An NFL Hall of Fame career came to an end officially on Friday after. That’s when former Tar Heel defensive end and 17-year NFL veteran defensive end Julius Peppers announced that he would not return for his 18th NFL season next year. With that, the clock has begun to tick down to what will be a gold jacket ceremony in Canton in the near future.
Peppers amazing career began right here in the state of North Carolina, where he was a high school standout at Southern Nash High School in Bailey, NC. Peppers not only played defensive end at the high school level, but was also a successful running back that opponents were simply afraid to have to tackle. In his high school football career, which spanned just two seasons, Peppers finished with 3,501 yards rushing and 46 touchdowns, while also being an all-conference defensive player. Football wasn’t the only sport that Peppers was star in however. He was a four-year all-conference player on the basketball court and was a state champion in track. Peppers was named a Parade All-American in the 1997-98 season for football and was named the male athlete of the year in the state of North Carolina that same season.
Peppers committed to play football at North Carolina, but was also a walk-on on for the Tar Heel basketball team from 1999-01. Peppers played in 56 games and averaged 5.7 points per game, 3.7 rebounds per game and shot 60.7% for his career. He was a part of both Bill Guthridge’s Final Four team in 1999 and Matt Doehrty’s first team at Carolina in 2000, a key part of the latter of the two teams.
Even though Peppers had some success on the basketball court, the real success came on the gridiron. Peppers was redshirted as a true freshman tight end in 1998, but he switched to defensive end during the offseason of 1999. As a redshirt freshman defensive end, Peppers was named to the Sporting News Freshman All-American team after finishing with 50 total tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks. He sophomore season was where he officially broke on to the national scene, as finished the season with a NCAA-leading 15.0 sacks, finished third in the nation with 24.0 tackles for loss, was an All-ACC first team selection and a second All-American selection.
The season that everyone will remember at the college level for Peppers, however, will be his junior season in 2001. Peppers finished with 19.0 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, but also finished the season with three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He was named a first team All-ACC member for the second straight season, but was also a unanimous first team All-American, as well. Peppers won three postseason awards following the 2001 season, as he took home the Chuck Bednarik (best defensive player in the country), Bill Willis (best defensive lineman in the country) and Lombardi (best all-around player in the country) trophies and was a finalist for the Bronco Nagurski Award. Peppers also finished 10th in the Heisman rate for that 2001 season.
Peppers would declare for the 2002 NFL Draft following the conclusion of the 2001-02 season. He would finish his college career with 167 total tackles, 53.0 tackles for loss, 30.5 sacks (2nd in Carolina history), 42 quarterback pressures, 5 interceptions and 13 pass deflections, 5 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries.
In the 2002 NFL Draft, Peppers was selected by the Carolina Panthers with the No. 2 selection in the first round behind only David Carr. With him being selected at No. 2, Peppers became tied with former Tar Heels’ Lawrence Taylor and Ken Willard as the school’s earliest selections in the NFL Draft. Current Chicago Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky would later join this group after being selected 2nd overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Peppers’ NFL career would begin with rookie of the year honors in 2002, where he finished with 35 total tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss and 12.0 sacks. That was the start of what would be an eight year run with the Carolina Panthers. Over that time, Peppers would racked up 381 total tackles, 91.0 tackles for loss, 81.0 sacks and six interceptions over that time and was a part of the Panthers 2004 Super Bowl XXXVIII team. With that Super Bowl appearance, Peppers became the first athlete to play in the Final Four and Super Bowl (Donovan McNabb would join Peppers just a year later).
In the offseason of 2010, Peppers would sign a six-year, $91.5 million contract with the Chicago Bears. Peppers would fulfill four years of the six-year contract, finishing his Chicago career with 175 total tackles, 47.0 tackles for loss, 37.5 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, 7 fumble recoveries and three interceptions. He would be released following the 2013-14 season placing him back on the free agent market.
Peppers would land on his feet with the division rival Green Bay Packers when he signed a three-year, $30 million deal. In his three seasons as a Packer, Peppers would finished with 113 total tackles, 21.0 tackles for loss, 25.0 sacks, 8 forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. In the final season in Green Bay, Peppers lost his starting job for five games, after he had started 216 of his first 218 games.
In the spring of 2017, Peppers would agree to terms on a one-year deal to return to inevitably finish his career as a Carolina Panther. At age 37, Peppers would start just five of the 16 games that he played in, but he would still finished with double-digit for the sacks for the tenth time in his career. His final season will not be one that many will want to remember, as he would finish with his lowest total since 2007.
Peppers finishes his career with 724 total tackles, 175.0 tackles for loss, 159.5 sacks, 52 forced fumbles, 21 fumble recoveries, 11 interceptions and 82 career pass deflections. As of his retirement, Peppers is 2nd in NFL history in tackles for loss and 4th in sacks. Peppers is also 2nd all-time behind Ron McDole in career interceptions by a defensive lineman and 2nd all-time in pass deflections by a defensive lineman behind only Jason Taylor.
Although it may not have ended the way Peppers would have liked, he will easily go down as one of the greatest defensive lineman in the history of both college and pro football. All you can say now is thank you and we’ll see you in Canton in August of 2024, Julius.