Twenty years after he arrived at UNC as a tight end, Julius Peppers has announced his retirement. His career took him through two positions at UNC, a second sport with the Tar Heels and a pair of stints on the Carolina Panthers.
“Only time can reveal what’s next,” Peppers said in a goodbye message to Panthers fans, “but my time here is up. No regrets, no looking back and nothing left to give.”
Born in Wilson and raised in Bailey, Peppers didn’t see himself as an NFL star. “I didn’t grow up playing football,” he said in his retirement announcement on The Players’ Tribune, “I wanted to be a basketball player. MJ (Michael Jordan) was my idol.”
Peppers got the chance to follow in Jordan’s footsteps. While he was recruited to Carolina, by then coach Carl Torbush as a high school running back to play tight end for the Tar Heels, Peppers got the chance to walk on to Bill Guthridge’s men’s basketball team.
Peppers was one of the few bench options on a shorthanded basketball team, playing 16 minutes in the Tar Heels’ Final Four game that year.
The following season, for coach Matt Doherty, he averaged 7.1 points and 4.0 rebounds, both fifth-best on the squad.
A 6-foot-7, 290-pound force on the court, while Zion Williamson was an infant, Peppers was promising enough for the expansion Charlotte Bobcats to consider bringing him in for a workout, according to recent media reports.
By then, however, Peppers’ future seemed to be on the gridiron, not the hardwood. Buried on the tight end depth chart, Peppers asked coaches to move him to defensive end, to follow in the footsteps of NFL Draft picks Greg Ellis and Vonnie Holliday. “My goal was to get to the league,” he wrote, “and the defensive linemen seemed to be getting there.”
It didn’t take long for the move to pay dividends. Peppers had 15 sacks as a sophomore to lead the nation. As a junior, he won the Bednarik and Lombardi awards for the top defensive player and lineman, respectively.
Peppers is still second on UNC’s career sacks list with 30.5. He also scored three defensive touchdowns for the Tar Heels.
Much like the Bobcats, Peppers was on the radar of his home state’s NFL team. The Carolina Panthers chose him with the second overall pick in the 2002 Draft.
With 12 sacks in 12 games, Peppers won the 2002 Defensive Rookie of the Year. The following season, he helped lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
Carolina lost to the Patriots, helping to produce the one hole in Peppers’ career resume.
“I didn’t necessarily understand the gravity of the moment,” he wrote. “I mean, it felt terrible to lose. It always does. But my thought process was, ‘It’s O.K. We’ll be back next year.’ As you probably know, we didn’t make it back that next year. … I’ve been on a lot of great teams since but never another Super Bowl team.”
Peppers had to be content with being one of the best NFL players of all time at his position. He made the All-Decade team for the 2000s. He retires at No. 4 on the NFL’s career sacks list, a half-sack behind another former Panther, Kevin Greene. He’s also second in forced fumbles, second in tackles for loss and second in fumble-return touchdowns.
Peppers is also the Panthers’ career sacks leader, with nearly 30 more than the next player on the list, and his 33 forced fumbles with the team are 13 more than the No. 2 player.
Showing his other-worldly athleticism, Peppers finished his career with more than 80 pass deflections, second-most among defensive linemen. His 49 with the Panthers are fifth-most among all positions.
Peppers was also durable at a position that takes a great deal of punishment. His 266 games played are sixth-most by a defensive player in NFL history. He finishes his career on a 176-consecutive-game streak, second only to quarterback Philip Rivers and three seasons longer than the next defensive end on the list. He’s also played more than two full seasons worth of games longer than Terrell Suggs, who will replace him as the active leader in defensive games played.
The numbers, however, do a poor job of describing Peppers, as anyone who ever saw him play would attest.
“I wouldn’t change a thing about this journey,” Peppers wrote. “It was the best teacher I’ve ever had and was everything I could’ve hoped for.”