Panthers' Julius Peppers wants to be remembered for more than sacks

David NewtonESPN Staff Writer8 Minute Read
After Hurricane Florence hit this year, Julius Peppers started a relief fund through his foundation and contributed $100,000 of his own money.Carolina Panthers/James Nix

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Julius Peppers flashed a sheepish smile when reminded that former Carolina Panthers coach John Fox was "murdered by the national media" for selecting him instead of a quarterback with the second overall pick of the 2002 draft.

The 38-year-old defensive end smiled again when recalling the quarterback the Panthers could have taken after David Carr went No. 1 to Houston -- Joey Harrington.

"It turned out pretty good," said Peppers, still smiling.

Harrington went No. 3 to the Detroit Lions, who play host to Carolina at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday. Harrington retired with a 26-50 record in six NFL seasons.

You might say it was a miserable fail.

Peppers has 157.5 sacks and is 2.5 shy of Kevin Greene (160) for third place on the NFL's all-time sacks list, which is led by Bruce Smith (200) and Reggie White (198). He has been selected to nine Pro Bowls and is considered a future first-ballot Hall of Fame selection.

And 17 years after being drafted, this 6-foot-7, 295-pound giant of a man is playing at a high level, as was evident in his last outing when he knocked down a pass in coverage about 20 yards from the line of scrimmage in Thursday's 52-21 loss at Pittsburgh.

But it's not statistics Peppers wants to be remembered for when he hangs up his cleats, whether that's after this season or the next. He wants to be known for impacting lives -- on and off the field.

That's why it was so important for him to return to his home state in 2017 after seven seasons in Chicago and Green Bay where "personal growth, reflection" changed his outlook on life.

That's why he has become more visibly involved in community affairs during his second stint with the Panthers as opposed to his more behind-the-scenes self during his first eight seasons.

His foundation has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the relief effort following Hurricane Florence. Peppers has visited several of the devastated areas in North and South Carolina.

He also went to a Charlotte precinct to encourage early voting for the most recent midterm election.

"You ask somebody right now who are the top two or three sack persons and they couldn't tell you," Peppers said. "You're a professional and you want to perform and you want to achieve those goals.

"But being out with the people and giving back to the community, it's going to be more impactful and long lasting."

Peppers has three sacks through nine games for the Panthers this season.Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

Selfish to selfless

Terri Stowers ran into Peppers outside the Bette Rae Thomas Recreation Center, where the defensive end was encouraging early voting, and reminded him of the time in the early 2000s he performed the coin toss before a high school football game.

"He seems to be much more involved in the community stuff this time around," said Stowers, the director of the rec centers in Charlotte.

Peppers admits he was somewhat selfish with his time and money -- but mostly his time -- early in his career. He also was somewhat uncomfortable being out in public and voicing his opinion.

Not that he didn't do anything. He just had a lower profile, hiring motivational speakers to speak at programs geared toward empowering youth and making good decisions, donating money to churches and scholarship programs.

Now he's out front with programs such as the hurricane relief fund, a partnership with the Foundation for the Carolinas.

"When you're a young NFL player, being 22, 23 years old and having wealth and notoriety, a lot of times you think about how that can benefit you," said Peppers' friend, agent and adviser, Carl Carey. "It's understandable because you're young.

"I have watched that process for him happen. He realizes it now and sees the importance to use his name for good."

Carey was entering the University of North Carolina as an academic adviser to Peppers before Peppers' freshman year at UNC. The two were introduced because Peppers had been dismissed from North Carolina's summer orientation program for missing curfew and ordering a pair of Air Jordans with his stipend money.

Peppers was so quiet at the time that Carey essentially became his spokesperson. That's not the case anymore.

"That has been the change," Carey said of Peppers' more outgoing personality. "When he was younger, it's been well-documented that he's a reserved guy. Now he's really found his voice."

Carey noticed the change when Peppers left the Panthers for Chicago after the 2009 season because a new deal couldn't be reached with Carolina. It was a change of address Peppers acknowledges was needed to help him grow, having spent his entire life in North Carolina.

