There are some people who are just born to be professional athletes.
One such person was Julius Peppers.
Peppers was big as a youth and he only continued growing until he became an absolutely dominating prep athlete.
He then matriculated to the University of North Carolina where Peppers played both football and basketball for the Tar Heels.
In 2002, Peppers was taken with the second overall pick in the NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers.
Over the course of 17 years, Peppers rarely missed a game and established himself as one of the best defensive end/linebackers in NFL history.
Panthers DE Julius Peppers is the only player in NFL history with 150 sacks & 10 INTs. pic.twitter.com/TlnemaXv7m
— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) October 13, 2017
By the time he retired after the 2018 season, Peppers owned a host of NFL records and accomplishments including the fourth most sacks in league history.
He is also the only player in league history to net 150 sacks and 10 interceptions.
This is the incredible story of Julius Peppers.
“Big Head” Grows Up Large in North Carolina
Julius Frazier Peppers was born on January 18, 1980 in Wilson, North Carolina.
Peppers was large and in charge right from the womb.
He weighed over nine pounds at birth and only continued growing through adolescence.
As a youth, Peppers was nicknamed “Big Head” for the large size of his noggin.
It could have also come from the adoration he received as an athletic marvel by the time he was in middle school.
However, Peppers didn’t get a big head from high praise.
Despite his otherworldly athleticism, Peppers believed he had skills just like everybody else.
“As a kid I never saw myself as unusual,” Peppers said. “I always thought that lots of people could do what I did. More and more I realized I was wrong.”
That realization began when coaches from nearby Southern Nash Senior High School noticed Peppers in middle school.
“The first time I ever noticed him was when he was in middle school,” Southern Nash football coach Ray Davis said in 2020. “He was really a big kid for a seventh grader. He was gangly and a little awkward I remember. I’d say he was like 6-foot-1 then.”
Coach Davis noticed Peppers because the kid was literally head and shoulders above the rest of his fellow seventh grade teammates on the gridiron.
“It was strange because he was the tallest guy on the team and he’s out there playing running back,” explained Davis. “He was just super dominant because he was so much bigger than everybody else. He had his eye on basketball, but this was a kid who we knew could be great.”
Peppers Thrives as a Running Back
When Peppers finally arrived at Southern Nash High School, he only devoted time to his first love, basketball, and track.
During track season, Peppers competed in the 4×400 meter relay team and triple jumped 37 feet.
It just so happened that Davis was watching that day and pulled Peppers aside.
The coach implored him to join the Firebirds’ football team the following fall.
“I tried to tell him that he was going to be a dime a dozen size-wise on the basketball court,” said Davis. “But on the football field, his size, his speed and his athleticism could be special.”
Peppers expressed concerns about being placed on the offensive line, the last place in the world he wanted to play football.
— stadiumtalkcom (@stadiumtalkcom) January 6, 2023
Davis reassured Peppers he could play anywhere he wanted.
“I said, ‘Son, if you play football for me I’ll make you a running back,’” Davis recalled. “Maybe that sold him, I don’t know. But he showed up that summer ready for conditioning.”
Sure enough, when the 1995 season began, Peppers went out for football and Davis put him at running back.
As a sophomore, the now 6’5” Peppers ran through and around opponents for over 1,000 yards.
Not only was Peppers abnormally tall for a running back, he was fast, running the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds.
Then, in order to take advantage of Peppers’ size and speed, Davis played him at defensive end in addition to running back.
By the end of his sophomore year, Peppers was getting inundated with recruiting letters from colleges.
He was already a big fan of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, but it was exciting to see the sheer number of other programs who showed interest.
In his junior year, the recruiting mail that arrived at Southern Nash was so immense that the school gave Peppers his own mailbox.
While Peppers was thriving on the court and on the gridiron, the Tar Heels coaches did everything in their power to ensure that he would come to Chapel Hill.
“By the time he became a national recruit, everyone knew they had to beat Carolina,” said North Carolina assistant coach Donnie Thompson. “We were really locked into his mind. We felt good during his junior year and at that point our focus was to keep it a local battle and keep him from making those national visits.”
Tar Heels football coach Mack Brown worked with the Carolina basketball coaches to reassure Peppers that he would be invited to play both sports for the school.
Peppers then verbally committed to North Carolina during his junior year, but that didn’t stop schools from coast-to-coast in pursuing the athletic marvel.
Things got even more intense when Peppers wrapped his prep career with totals of 3,501 rushing yards and 46 touchdowns in football and over 1,600 points, 800 rebounds and 200 assists on the court.
