The word “freak” is tossed around loosely in the NFL. It is a compliment to a player’s athletic ability, and just about everyone who makes an NFL roster has heard it applied to himself at one time or the other.
There are only a handful of “Super Freaks” in the NFL, however – the kind that makes you think of a Rick James classic song if you are of a certain age and the kind that makes other freaks of all ages bow down in admiration.
Julius Peppers is a Super Freak. Even at 37, the once-and-again Carolina Panther absolutely freaks people out – even the best players on his own team.
At 6-foot-7 and 295 pounds, Peppers isn’t as big as, say, Shaquille O’Neal. But he’s larger than almost everyone else on any football field he steps on – a mostly silent superhuman who is the NFL’s fifth-leading sacker of all time and the leader among all active players.
“Probably the biggest human being I’ve seen in my life on the football field,” quarterback Cam Newton said a few days ago of Peppers.
“He’s always going to look like a freak of nature,” said Charles Johnson, who ranks second all-time in sacks for the Panthers behind only Peppers. “He’s always going to look abnormal to everybody else. … I’ve seen him at 300 (pounds) before, I’ve seen him at 270 before, and it all looks the same. For him to just keep that weight on and do the stuff that he does, it’s amazing.”
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly just wanted to get near Peppers when Kuechly was a rookie, in 2012, when Carolina played Peppers and the Chicago Bears. So Kuechly sidled near Peppers while the two teams were warming up, much like star-struck 10-year-olds now try to sidle up to Kuechly himself. Kuechly saw what he needed to see and came back to the sideline gaping – Peppers was just as huge as he imagined.
In a comical scene from the 2017 Panthers training camp, the Panthers gathered in a huddle early at one practice and called Peppers and tight end Greg Olsen to the center of the ring to supposedly get after each other in an “Oklahoma” drill. Olsen slowly walked toward a waiting Peppers to get ready and then suddenly begged off, claiming his helmet straps were malfunctioning.
Of course there are larger players than Peppers in the NFL – nearly every offensive lineman these days tops out at over 300 pounds. But there aren’t many guys who are 6-7, and none of the ones who are have played in both a Final Four and a Super Bowl. They also have never done backflips in full pads (as legend has it that Peppers once did in high school at Southern Nash, where he was so good that the school retired his jersey in both football and basketball).
Wide receiver Steve Smith is the best Panthers player of all time and one of the team’s best athletes ever, too. But he is also 10 inches shorter and close to 100 pounds lighter than Peppers. Even Smith, who is hard to impress, was occasionally floored by Peppers.
“I’m just happy I’m No. 89 and he’s No. 90, so I get to stand next to him in team pictures,” Smith told me once.
‘Sack him, Julius!’
As for Peppers himself, you won’t find any current quotes from him in this story. He remains the quietest player the Panthers have ever employed – not shy, he insisted to me once, just purposely quiet. Peppers has not spoken to the media at large since he signed with Carolina in mid-March and has denied interview requests every single day since training camp started nearly two weeks ago. This is not unusual – one of Peppers’ roommates at North Carolina once said that Peppers came close to not speaking to him for his entire freshman year.
But Peppers has never been one to talk about himself – and certainly not to brag – anyway. He has long seemed destined for athletic greatness, though – evidenced by his full name, Julius Frazier Peppers. The Julius came from NBA basketball star Julius “Dr.J” Erving and the Frazier from boxer Joe Frazier. His father gave him the name but not much else as a child; Peppers was raised by his mother.
“I didn’t know I was different athletically for a long time,” Peppers said once. “I thought everyone did the sort of things that I can do.”
They can’t, of course. Peppers grew up less than an hour from Chapel Hill in tiny Bailey, N.C. He told me once, long ago, that the day he was able to buy his mom a house after he received his first big pro contract was one of the greatest days of his life.
Peppers was a crowd-pleasing sixth man for a Tar Heels basketball team in 2000 that went to the Final Four. As he tried to back another undersized player down in the post in the Dean Dome, the student section would roar: “Sack him, Julius!” Basketball was Peppers’ first love, and he thought the Final Four was a bigger deal than the Super Bowl after playing in both. When I asked him early in his NFL career who he would like to trade places with for a day and when, he picked Shaq during an NBA Finals game.
