North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
First things first: Julius Peppers grew up in Bailey and was a two-sport standout at Southern Nash High School. But he was born in Wilson, so in the interest of honoring the best athletes produced by the state of North Carolina, the future NFL Hall of Famer has been chosen as our representative from Wilson County.
What’s amazing about Peppers and the success he achieved at North Carolina and in the NFL is that he’d never played football before high school. He was a standout basketball player and track athlete when Southern Nash coach Ray Davis spotted him practicing the triple jump as a freshman and convinced him to go out for the team.
At 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, Peppers proved to be a man among boys. As a running back, he rushed for 3,501 yards and 46 touchdowns while dominating just as much on the other side of the line of scrimmage as a defensive end. As a senior, he earned Parade All-American honors as an all-purpose talent.
In basketball, Peppers was a four-time all-conference performer as a power forward who amassed 1,661 points and 960 rebounds in his career. On the track, he led Southern Nash to the 3A state championship by running a leg on the 4-x-400 relay team and placing second in the triple jump while also participating in the high jump.
His versatility led to his winning the NCHSAA’s Male Athlete of the Year award in 2005.
But that was only the beginning.
At UNC, Peppers led the nation with 15 sacks as a sophomore and was acknowledged as the best defensive player in college football by winning the Bednarik and Lombardi awards while earning consensus first-team All-American status. He finished his career ranked second in school history with 30.5 sacks to go along with five interceptions, five forced fumbles and three defensive touchdowns. He also played two seasons for the Tar Heels in basketball, contributing to a Final Four team in 2001 before being taken by the Carolina Panthers as the second overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.
Just as he had at every previous level, Peppers dominated the pro ranks with his combination of size, speed and smarts. In 17 seasons with the Panthers, Bears and Packers, he earned nine Pro Bowl selections and three first-team All-Pro selections. In addition to being the 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year and helping the Panthers to the Super Bowl the following season, he was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team in both the 2000s and 2010s.
Peppers finished his career with 159.5 sacks, the fourth-most in league history, to go along with 715 tackles, 51 forced fumbles, 11 interceptions and six defensive touchdowns. He currently serves as a special assistant for the Panthers.