peppers laughed sheepishly when told Torbush shared that story.
“Obviously, you don’t want to disappoint your parents,” Peppers said. “I was going through that stage, that 18-year-old stage where you turn into a rebel, and it was nice just to have people around you that really look out for your best interest.”
The genetics part, however, was evident all along.
“It would be hard to hurt that body,” said Matt Doherty, Peppers’ basketball coach at UNC. “It’s hard to believe he’s 35.”
But it’s not hard, Doherty said, to believe that Peppers is still going strong.