There weren’t many players built like Julius Peppers when he walked through an NFL locker room for the first time in 2002. Peppers was big, strong and freakishly athletic. His career came full circle Thursday night when the Carolina Panthers’ great walked across a stage in Las Vegas as part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s class of 2024.
Peppers was announced as one of five modern-day inductees during the NFL Honors program at the Resorts World Theatre in Vegas, site of Sunday’s Super Bowl. Peppers made it to Canton in his first year on the ballot. It was a fitting tribute to a dominant pass rusher who ranks fourth on the all-time sacks list and pulled the rare double-double of being named to the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2000s and 2010s.
Peppers played 10 of his 17 seasons in Carolina, and returned to the Panthers for a two-year, farewell tour before retiring after the 2018 season. The No. 2 overall pick in 2002, Peppers is the first player drafted by the Panthers to be enshrined in the Hall.
Predictably, Peppers kept his comments pithy Thursday night after the HoF class was announced. The eastern North Carolina native, who played football and basketball at UNC, always preferred to let his play speak for itself.
The tales of Julius Peppers: From hooping at UNC to knocking them down in Charlotte
“It feels great. It’s still surreal. It’s still a little bit unbelievable to be a part of such a selective type of fraternity, type of group of players — the greatest ever to play the game,” Peppers told Steve Wyche of NFL Network. “I’ve always looked up to the players that came up and greeted us on the stage tonight. The Ray Lewises. The Michael Irvins and the Charles Haleys.”
The list of Peppers’ accomplishments could stretch the length of his 6-foot-7 frame. The highlights include:
• A total of 159 1/2 sacks, trailing only Hall of Famers Bruce Smith, Reggie White and Kevin Greene. In a nice touch, it was Smith who informed Peppers he had made the Hall.
• Second all-time in forced fumbles (52).
• Only player in NFL history with at least 100 sacks and 10 interceptions.
• Nine-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro.
Fittingly, former Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross was in Vegas for a junior tennis tournament and planned to attend a reception for Peppers after the announcement Thursday. Gross, who is sure he faced Peppers more than anyone else in the league, remembers seeing the 6-7, 295-pound defensive end for the first time after being drafted in the first round a year after Peppers.
“I just tried to play it cool because I’d never seen such a person. I’ll never forget — he came in by where the equipment room is and he walked across the locker room. And the O-line section was down at the other end,” Gross said. “And of course he didn’t come say hello because he doesn’t (roll) that way. And I’m just like, ‘Oh, my God. What did I get myself in? That’s the guy I’ve gotta go against tomorrow.’”
And for the next seven years they were teammates.
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Peppers had 12 sacks in 12 games in 2002 and won Defensive Rookie of the Year. In his second game as a pro, Peppers sacked Detroit Lions quarterback Mike McMahon three times, including a strip-sack on a vicious hit that ex-Panthers running back DeShaun Forster still recalls.
“(McMahon’s) helmet might have came off. It was one of those hits where you just see stuff flying out, like, ‘Ohh!’” Foster said. “Pep kind of came around the edge and then Mike kind of stepped up and then ran out to his (left) and ran right into Pep. He kind of lost him, where he didn’t know where Pep was.”
Quarterbacks always needed to know where Peppers was.
Ask Jimmy Clausen.
After signing with the Chicago Bears in 2010 — Panthers general manager Marty Hurney had offered Peppers a deal to make him the league’s highest-paid defensive player — Peppers returned to Bank of America Stadium for a Week 5 game against the hapless Panthers.
In the first quarter, Peppers picked off Clausen with the kind of did-you-just-see-that play that defined his career, then riled up Panthers’ fans by giving them the “shush” gesture. Panthers right tackle Geoff Schwartz was to cut-block Peppers on the play — a wide receiver screen that was not supposed to have been called.
“We talked all week about not running the play to (Peppers’) side. Well, lo and behold, we called the play — we were 2-14 for a reason. So I set and go to cut him, and he played off my cut,” Schwartz said. “Then he put his hands up in the air and tipped the pass. The pass went right up in the air and while I was laying on the ground, he jumped up and caught the ball for an interception.”
Schwartz said Panthers offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson apologized to him after the game for putting him in a tough spot. “It was bad. It was an embarrassing play,” Schwartz said. “But that’s what Hall of Fame guys do. They make those plays and that’s what makes them special players.”
Everyone has a favorite Peppers play — or three. Foster, who was close with Peppers, also liked his teammate’s 97-yard interception return against the Denver Broncos’ Jake Plummer in 2004. Denver receiver Rod Smith eventually ran Peppers down to keep him from scoring, but it was no less impressive.
Foster was struck by “just seeing how massive this person is, running away from these little people.”
“He is human!”
Julius Peppers’ talent was out of this world.
𝘏𝘢𝘭𝘭 𝘰𝘧 𝘏𝘰𝘯𝘰𝘳 𝘞𝘦𝘦𝘬
Full Video: https://t.co/0tM4t4j9Xc pic.twitter.com/kLbaHlVlsS
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) October 26, 2023
Peppers, a power forward for the Tar Heels, is the only player to appear in a Final Four and a Super Bowl. The Charlotte Bobcats (now the Hornets again) talked about bringing Peppers in for a workout. Though that never materialized, Peppers showed off his hoops skills during pickup games with teammates at the downtown Y in Charlotte.
“That’s where you really see his game because you’re thinking that he’s gonna go and play with his back to the basket. And he’s doing the complete opposite,” said Foster, who recently was named running backs coach of the Raiders. “He’s out on the wing, hitting jumpers, driving. It was just another thing that you’re amazed at, like, ‘Hey, this guy can move at this size?’”
Gross would marvel at how far Peppers could throw a 25-pound medicine ball during offseason workouts, at least on those days “when he would show up.” Peppers spent much of the offseason in Miami, where he still lives.
“He had a pretty good awareness that he physically was elite, to say the least. And his training setup he had in Miami just worked really well for him,” Gross said, adding that Steve Smith had a similar routine.
“When you’re that good,” Gross added, “like, ‘OK, do your thing, (then) come be All-Pro.’”
That’s what Peppers would do, year after year. He went to the Pro Bowl with all three teams he played for — Carolina, Chicago and Green Bay — and had 11 sacks for the Panthers in 2017 at 37. He retired after the following season, leaving behind a legacy that will now include a gold jacket. And rightly so.
“Just a quiet assassin,” Foster said of Peppers. “Not gonna say much, but his presence is known.”
(Photo: Rich Graessle / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)