I was nine years old when my interest in Carolina football began to blossom. There’s a chance I went to games at Kenan Stadium before then, but I distinctly remember attending wins against Indiana and Stanford in September, feeling the numbness of watching a great team get beaten by a better team on Judgement Day against Florida State, and telling my dad that Jonathan Linton would get the 195 rushing yards needed to amass 1,000 for the season against Duke (which he did).
That season started an addiction, and Julius Peppers’ 2000-2001 seasons cemented it for me. During a redshirt sophomore campaign where he amassed 15 sacks (including four in a loss at Virginia), Peppers wowed us when he flipped into the endzone on a pick-six in Carolina’s 50-point first half outburst at Duke.
Peppers, a Bailey, NC native, arrived quietly in 1999 with 6 sacks as a redshirt freshman. He arrived in Chapel Hill as a tight end, but per his retirement announcement, he learned defensive end pretty quickly.
Peppers’ junior season was equally ridiculous. I vividly remember him terrorizing Chris Rix and Adrian McPherson in a cathartic 41-9 win against #6 Florida State, and making one of the most athletic tip/interceptions I’ve ever seen (he added another later for good measure) in a 38-3 win against Woody Dantzler’s Clemson team. Those Heels were the last good team of my formative years, finishing 8-5 with a Peach Bowl win over Auburn despite an 0-3 start led by the most egregiously over-confident coach ever.
Every game featured a highlight that left your jaw on the floor.
Peppers’ Carolina football stat line is enough to merit joining five Heels— Charlie Justice, Bill Sutherland, Art Weiner, Andy Bershak, and George Barclay— with retired numbers. If 30.5 sacks, 53 tackles for loss, 5 interceptions, 5 forced fumbles, 42 quarterback hurries, and three defensive touchdowns doesn’t do it, I don’t know what does.
For all the hype attached to Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina, Peppers was Jadeveon Clowney if Jadeveon Clowney had lived up to— and far exceeded— his hype, at both the college and professional level.
But, Peppers wasn’t just a defensive end. He was also a 6’6 270 pound force on Carolina’s basketball team. He keyed the run to the 2000 Final Four with some heroic scoring and rebounding late in a Sweet 16 comeback against Tennessee, and threw down one of the most memorable alley-oops this side of Vince Carter.
There have been a lot of defensive ends drafted in the top 5 with similar measurables to Peppers as top-end pass rushers became en vogue in the NFL, and most were varying degrees of bust. N.C. State grad Mario Williams carved out a few nice years after being drafted #1 overall with 97.5 career sacks. Courtney Brown was drafted #1 overall and amassed 19. Clowney has 29 in 5 years. The late Gaines Adams had 13.5 after being drafted 4th in 2007. Dion Jordan #3 overall in 2013, 8.5 career sacks. Behind Peppers and Williams, the next-most productive DE drafted in the top 5 this millennium is...Chris Long?
Myles Garrett may be the best bet to come close to mirroring Peppers’ numbers, as he’s put up just over 10 sacks per season in his first two. Peppers averaged almost 9.5 sacks per season for SEVENTEEN years. His 159.5 career sacks rank fourth all-time behind Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and Kevin Greene. He also:
- Is the highest-earning defensive player in NFL history, at $164,973,786
- Went to nine Pro Bowls, and was a three-time All-Pro
- Scored six defensive touchdowns, at worst tied for most in NFL history among defensive linemen
- Had the longest interception return (97 yards) ever by a defensive lineman;
- Had at least ten sacks in ten different seasons
- Led the league with 18 tackles for loss in 2006
- After a four-game suspension his rookie year, never missed another game in 16 seasons
His longevity, consistency, and quality of play from a 12-sack rookie season at 22, to 25 sacks from ages 34-36 as a 3-4 linebacker in Green Bay, to adding 16 more in a swan song with the Panthers, is unparalleled. Like his college highlights, his NFL ones are ridiculous.
On top of all that, Peppers is a dedicated member of the community. His work in Lumberton, NC and surrounding areas after the devastating floods of Hurricane Florence earned him a nomination for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award.
Julius Peppers belongs right in the discussion among the all-time great athletes, including Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, Lawrence Taylor, etc., who have come through Chapel Hill based on his collegiate accomplishments alone. Add an exemplary 17-year NFL career, no off-field problems (hi, LT) of note, and a record of community service in his home state?
Julius Peppers is a stone-cold lock first-ballot NFL Hall of Famer.
He should have his #90 jersey retired by the Carolina Panthers in short order.
The University of North Carolina should retire #49 as well.