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For the two men who were part of Julius Peppers’ football career nearly from the beginning, it was really no surprise that the gangly young man from Bailey who announced his retirement Friday ends his career as one of the greatest defensive ends in NFL history.
Peppers, a 1998 Southern Nash High graduate, left high school as one of the greatest athletes ever in The Wilson Times readership area and perhaps even in North Carolina. He was a Parade All-America selection in football, playing primarily running back, his senior year and was the Wilson Daily Times Player of the Year in boys basketball as a junior.
Peppers was part of the Firebirds’ winning 4x400-meter relay team at the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A track and field championships in 1998, helping Southern Nash win the boys team championship. He also finished second in the triple jump at the state meet.
Of course, Peppers went on to become an All-American defensive end at North Carolina, where he also sparkled as a walk-on for the Tar Heels basketball team. While there was a lot of speculation that Peppers could have played in the NBA, he was the second overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers. Peppers, who just turned 39, retires as No. 4 on the all-time sack list in the NFL with 159.5, a half-sack behind Kevin Greene in third place.
In a few years, Peppers is a sure bet to be a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“What’s so crazy is that I thought he could do everything he did, which isn’t really crazy,” said Southern Nash head football coach Brian Foster, who was an assistant coach when Peppers played for the Firebirds from 1995-97. “I really thought he could. He’s unique and different, didn’t mind working, just had all kinds of ability. If he could stay healthy in the right situation, he could be successful. He was fortunate in all that. He was in good situations and stayed healthy. He did a lot of good things.”
Ray Davis, the head coach of the Firebirds when Peppers played, remembers him as a 6-foot-4, 225-pound ninth-grader who didn’t play football. Davis said Peppers played at Southern Nash Middle then, for whatever reason, didn’t come out for the sport as a freshman at Southern Nash High.
“Of course, that puzzled me, but I never tried to force anything on anybody,” he recalled how he saw Peppers at track practice one day “triple-jumping 37 foot.”
“I approached him and said, ‘Julius, you know, you ought to be playing football and if you’ll just come out and play, I promise you one day you’ll be in the NFL football hall of fame,’” Davis said. “All you’ve got to do is what your coaches ask you to do and work hard and he said he would try. That’s where it started, I guess.”
Peppers was primarily a ball-carrier for the Firebirds, although he did play defensive end. At 6-7, 250 pounds by the time he was a senior, Peppers was a load for opposing defenders to bring down. He ran for 3,501 yards and 38 touchdowns in three varsity seasons at Southern Nash.
“As a high school team, we felt he could help us more at running back,” Davis said. “He was an athlete who could handle the ball. He wasn’t clumsy. The biggest thing with Julius is I think he was always afraid he was going to hurt somebody. He may have held back at times when he could just have been a really dominant player.”
Peppers, who was the NCHSAA Male Athlete of the Year in 1997-98, finished his high school basketball career with 1,661 points and 876 rebounds.
“He was blessed with a lot of ability and I think he used that in the right way,” Foster said.
But as great of an athlete as Peppers was, he left a bigger impression as a kid who did it the right way.
“He’s never done anything in his life to disappoint me, I can tell you that,” Davis said. “He’s a special person and he hasn’t changed a bit since he was a kid and you can owe all that to his mama. She’d wear his tail out in a heartbeat!”
Foster said that Peppers kept his head even as he grew into a megastar in the NFL.
“He did a good job of talking and find out who people really are and keeping a small circle of close people to him. I think that’s a good way to make sure you’re successful and I think he’s done a good job of that,” Foster said. “He’s meant a lot to me and my family. … We’ve enjoyed watching him grow and mature.”
Paul Durham is sports editor of The Wilson Times, which publishes The Enterprise.