"It took awhile for me to be conscious of my impact, not only on the team but in the community," Peppers said. "I'm a little bit regretful I didn't start doing these things earlier, but I guess it's better late than never."

Hall of Famer

Efe Obada, 26, never heard of Peppers growing up in Nigeria and England. When he was given the locker next to the player known by teammates simply as "Pep" he immediately did some research.

"I was amazed at all he had done," the defensive end said.

Peppers still does amazing things. There's no better example than the pass he broke up in the loss to Pittsburgh in which nothing seemed to go right.

"It was ridiculous," Obada said of seeing a man Peppers' size and age that far downfield in coverage.

Peppers has been making "ridiculous" plays almost since the day he entered the league. That's why Fox never blinked at making the player with freakish size his first pick as an NFL head coach even though the need at quarterback might have been greater.

"There were some that said we didn't get the best D-lineman on their team," said Fox, referring to North Carolina defensive tackle Ryan Sims, who went No. 6 to Kansas City. "Some people said [Julius'] motor didn't run all the time. What I saw was a guy that finished one sack behind the school sack record that happened to be held by Lawrence Taylor.

"He was a big reason I got to be a head coach as long as I got to. Decisions like that keep you around. There's no doubt in my mind he'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer."

In the Panthers' locker room, Peppers is a first-ballot professional. His leadership has been as important as his performance, even though his performance has been above average with a 2018 grade of 78.2 by Pro Football Focus.

"At any given point he can still take over a game," Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis said.

But the Hall of Fame or catching Greene in sacks are not things Peppers thinks about. He's more interested in getting the Panthers (6-3) back on track after an embarrassing loss, and already has spoken to teammates behind the scenes about regaining focus.

"I know a lot of people on the sack list are Hall of Famers, probably the top seven or eight guys," Peppers said. "And it's probably going to happen.

"But we've got other things to accomplish. And we've got other missions to settle. I'm more focused on that than anything post career."

The Panthers' defensive end has spent time helping out with hurricane relief efforts in Lumberton, North Carolina.Carolina Panthers/James Nix

Old man?

Quarterback Cam Newton recently had a little fun with Peppers, changing the music for practice to something he thought an "old man" like his defensive end might like.

"He'll be in my shoes one day," Peppers said. "I don't mind it. It's an honor to still be here at this age and still be around these young guys. They keep me young and I'm enjoying it."

Peppers still wants to win a Super Bowl ring, the biggest missing piece from his résumé. That's one of the reasons he returned to Carolina, because he wants to bring a title to his home state and there's talent here to do that.

"It's pretty obvious, but it was real important for Julius to get back to the Panthers," Carey said. "And he was really involved in making sure that it was known right from [when] free agency opened."

Peppers also saw an opportunity to make an impact off the field in his return to Carolina.

His involvement with hurricane relief has been most visible. But Peppers also has a desire to push for social justice that hasn't been nearly as visible as the efforts of safety Eric Reid, whose decision to kneel during the national anthem continues to put the spotlight on him.

Remember, Peppers stayed in the locker room during the national anthem last season when players across the league began showing their support for the awareness Reid and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick were trying to bring.

Carey says he believes Peppers' interest in social justice and issues related to empowering youth will keep Peppers involved in community affairs long after football.

"Those are probably his two biggest areas of interests as it relates to how he plans to use his name going forward," Carey said. "Just because he's not saying anything doesn't mean he doesn't have an opinion."

Peppers hasn't made up his mind whether this will be his last season. He signed a one-year deal with the Panthers each of the past two seasons, so there aren't long-term plans.

"I can do it as long as I want to," Peppers said with a smile. "It's just a matter of who wants me to do it."

One thing is for sure. Peppers likes having the platform football offers him to be more active in the community.

"I've learned a lot," Peppers said. "Being more compassionate. Obviously, we know people aren't as fortunate and blessed as we are. I learned a little bit about the impact we have as professionals, and how we can help, how impactful it is for just your presence."

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