It’s hard to imagine now after a Lombardi Award, nine Pro Bowl selections, several retired jersey numbers and the fourth-most sacks in NFL history, but Julius Peppers didn’t consider himself a football player when he was young.
He was much more interested in playing basketball.
“I had to be somewhat convinced to come try out for the football team,” said the former North Carolina and Carolina Panthers star, recalling his formative years under mentor Ray Davis at Southern Nash High School near Rocky Mount.
Even after he realized his future was on the gridiron and not the hardwood, the 6-foot-7 teenager wasn’t ready to give up on his first athletic love.
“One of the reasons I took the football scholarship and came to play (at UNC) is that they gave me an opportunity to try out for the basketball team,” Peppers said. “That was something that I couldn’t pass up.”
Peppers played two seasons of basketball for the Tar Heels, helping them reach the Final Four in 2000 and shooting 61% from the floor in two seasons before deciding to concentrate on football.
Many, including his former coach Matt Doherty, have said he had the size and talent to play in the NBA.
He did more than just play in the NFL. As one of the most feared pass rushers the game has ever seen, he went on to become a Hall of Famer.
Peppers earned the first of what promises to be many such honors earlier this summer when he became one of the newest members of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. He was inducted at a ceremony in Raleigh, along with fellow honorees Debbie Antonelli, Mack Brown, Dennis Craddock, Dr. Charles Kernodle Jr., Mac Morris, Trot Nixon, Bobby Purcell, Judy Rose, Tim Stevens and Donnell Woolford.
Former Wake Forest and NBA standout Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues was also slated to be a member of this year’s class but had his induction deferred to 2022 because he was unable to attend this year’s ceremony.
For Peppers, becoming a member of his home state’s hall of fame was an honor made even more special because he got to go in with Brown, the coach who recruited him to UNC.
“He’s a big part of the reason I became a Tar Heel,” Peppers said of the team’s current coach, who ended his first tenure in Chapel Hill to go to Texas before the future All-American had a chance to play for him. “To be here going in alongside him is something I never expected and am grateful for.”
Peppers led the nation with 15 sacks as a sophomore in 2000 and earned recognition as the nation’s best college defensive player the following year before leaving early for the NFL. His 30.5 career sacks are the second-most by a UNC player.
Two seasons after being taken No. 2 overall by the Panthers, he led the team to its first Super Bowl appearance. A year later, he earned the first of his three first-team All-Pro selections.
Peppers played eight seasons for Carolina, then spent time with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers before returning to finish his career with the Panthers for his final two seasons in 2017-18.
In 17 NFL seasons, he amassed 159.5 sacks, 715 total tackles, 11 interceptions, six touchdowns and a league-record 55 forced fumbles. But as hard as he worked at putting opposing quarterbacks on the ground in their own backfield, Peppers often put just as much effort into avoiding the spotlight after the games.
Introspective by nature, he’s never been comfortable talking about himself. It’s a trait that made his Hall of Fame acceptance speech something of a challenge.
“It’s very uncomfortable, actually,” he said. “But certain things come up that are important for me, my family, my kids and for everybody to see and for me to do, and this is one of them. I just have to grit my teeth and come do it.”
If nothing else, Peppers’ acceptance speech for the state hall of fame is good practice for the honors that still await him. He’s been on the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame each of the past three years and is a finalist for the Class of 2022. He’ll also become eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2024.
“When I started playing sports, I was just doing what I loved to do,” he said. “I never thought I’d be celebrated with so many other greats that I looked up to that came before me. When I think about my sports career in this state, it’s not so much what I did but the people around me who guided me, who inspired me and who supported me. I’m thankful for all those things that became a part of my journey.”