The first time I saw Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers run down a quarterback in person, it was the 16th preseason of his career.
It was a sticky, lightning-crackled August night in Jacksonville and Peppers got loose and chased Chad Henne into the arms of Carolina’s linebackers.
“There he goes,” I remember someone saying up in the press box at Everbank Field. You could feel Henne’s panic as Peppers bore down on him.
I laughed out loud and that is definitely, definitely frowned-upon in a press box.
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But there should be a “Peppers Rule” up there. Can’t we can forget about the business of the sport for just a moment as we think to ourselves, “Aren’t we lucky?”
I remember thinking that after I had sprinted after Peppers in the tunnel to try to get an interview as he slipped by the media to get on the bus.
Peppers was patient, and soft-spoken. I didn’t expect that after watching him play. And when he talked about how proud he was of teammate Charles Johnson’s growth as a father, his entire face relaxed in its earnest support of his longtime friend.
After that, I looked for little moments like that all year, the moments that moved Peppers and moved the people around him.
I couldn’t believe I would get to cover this future Hall-of-Famer in what we thought might be his final season before Canton.
So I watched. Tried to listen, and to see.
Coaches’ voices, for example, said a lot about Peppers. We get opposing coaches on teleconferences each week, and each one had dealt with Peppers in the past. Their voices always changed when they talked about him, tinged with a mixture of respect and dread. Some laughed at their own bad luck that they just couldn’t get away from Peppers after all of these years.
And always, they voiced their disbelief: How is he still playing like this?
During a politically charged week in September, when protests were being conducted by players and teams all across the nation, Peppers was the lone Panther to stand inside the locker room that Sunday as the national anthem played. He didn’t tell teammates, because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. He explained later that he meant no disrespect to the flag or troops. It was just something he felt he had to do following the remarks made by President Trump a few days earlier, a decision he made “as a man on my own two feet.”
As he spoke to media afterward, the weight of that decision, made despite the knowledge of the noise around him it would cause, seemed to hit him. His voice grew husky and his cheek twitched as he tried to keep his face neutral as he spoke.
I will never forget the conviction I saw in Peppers that day, or the weight he chose to carry or the emotion that fought to break through his composure.
Two months later, a man called me and left an emotional voicemail describing a game he and his son went to back when Peppers was first starting his career. We sat down shortly after at a little sports bar in Gastonia, and the man, Rick Weaver, showed me scrapbook after scrapbook full of the memories he and his son, Fredrick, had shared. They watched every Panthers game together, and collected autographs.
Once, when Fredrick was barely more than a toddler, he saw Peppers getting out of his car and ran up to him. It was raining and Peppers sat Fredrick in the back of his Bentley to keep him dry as he dug around in his trunk for memorabilia for the child.
Weaver said it was his favorite memory. And that he wished Fredrick were still alive to see Peppers come home.
Fredrick died in 2016, at just 22 years old. When Peppers came back, Rick decided to try to watch Panthers games again.
Late last season, the Panthers were on the edge of a playoff clinch when the Green Bay Packers, on of Peppers’ former teams, came to town.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers played in his first game since breaking his collarbone earlier that year. In the fourth quarter, Peppers became the fourth player in NFL history to record 10 or more sacks in 10 seasons, with a hit on Rodgers.
But the hit itself was special. Peppers made sure to wrap the quarterback, clamping his arms to his sides so he couldn’t throw. But he didn’t drag Rodgers to the ground; instead he appeared to stand him up to ease the blow on his barely healed collarbone. Teammate Mario Addison flew in a moment later for the full takedown.
“(Peppers) said on his sack of Aaron Rodgers, he wanted two things,” ESPN reported after the game. “To get the ball and to make sure Rodgers didn't get hurt.”
Little moments like those make Julius Peppers who he is.
And now, we get to watch him for one more year. Maybe it’s the last one. Maybe it’s not.
We’ll watch the big, highlight-reel sacks. We’ll marvel at how Peppers continues to defy time and the laws that pull normal 38-year-old men toward the aches of middle age.
We should all watch for little moments this year, too. The videos of him with his children. The way a pen completely disappears in his hand as he signs an autograph. The raising of his fist as he comes through the smoke in the tunnel at Bank of America Stadium.
It might be our last chance. But we get one.
Aren’t we lucky?