Several times in high school he was named All-State and he also received a Parade All-American nod as well as the North Carolina High School Athletic Association Male Athlete of the Year award as a senior.
— Gridiron Icon 🎙️ (@IconGridiron) May 21, 2020
Furthermore, Peppers won a state title in the 4×400 meters during the track season and placed second in the triple jump.
Although Mack Brown left North Carolina for the University of Texas in late 1997, Peppers decided he still wanted to play for the Tar Heels and signed on the dotted line.
After Peppers arrived on campus in the summer of 1998, the Carolina football coaches weren’t quite sure where to play him.
One thing was sure, however. Since he was 6’7” and pushing 250 pounds, Peppers was no longer going to be a tailback.
That led the coaches to tinker with other possible offensive positions for the freshman.
“We started him as a fullback and tight end,” Tar Heels head coach Carl Torbush said. “Honestly, I’m not sure if any of us knew where he’d line up long term, but we thought that was a good place to start.”
Peppers ended up redshirting his first year and Torbush moved him to defensive end in the interim.
49 days until College Football! Julius Peppers had a standout college career as a DE for the University of North Carolina. He was a dominant force on the field, earning All-American honors and setting the UNC record for sacks. pic.twitter.com/zn4AAQlzf3
— LTB Sports (@LTBSports) July 13, 2023
As a redshirt freshman in 1999, Peppers started every game.
His pass rush moves were raw, but Peppers was still extremely effective and led Carolina with 50 tackles including 10 for a loss and six quarterback sacks.
He was named a Freshman All-American after the season.
Monster on the Hardwood
Once football season ended, Peppers reported to the Tar Heels’ basketball program as a walk-on.
Now tipping the scales at 290 pounds, North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge had Peppers play at power forward.
Friendly reminder that Julius Peppers once played college basketball for North Carolina. pic.twitter.com/5idC55ItyU
— SI Vault (@si_vault) January 8, 2017
Peppers didn’t start during the 1999-2000 season, but he came off the bench enough times to average 4.5 points and 3.5 rebounds per contest.
“Julius is the best athlete I’ve seen in my life. The sad part is he’s just playing the game for fun,” said teammate Joe Forte.
In the 2000 NCAA tournament, Peppers averaged 5.8 points and 4.6 rebounds as the Tar Heels reached the Final Four before losing to the University of Florida in the National Semifinals.
“Julius was a godsend, the missing piece for us,” said Guthridge. “I hate to think how that season might have ended without him.”
During the 2000-2001 basketball season, Peppers had three starts and increased his averages to 7.1 points and 4.0 boards per game.
Julius Peppers just had a sack for the Panthers. In 2001, he was guarding Shane Battier while playing Duke. pic.twitter.com/csjwNueS0M
— SI Vault (@si_vault) October 1, 2017
He was also voted as the nation’s best two-sport athlete by The Sporting News.
Carolina took a 26-7 record into the NCAA tournament under new coach Matt Doherty and reached the second round to play against Penn State.
During the contest, Peppers led the Heels with 21 points and 10 boards but still lost, 82-74.
When the season ended, he thought long and hard about which sport would lead to a future pro contract.
Although scouts from both the NFL and NBA believed he could do well in either league, the feeling was that Peppers could dominate in pro football.
With that in mind, Peppers decided that he would quit playing basketball for Carolina and stick with just football.
“I still believe that if I committed to basketball, I could make an impact in the NBA,” said Peppers in 2001. “But my coaches say that in football I could be another Lawrence Taylor or Jevon Kearse. I now see football as my job and my greatest challenge.”
It wasn’t a stretch to think Peppers could challenge former Tar Heel, Taylor, as one of the best defensive ends in college history.
During his sophomore year in 2000, Peppers led the NCAA in sacks with 15 (one short of Taylor’s single season school record) and had 24 tackles for a loss, third-best in the nation.
“He’s one of those rare pass rushers who has a dominant effect on a game,” Duke coach Carl Franks said in 2001. “He’s simply a better athlete than any offensive tackle he faces.”
He was named an All-American and All-ACC after the year.
“Now that he’s focused on football, I think he’ll become a prototype for the next generation of defensive ends,” said Thompson. “He’s got all the ingredients to never get blocked.”
Then, in 2001, new coach John Bunting took over the football program.
Bunting was a former defensive coach in the NFL and brought many of his philosophies to the Tar Heels.
