From the streets to a dream

PARAMUS, N.J. -- The night of Oct. 12, 2012, was a quiet one for Jabrill Peppers. Not in the sense of a player held in check on the field, even though the Watch List athlete tallied only 23 yards rushing and receiving that night. And it wasn't quiet in the literal sense, as more than 8,000 fans packed the stadium to watch one of the most anticipated high school football games in New Jersey in decades.

Peppers was playing against Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco Prep -- his former high school -- as a member of rival Paramus (N.J.) Catholic in a game that spread bad blood and feelings of betrayal throughout the state. He didn't say much that night, though. A few thousand unrelenting students and parents were nothing compared to what Peppers experienced growing up in one of New Jersey's toughest areas. It was through his upbringing in East Orange that Peppers learned that sometimes the best thing to do is keep his head down and mouth closed.

He learned that quickly as a child, when words exchanged with an older boy quickly turned to fists in the streets, one of the few arenas where Peppers is not a step above the rest.

"I was young. I always had a lot of mouth so I was talking a lot of smack," Peppers said. "He was older than me and usually I have my older brother and he handles the work, but he wasn't there that day. It was real bad.

"I learned my lesson."

Where Peppers is from, lessons are learned the hard way, and far too often he has witnessed that lessons learned can equal lives lost in East Orange.

Following what he hopes to be at least an eight-year career in the NFL, Peppers wants to get into broadcasting. He's personable, talkative and genuine. He's never one to shy away from the camera, but he rarely does interviews outside of face-to-face meetings.

Ask a question and the 17-year-old Peppers fills a notepad and trades a few laughs along the way.

Ask about his upbringing, and he talks about some of the things he dealt with daily in East Orange, which is located just west of Newark in between Paterson and Elizabeth. He has been in his share of fights, hung with the wrong crowd.

"Oh man, I've seen people get stabbed, shot, beat up," Peppers said. "Saw my boys steal cars then crash into a light pole, other things at night, seeing guys selling the illegal products."

But ask about specifics, some of the things he has taken part in, and he clams up. He answers quickly. That smile so many people love to talk about leaves his face. He wants to move on to the next question.

"Too much to name that I got away with because of my athleticism," Peppers said. "I don't want to say too much more on that, but too much that I'm ashamed with."

He closes his answer by noting he has "definitely taken a lot of big strides." And he has.

He and his mother have left East Orange for Midland Park, which isn't far from Paramus Catholic. He is an honor roll student and has been for years. Stanford is among his favorite schools because of the educational opportunity it presents Peppers, who is working toward a 4.0 GPA.

When he meets with college coaches, he is not worried about whether they will play him at cornerback or running back. He's asking about academics, the faculty and the school's graduation rates for black athletes.

"He does everything the right way," Paramus Catholic coach Charlie Partridge said. "He does the right thing in the classroom, is respectful to everyone and treats everyone like one another -- doesn't put one person above another. He's helped mesh our football program and the community."

Rarely does a day go by that Peppers does not take a moment to look back at where he started and what it took for him to get to where he is now -- a USA Today All-American who has so many offers that it's easier for him to name the schools who aren't begging him for a commitment. He acknowledges it could have been easy to continue down the path so many of his childhood friends took -- the same path his brother and father took.

In January 2010, Peppers' older brother, Don Curtis, was murdered. Curtis was fatally shot while at a restaurant in Newark. He was only 20 years old.

Peppers was in eighth grade when Curtis was murdered, fostering his turnaround and ascension as one of the best players in the 2014 class.

"It definitely opened my eyes because my brother was the one who wanted me to continue the football thing because I wanted to follow his footsteps on the streets," Peppers said. "Once he got shot and killed, I was like, 'I got to do it for him.'"

Terry Peppers, Jabrill's father, was not there to lend a helping hand to his son as he dealt with Curtis' death; he was just a guiding voice.

In May 2007, Terry was sentenced to 130 months in prison after pleading guilty to a weapons charge. He currently resides in a Pennsylvania federal prison.

"Growing up without him was hard, seeing other kids with their dads thinking, 'Why isn't mine here?'" Jabrill Peppers said. "You learn a lot of lessons on your own."

The two talk on the phone weekly, the same type of father-son conversations they'd be having if Terry was still living a few blocks away. They talk about football, school and relationships.

Peppers has not seen his father since he was 7 years old and has few memories of him. He remembers begging his dad to take him to the park, play catch or run him through drills.

"He showed me the trade," Peppers said.

And in return, this fall Peppers will show his father just what kind of player he has become. If all goes well, Terry is scheduled to be paroled this summer -- just in time for football season.

Terry missed Peppers' junior season, one that ended with the new transfer leading Paramus Catholic to a state championship. But hopefully he'll be there for the finale, which Peppers expects to be the crowning moment of one of the most prolific high school careers the tradition-rich North Jersey area has ever witnessed.

Before the state title game in December, Peppers and Partridge were already talking about the next season. Never mind that Paramus Catholic was going for its first state title since 1997. Winning New Jersey's toughest group -- national powerhouse Don Bosco, which Peppers helped to the 2011 national championship, included among it -- is not enough. Before the state championship game, the two were talking national title in 2013.

By then, the whirlwind of controversy surrounding Peppers will have passed. He has been at Paramus Catholic a little over a year.

On Oct. 12, 2012, Paramus Catholic played Don Bosco, and Peppers found little space to operate. He expected a tough front from the Don Bosco defense, but he was surprised at the ire of former friends, teammates and even their parents. He was called a traitor, and those who used to wish him well before games wished for a blown-out knee.

"It caught me off guard. People were telling me, because I'm a high-profile guy, this wouldn't blow over," Peppers said. "But I didn't think it would get blown out of proportion."

Internet message boards took over. Peppers could no longer look at his Twitter account or even the inbox on his phone. And he certainly couldn't reply.

"We took the approach we're going to ignore all this," Partridge said. "People say stuff that isn't true, so it's easy to ignore."

Don Bosco and Paramus Catholic will meet again, and again Peppers won't say much. He admits the 2012 state title was "sweeter" considering the firestorm of criticism he faced, but that is all you will get out of him. He will leave it at that.

Even though he left his rough beginnings behind, they still drive him. Faceless voices in the stands or on the Internet are not enough to deter Peppers.

"This is how I'm going to college," Peppers said. "This is how I'll give my mom the house she always wanted, the car she always wanted. I didn't want to go down that road, fighting every day, walking to the corner store and having to keep looking over your back."