But Peppers’ best sport was football and he knew it. He gave up basketball midway through his college career to concentrate on it. Peppers led the nation in sacks once, with 15, and the Panthers (under then-head coach John Fox and current general manager Marty Hurney) drafted him with their No. 2 overall pick in 2002.
Peppers had 12 sacks in 12 games his NFL rookie year – he was suspended for the other four games for taking a banned supplement that he said at the time he thought was legal and had been offered to him by a “friend” he had met in Charlotte. He still was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, and he has never missed that many games in a season again.
‘This perfect specimen’
Peppers didn’t need illegal drugs, that was for sure. For the Panthers, he was the one defensive lineman who had a chance to chase down Michael Vick in his prime. For awhile, in 2004, Carolina even dabbled at lining him up at wide receiver in goal-line situations. He never caught a pass, but he would occasionally get double-covered because the other team was so worried about him.
All this is to say we have seen Peppers’ “Super Freak” act before – longtime Panthers fans will remember the 97-yard interception return against Denver and the 60-yard fumble return against Atlanta and Michael Vick. What’s amazing is how long of an encore his career has gotten, even as his beard has begun to show a few speckles of gray.
In the past 14 years, Peppers has missed a total of two games. Let me say that in another way: Peppers has played every single game in 13 of his past 14 seasons. In a violent game where the average career is reportedly around three years, Peppers has more than quintupled that and just keeps going.
And he’s played well, too, through eight seasons in Charlotte (he had played only in North Carolina his whole life and wanted out to see the world after the 2009 season), then four seasons in Chicago and the past three in Green Bay. He has had at least seven sacks a season every year since he’s been 30.
“I think God really just built him like this perfect specimen and was like, ‘Here, don’t mess it up,’” backup quarterback Derek Anderson said.
“Watch the tape,” said Panthers safety Mike Adams, who at age 36 can also still play the game. “He’s still being the dog out there. He’s still Pep.”
That means he’s still quiet, too. Johnson played with Peppers for three years in the late 2000s, but almost everyone else on the team is new to this freak show. Peppers is not unsociable – he plays dominoes or cards with teammates during off times – but he’s also not going to be the first to offer unsolicited advice.
“He’s real quiet,” defensive tackle Kawann Short said of Peppers. “You’ve got to pull stuff out of him.”
The one thing missing
Peppers’ departure from Charlotte after the 2009 season was messy. The Panthers had offered to make him the NFL’s highest defensive-paid player and didn’t like being turned down, and some of the team’s fans felt betrayed.
But his return has been greeted with open arms everywhere in and around the Carolinas. He got his old No. 90 back. Fans have begged for his autograph every day at training camp in Spartanburg, and coach Ron Rivera was exultant the other day when Peppers read a reverse before it ever got going and stepped right into its path to unhinge it.
“Peppers 2.0” at Carolina may be a short stay – or maybe not. He has not committed to playing football beyond this year.
Peppers signed a one-year, $3.5-million deal with Carolina and former general manager Dave Gettleman in March. He will get a bonus of $250,000 if he finishes with at least seven sacks (which he has in every year but one in his career). The bonus increases to $500,000 for nine sacks and $750,000 if he reaches 11 sacks. With Mario Addison, Johnson and Short all accomplished pass rushers themselves, Peppers certainly has a chance at all those sack numbers.
What he has never done is win a Super Bowl. Peppers played for the Panthers’ Super Bowl team of 2003 and has never been back – although he has played in 17 total playoff games, which is basically another full season, and lost twice in the NFC Championship Game with Green Bay in the past three years.
“He’s a first-ballot hall of famer,” Johnson said, and that’s hard to argue. But one thing would cement the Peppers’ legacy and a bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame: A Super Bowl ring.
For the freakiest 37-year-old the Panthers have ever employed, that would be the perfect ending.
NFL all-time sack leaders
1. Bruce Smith: 200
2. Reggie White: 198
3. Kevin Greene: 160
4. Chris Doleman: 150.5
5. Julius Peppers: 143.5
Note: Three of the NFL’s all-time sackers – White, Greene and Peppers – all played for the Carolina Panthers at some point during their careers.