49 Days Until College Football Is Back.
Julius Peppers was a monster. pic.twitter.com/9YolY3yz3w
— Big Game Boomer (@BigGameBoomer) July 9, 2023
Peppers benefitted from the mentorship of his new coach and helped the team to an 8-5 record and a victory over Auburn in the 2001 Peach Bowl.
“When he went hard, if he decided he wasn’t, he wasn’t going to get blocked by anyone,” said Thompson. “I’ve seen him dominate an entire offensive line by himself. He was the best I’ve ever coached—by far.”
Awards season was kind to him and Peppers took home the Lombardi and Bednarik Awards as well as the Bill Willis Trophy.
He was also named a unanimous All-American and named first-team All-ACC for the second year in a row.
All the recognition prompted Peppers to declare early for the 2002 NFL Draft where he was projected to be a top-five pick.
His college football career ended with 30 sacks (still second in Tar Heels history), 53 tackles for loss, 13 passes defended, five interceptions, and three defensive touchdowns.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
The Carolina Panthers franchise was founded in 1995, and in 1996, the organization was already a contender.
That season the team went 12-4 and advanced to the NFC Championship game before losing to Green Bay.
Six years of mediocre football followed including an awful 1-15 record in 2001.
So, it didn’t take much thought for the Panthers to select Peppers with the second overall pick of the 2002 NFL Draft.
Posting a random player drafted by Carolina everyday until the 2023 NFL Draft…
Day 1- Julius Peppers (2002)
•Round(pick #)- 1 (2)
•College- North Carolina
•Years with Carolina- (2002-09,17-18)
— 𓃮 𝘾𝙖𝙧𝙤𝙡𝙞𝙣𝙖 𝙋𝙖𝙣𝙩𝙝𝙚𝙧 𝙋𝙧𝙞𝙙𝙚 𓃮 (@CPPfanfromtheD) March 20, 2023
He joined a roster filled with good defensive talent including Dan Morgan, Kris Jenkins, Brentson Buckner, Mike Rucker, and Mike Minter.
With Peppers on board in 2002, the unit went from 28th overall in the NFL in 2001 to fifth in ‘02.
He started the first 12 games of the year and collected 36 tackles, 12 sacks, five forced fumbles, one interception and six passes defended.
Julius Peppers as a rookie:
🔷 12 games
🔷 12 sacks
🔷 5 forced fumbles
🔷 Defensive Rookie of the Year
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) February 1, 2019
Buckner was astounded at some of the things his new teammate did and called Peppers “the next evolution of man.”
Then, with a month remaining in the season, Peppers failed a drug test when it was found that he had taken a banned dietary supplement containing ephedra.
Peppers admitted that he had taken the supplement knowingly but didn’t realize that ephedra was a banned substance in the NFL.
Even though he missed the last four games of the season, Peppers was still named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Super Bowl Bound
In 2003, Peppers returned to start all 16 games and had 46 tackles, seven sacks and three passes defended.
Quarterback Jake Delhomme arrived from New Orleans in the offseason and the Panthers took off.
Carolina won its first five games and rode their success to an 11-5 record.
Then, in the Wild Card round versus Dallas, Peppers had one tackle, one interception, and one pass defended.
At one point in the contest, the defensive end shocked everyone in the stadium when he chased down Cowboys receiver Joey Galloway after 28-yards and pushed him out-of-bounds.
After beating Dallas, Peppers helped the Panthers beat St. Louis in two overtimes with four tackles, two defended passes and a sack.
Carolina then beat Philadelphia in the NFC Championship game to advance to the franchise’s first ever Super Bowl.
Peppers’ appearance in pro football’s biggest game marked just the second player (along with Donovan McNabb) that participated in both a Super Bowl and an NCAA Final Four.
During Super Bowl XXXVIII against New England, Peppers kept Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on his toes all day.
On this day, Adam Vinatieri kicked a 41-yard field goal to beat the Panthers 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII. pic.twitter.com/8E9n7Dj0nV
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) February 1, 2016
Eventually, the Panthers’ magical season came up short when New England kicker Adam Vinatieri booted a 41-yard field goal to win, 32-29.
Peppers had two tackles during the game.
Near Miss in 2005
A year after the Panthers’ Super Bowl berth, the team fell to 7-9 but Peppers excelled and was voted to his first Pro Bowl and named All-Pro.
In addition to 65 tackles (a career-high), 11 sacks, and two interceptions, Peppers scored his first touchdowns as a pro.
