There the Carolina Panthers stood, lined up in a row on the sideline in the bright Sunday sun.
Their arms were unlinked, unlike dozens of their colleagues across the league that afternoon.
Some of those players, spanning nearly every NFL team, stood in solidarity with their teammates and some knelt in reaction to President Donald Trump’s explicit comments over the weekend that players who knelt to protest racial injustice in America during the national anthem – players such as Colin Kaepernick – were “sons of bitches” and should be fired.
There the Carolina Panthers stood.
Their owner, one of 32 at whom Trump’s remarks were broadly directed, remained silent – not just about what President Trump said about the protests, but also about him saying the NFL’s safety measures are a detriment to the game.
While 29 other owners across the league released statements opposing the President’s comments, Panthers owner and founder Jerry Richardson remained silent.
And when the anthem played, with a flag unfurled across the emerald green grass at Bank of America Stadium, a dozen New Orleans Saints knelt or sat across from them. But there the Carolina Panthers stood.
Julius Peppers did not stand with them.
Instead Peppers, 37 years old and a future Hall of Fame defensive end, stayed in the locker room. He did not kneel, because he wanted it to be clear that he was not, in his words, “disrespecting the flag.”
When the anthem finished, he took the field without fanfare.
He did not discuss his plan with teammates beforehand, and many remarked after the game that they did not even notice he was gone.
“I want to get one thing clear,” Peppers said after the game. “This was not about disrespecting the military, disrespecting the flag, police, first responders, none of that.
“It was about me making a decision as a man on my own two feet. (And I) don’t want to ask someone else to do anything for me. I just thought it was appropriate to stay in because we know what went on this week with the comments that were made by the President. I felt like he attacked our brothers, my brothers in the league.
“So I felt like it was appropriate to stand up with them and stay in the locker room.”
Peppers said he was condemning the remarks, but also racial inequality across the country. That inequality, he said, was something most black people have faced in their lives.
“It wasn’t a hard decision at all because I feel that strongly about it,” he said. “I didn’t want anybody else to do anything that they weren’t comfortable with and so, like I said, I’m a man and I stand on my own two feet. I make my own decisions.”
Peppers, all 6-foot-7 and 290 pounds of him, was coiled tensely as reporters surrounded him after the game. His cheek quivered every few words. A thin sheen of sweat popped up on his nose. He looked squarely around at the cluster of media as he answered each question, words emerging forcefully and emotionally.
He was, all at once, vulnerable and defiant.
And fiercely proud.
Peppers knew what would happen when he made his simple, potentially volcanic demonstration. He certainly knew what would happen if he did it by himself. The weight of criticism and acclaim, shouted on opposing sides, would fall squarely on him.
“He chose to do that. I’m supporting him. Pep’s got big shoulders,” said teammate Captain Munnerlyn. “I feel like he can take whatever comes down to him. He’s got strong beliefs and I support him.”
Peppers is introverted by nature. The clamor will swell uncomfortably around him. Teammates will approach him – to wonder “why,” or to applaud him.
Sometimes, the dialogue will be uncomfortable.
So be it.
Peppers hopes those conversations happen, increasingly, across the country, as what quarterback Cam Newton referred to in his postgame remarks as an “epidemic” of racial injustice spreads.
Tight end Ed Dickson said dialogue is open in the locker room, that teammates listen to each other – and that the issues Peppers and many across the league brought to light by their actions do need to be addressed.
“As a man, I respect him. As a football player, I respect him,” Dickson said. “I don’t have any concerns over what he did. He took a stand for what he believed in, strongly. And this team is all about that, collectively.
“Ninety-eight percent of us went out and did our routine the same as we always do. We decided to do that as a team. We weren’t forced to do it. ... Julius made his decision and we respect him. If anybody in this locker room wanted to say something to him or ask him about it, he’s an open door and we could walk right up to him and talk about it. ...
“I think if we had that dialogue in the world, the world would be a lot better place.”
That is partially why Peppers said he decided to act.
It’s easy to turn away from the problems of the world, until they are too prevalent for those with privilege to ignore them.
But when Peppers, perhaps the most ubiquitous and venerable of pass rusher in the league, made his quiet statement, people paid attention – whether they liked it or not.
“I know a lot of people might not understand it,” Peppers said. “A lot of people might be upset about it, and that’s fine. I’m not living my life out there trying to make everybody happy. I’m doing things that I feel like are right and things that I believe in.
“There are only a few times in a man’s life where you have the chance to stand up for something that you believe in and make a statement. Today I thought was that chance, so I took it.”
And that is his right, as an American.