Julius Peppers headlines Pro Football Hall of Fame class

The N.C. native and UNC two-sport standout will be the first Panthers draft pick enshrined

North Carolina native and former UNC two-sport standout Julius Peppers was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He will be the first player drafted by the Panthers to be inducted. (Mike McCarn / AP Photo)

Former Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers was selected for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and will be inducted in Canton, Ohio, in August as part of the Class of 2024.

Peppers, who was born in Wilson and played football and basketball for UNC, will be the first player drafted by the Panthers to join the Hall. Carolina and Houston were the only NFL teams not to produce a drafted Hall of Famer. Receiver Andre Johnson, drafted by the Texans, was also selected as part of the 2024 class.

The rest of the Hall of Fame class includes Colts pass rusher Dwight Freeney, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis and Bears return man Devin Hester, all selected from the list of modern era finalists. In the senior category, Broncos linebacker Randy Gradishar and Bears defensive tackle Steve McMichael were named to the class.

Peppers grew up in Bailey and starred for Southern Nash High School. Despite never playing football before joining the team, Peppers starred at running back and defensive line. He also was an all-conference basketball player and state champion in track and field. He went on to be a two-sport athlete while at UNC from 1998 to 2001, winning the Bednarik and Lombardi awards and becoming one of the few defensive players to finish in the top 10 in Heisman voting.

He is still second on the school’s career sacks list and also made the Final Four on the basketball court.

He was drafted second overall by the Panthers in 2002 and won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was a three-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler in his eight years with the Panthers to start his career. After leaving Carolina and spending seven years with the Bears and Packers, he returned to the Panthers for his final two NFL seasons. He was selected to the hall in his first year of eligibility.

“It’s a surreal moment,” he said after learning of his honor. “It’s kind of still unbelievable.”

While Peppers is the first home-grown Panthers Hall of Famer, he will be the fifth former member of the franchise to be enshrined in Canton.

Reggie White was the first former Panther to join the hall. He played the final year of his 17-season pro football career with Carolina and was enshrined in 2006.

Bill Polian, who was the first general manager in team history, following his tenure with the Buffalo Bills, joined the hall in 2015.

Defensive end Kevin Greene played the final two seasons of his 15-year NFL career with the Panthers. He was inducted in 2016. White (No. 2 with 198), Greene (No. 3 with 160) and Peppers (No. 4 with 159.5) give the Panthers claim to three of the top four NFL leaders in career sacks.

Linebacker Sam Mills played three years with the Panthers, and his battle with cancer inspired the team’s “Keep pounding” motto. He was enshrined in 2022.

Several candidates with ties to North Carolina missed out on the class of 2024 and will have to wait at least another year to join the football immortals. Torry Holt, a Gibsonville native who starred at Eastern Guilford High and NC State, was a finalist for the fifth straight year but didn’t make the cut. The longtime Rams receiving standout was in his 10th year of eligibility.

Holt and Reggie Wayne have each been finalists each year since 2020 without breaking through. Holt had more touchdowns than Johnson, who was selected ahead of him this year. With no surefire Hall of Fame wide receivers becoming eligible next year — Demaryius Thomas is the top player about to join the ballot — Holt may be ready to break through in the 2025 class.

Jared Allen, a defensive end who played the final year of his long NFL career on the Panthers’ Super Bowl team of 2015, also missed the hall. He was in his fourth year of eligibility and has been a finalist all four years. He has seen Bryant Young, Richard Seymour, DeMarcus Ware, Freeney and Peppers selected ahead of him. There are no other holdover finalists at his position, although Terrell Suggs becomes eligible next year.

If Allen makes the cut next year, he could be joined by two teammates on the 2015 Panthers. Linebacker Luke Kuechly and center Ryan Kalil will both be eligible for the first time.

In the coaches and contributors category, which did not select a member for induction this year, longtime NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer was a candidate but eliminated when the hall selected finalists for voting. Schottenheimer retired to Lake Norman and died in Charlotte in 2021.