His first score came when he scooped up a Michael Vick fumble in Week 4 and ran 60 yards for a touchdown.
Peppers then returned an interception for a score against Tampa Bay in Week 12.
That represented the first pick returned for a touchdown by a Panthers defensive lineman in franchise history.
Peppers’ other interception should have gone for a score against Denver in Week 5.
After snagging an errant throw from Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, Peppers rumbled 97 yards and fell short of the end zone when Denver receiver Rod Smith caught up with him.
“I remember the running, when he was running it back the whole way,” said teammate Dan Morgan. “And the reason I remember it is because I was dying. I couldn’t even run because of the altitude. I think at the end of that, his legs gave out, and he kind of stumbled. But I mean, for him to be able to have the stamina, again, I think just up there in that high altitude, I think it just kind of goes to show you the type of athlete he was.”
Peppers continued his outstanding play in 2005 when he was voted to his second Pro Bowl after 50 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and seven passes defended.
— CharlotteVibe (@charlottevibe) July 17, 2023
Carolina went 11-5 and the defense helped shut down the New York Giants’ third-ranked offense in the Wild Card round.
After dispatching the G-Men, 23-0, the Panthers eliminated Chicago in the Divisional round to advance to the NFC Championship game.
During the contest, Peppers had six tackles, but the Seattle Seahawks proved too much and ended Carolina’s season, 34-14.
Peppers Leaves the Panthers
The next four years were unkind to Carolina.
Between 2006-2009, the team made the playoffs only once, a Divisional round loss to Arizona in 2008 after the Panthers had won 12 games.
As usual, despite the organization’s record, Peppers was consistently good.
In 2006, he led the NFL in tackles for a loss with 18 and went to the Pro Bowl with an All-Pro designation.
“He’s just like the ultimate competitor,” remarked Morgan. “When you talk to him, and you see him outside of football, he’s real chill. So you think like he’s got that basketball mentality. But that’s not him. Out on the field, he’d get pissed. And if you really get him pissed, that other team’s in for a long day, and he’ll just take a game over.”
After a down year and only 2.5 sacks in 2007, Peppers regained his form in 2008 and collected a career-high 14.5 sacks.
Name a great defensive end 𝙤𝙩𝙝𝙚𝙧 𝙩𝙝𝙖𝙣 Reggie White ✍️
I'll start: Julius Peppers pic.twitter.com/1DCyK7mjW2
— FanDuel (@FanDuel) December 13, 2022
That led to another Pro Bowl and All-Pro nod.
In 2009, Peppers had 10.5 sacks and two interceptions, including another pick six.
His touchdown came in a Week 8 game against Arizona when he snatched a pass out of midair and scored within seconds.
“He was down in his three-point stance, and we were just going to throw a quick screen to one of our receivers,” former Cardinal player Adrian Wilson recalled. “He just flew off the ball, caught it in the air, and is in the end zone before you know it. It’s like, how does he do it?”
Then, after playing high school, college and pro ball in North Carolina, Peppers left the team following the ‘09 season as a free agent and signed with the Chicago Bears.
Peppers Makes an Impact in Chicago
Peppers had spent eight years with the Panthers and loved the organization.
However, it was time for him to stretch his wings and signing with the Bears turned out to be just what he needed.
“I love the Carolinas,” said Peppers. “But there was a part of me that just wanted to go, go see something different. I think that if I had gone to high school here and gone to college in, I don’t know, Miami, or New York or wherever, anywhere, any other city, right, and then got drafted by the Panthers, I probably would have had a different feeling.”
He arrived in the Windy City in 2010 to play for Coach Lovie Smith and immediately helped the Bears to an 11-5 record.
Peppers had 54 tackles, eight sacks, and two interceptions in his first year as a Bear and took home Pro Bowl and All-Pro accolades.
Julius Peppers (Chicago Bears) DE pic.twitter.com/ZP9PXs2oSt
— American Football 画像 (@AFpicture_japan) February 19, 2014
Chicago lost in the 2010 NFC Championship game against Green Bay then missed the postseason the next three years.
After 22.5 combined sacks and two more Pro Bowls in 2011 and 2012, Peppers missed the all-star contest in 2013 even after 45 tackles, seven sacks, and returning a fumble 42 yards to the house.
In the early months of 2014, Chicago tried to trade Peppers but was unsuccessful.
Former Bears DE Julius Peppers is staying in the NFC North as he signs a 3-year deal with the Green Bay Packers pic.twitter.com/IIC08cl9uM
— NFL Access (@NFL_Access) March 15, 2014
As a free agent, he stayed in the NFC North and signed with Green Bay for $30 million.
