It was about 11:30 on Thursday night in Jacksonville, and I was in the sticky cement bowels of Everbank Field sprinting after Julius Peppers.
My feet slid humidly around in my 3-inch-heeled ankle boots as I flew clunkily past Carolina Panthers backup quarterback Joe Webb, who was walking several yards behind the veteran defensive end as he headed toward the team’s bus after a preseason win against the Jaguars that night.
“I know, I know, this is so embarrassing,” I yodeled at him as I passed. Webb’s face told me he agreed.
But Peppers has been politely elusive of the media upon his heralded return to Charlotte in mid-March, and has declined repeated interview requests made through the Panthers’ public relations staff throughout training camp and the preseason. He tries to go about his business quietly, even in the locker room, teammates say. They say they at times must drag longer tidbits from him, to glean the knowledge the 14-year sack artist has to offer.
“He’s real quiet,” defensive tackle Kawann Short said during training camp. “You’ve got to pull stuff out of him.”
Not shy, though, Observer columnist Scott Fowler wrote that Peppers once told him. Just quiet by design.
When not in his bright Panthers uniform, Peppers dresses demurely, without flashy apparent designer labels or even really any accessories other than the gray that flecks across the black scruff on his chin. It’s almost like he’s trying to just go unnoticed.
Good luck with that. Peppers’ 6-foot-7 and 295-pound frame screams his presence long before he says a word.
So of course I saw him as he slid out of the locker room in a blank gray sweatshirt while a cluster of reporters started to jam inside after Thursday’s game, nodding politely to one reporter as he brushed by him and made his way down the long tunnel.
A minute later, after weighing the probable humiliation, I started running.
The only small bit of pride I salvaged from that moment was seeing the look of bewilderment on Peppers’ face as I skidded to a halt in front of him and stuck out my hand to shake. For once, someone was chasing him down and not the other way around. I thought of the way Tennessee backup Matt Cassel frantically ran away from Peppers two weeks ago in Nashville, looking cartoonish as he fled. I wondered if many people ever ran frantically toward Peppers.
I introduced myself – we had never met or exchanged even so much as a word – and asked if I might have a very, very brief moment of his time. He balked.
“Man, please? I ran in heels.” I pointed at them. Grantland Rice rolled over in his grave. Peppers laughed.
“OK,” he said.
I promptly forgot what I wanted to ask him.
Question: Having actually never spoken to you, I wonder what it must have felt like to be back out here in Charlotte, and to see so many familiar faces and things but also realize the time that has passed?
Answer: It’s been awhile since that has happened. I know I haven’t spoken with you guys since then. ... It’s been nice. The reception has been very warm. I have a lot of familiarity with the team, the building. I’m at home, I feel comfortable.
Q: Everyone on this team at this point has talked about you, and how you look exactly the same – the same looming presence that is going to chase down a quarterback with the same athleticism. But I wonder, what feels different this time around?
A: I don’t know if anything feels different yet. I mean, it’s still the preseason. A lot of downs played in preseason, because it’s important, it’s a learning process for us. But if anything has been different, it’s just an adjustment period for me as a player, going from outside linebacker back to defensive end. So I’m kind of re-learning some of the things and how they want me to play that position here again.
Q: The group you’re with on this line is interesting because of the versatility on the inside and on the outside. Are you excited about them?
A: Yeah, I’m excited to play with these guys. Obviously I played with Charles (Johnson) here the first time. And the rest of the guys are new, but I’m excited to see what we can do together, because it’s a room that’s deep. You have a lot of talent and young, fresh guys that can rush. So I think it’s going to be a great year.
Q: I know you and Charles (Johnson) are buddies, do you have a favorite story about him?
A: I don’t know. I know his son well, he knows my kids. The thing I’ll say about (Charles), though, is that it’s been nice for me to watch him from afar grow up and develop into one of the team leaders, develop as a person and as a grown man. I’m proud of him. I’m proud of him, what he’s done here.