“The teams that have the good quarterbacks are the teams that win. That obviously factored into some of my decision making,” Peppers said after signing. “I’m looking forward to playing with Aaron [Rodgers]. As much as I disliked chasing him around, I’m excited to join him.”
Peppers also noted that he believed he had a shot at an elusive world title with the Packers.
“That’s the most important thing. I haven’t won a championship. That’s where my focus is. I feel like the team is set up to make a run and I feel I can help get it there,” Peppers added.
Peppers’ first year with the club nearly brought him another opportunity for a championship.
In 2014, the Packers went 12-4 and advanced to the NFC Championship game against Seattle. Peppers harassed opponents all season with 43 tackles, seven sacks, three fumble recoveries, a career-high 11 passes defended, and two interceptions for 101 return yards and two touchdowns.
— NFL (@NFL) August 16, 2014
Then, despite three quarterback hits, 1.5 sacks, and five tackles, Peppers couldn’t help Green Bay get past the Seahawks and lost in overtime, 28-22.
The following year, Peppers went to the Pro Bowl for the final time after 10.5 sacks while the Pack went 10-6 and lost in the Divisional round.
In 2016, Peppers and Green Bay met the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game.
Yet again, Peppers dream of winning a title fell short when the Falcons throttled the Packers, 44-21.
Peppers Returns Home
When the 2016 season ended, Peppers had a strong desire to return home and signed a contract with Carolina.
“I guess more than anything, Green Bay just felt like home,” Peppers wrote in 2019. “You know, small town, good people who love their football … it was a really great experience being a part of that culture. I was sad to leave Green Bay, and I don’t think I would have left to go anywhere but home to Carolina.”
He spent the next two years with the club and helped Cam Newton and rookie Christian McCaffrey reach 11 wins and a playoff loss to New Orleans in 2017.
Julius Peppers returns home to Carolina to make things right
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) March 12, 2017
That same season, the 37-year old snagged 11 sacks.
The Panthers went 7-9 in 2018 and Peppers had five sacks and 22 tackles in eight starts.
After the year, he retired and ignored media personalities who stated that he should stay in the game to pad his stats.
“I was never really a stat-chaser,” he said. “I really didn’t care about having this amount of sacks in a season or a career. I just looked up one day, and I was like at 140 or so. I could have chased another spot on the list, but for what? It was just time. It was just time.”
Peppers left the game after 17 years.
During his career, he had 719 combined tackles, 175 tackles for loss, 159.5 sacks, 21 fumble recoveries including two returned for touchdowns, 52 forced fumbles, 82 passes defended, and 11 interceptions for 293 return yards and four pick-sixes.
Julius Peppers has announced his retirement from the NFL after 17 years in the league. Incredible career for the Panthers DE 🏆
* No. 2 Draft Pick in 2002
* NFL DROY
* 9x Pro Bowl
* 3x First Team All-Pro
* 2000s All-Decade team
* No. 4 in NFL Career Sacks (159.5) pic.twitter.com/TeaHIH0XgT
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 1, 2019
Peppers was a Defensive Rookie of the Year, six-time All-Pro, nine-time Pro Bowler, and was selected for the NFL’s 2000s and 2010s All-Decade Teams.
Additionally, he has been added to the Carolina Panthers Hall of Honor and named as 100 of the Greatest Bears of All-Time.
Peppers owns several Panthers and NFL records including most career sacks (97) and forced fumbles (34) in Carolina, longest interception return as a Panther and most interception return yards in a single game by a defensive lineman (97 yards, also a league-best), most interception return yards for a defensive lineman in NFL history (192), and most single-season combined interception and fumble return yards by a defensive lineman since the NFL merger in 1970 (203).
His career sacks total is currently fourth best in NFL history.
Life After the NFL
Since retiring, Peppers has kept a low profile, in keeping with someone who never much cared for the limelight in the first place.
He prefers to spend time with family and will flummox random people who ask if he ever played sports.
“I’ll say no, I don’t play, and I just go on about it,” he said with a laugh. “And my kids, when they leave, it’s like, ‘Why didn’t you tell them?’ I’m like, look; I used to play, I don’t play anymore. It’s just not something I’m really comfortable talking about. You tell somebody you play or you used to play, and then it opens up a whole other set of questions and a whole conversation. But you know, I’m getting better at it. I’m getting better at it.”