GETTING TO THE QUARTERBACK IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER, WHICH IS WHY THE BEARS TOOK A $91.5 MILLION CHANCE ON DEFENSIVE END JULIUS PEPPERS—HIS CRITICS BE DAMNED
When the wind blew, the tobacco stalks would shake and the trailer in which Julius Peppers lived would rock. In his bed, which was too short for his long legs, he would sometimes lie still and listen to that double-wide groan. But other times the growing boy would rise, duck his head beneath the low roof and take off with the gusts blowing through Bailey, N.C. "Running to get in shape," he says, "or just running for no reason."
He was impossible to miss: 6'3" by the time he was in middle school, already broad and thick and muscular. Just about everyone in Bailey (pop. 670), famous for its Country Doctor Museum, knew of Julius's sporting prowess and quiet nature. One youth coach would pick him up at home for a game, and a different coach might drop him off afterward. On certain days the townsfolk would talk about what Julius could do on the basketball court. Other times it was Julius and that football. And sometimes it was Julius running around that oval. All the while Julius's mother, Bessie Brinkley, worked long hours in a ceramics shop.
"I've known Julius since the fifth grade," says Alton Tyre, who coached him in track and field at Southern Nash High. "I was in Wilmington when Michael Jordan was there. I coached against Clyde Simmons. Julius is the greatest athlete I have ever seen. A guy that big and that strong is not supposed to be that fast."
Julius was one of the few not trumpeting his gifts. Although he was already bigger than almost everyone he met, he was happy to share the spotlight, even when many of the people in the bleachers just wanted to see him dunk. "He was very introspective and reserved," Tyre says. "I taught him African-American history and U.S. history, and he used to answer essay questions with a level of depth you don't see from a lot of kids. At the eastern regional track meet when he was a sophomore, this kid took the lead on him in the triple jump and starts pointing at Julius's chest, as if to say, You're not man enough to do what I did. Julius gets on the track with these beautiful phases and jumps 46' 11½" to beat the kid. Julius got out of that sand and didn't say a word. He didn't even look at the kid. He just walked around the track with his teammates, high-fiving."
Asked about his muted response to his own athletic feats, Peppers says, "I think I was just born like that, a personality trait. I'm an observer."
Peppers's power and perspective helped make him an All-America defensive end at North Carolina (where he also walked on to the basketball team), an All-Pro with the Panthers and, last March, the key free-agent pickup of the off-season. When he signed a six-year, $91.5 million deal with the Bears it underscored the importance of the pass rusher in the era of the quarterback. Chicago already had the face of its franchise in middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, but Peppers gave the team a big-play threat—a player with strength, speed and quickness honed on the track and the basketball court as well as the football field. "I'm sure every sport he [competed in] played a part in what he's able to do," says Brian Foster, who was Peppers's defensive coordinator at Southern Nash, "but he always had that first step and that freakish ability. I think his burst is from God."
Just as significant, signing with the Bears ended Peppers's 30 years in North Carolina, during which he had been called everything from a boyhood legend to the greatest pass rusher since Lawrence Taylor to an underachiever who didn't bring it on every play. The charge that Peppers's fire didn't always match his physical gifts first surfaced shortly before the Panthers drafted him second overall out of UNC—despite the fact that he used to run sprints with the defensive backs because his fellow linemen were too slow. The talk was heard as recently as last season, when with the Panthers off to an 0--3 start, linebacker Jon Beason told a radio station that he wanted to see more "intensity" from Peppers. The following week Beason said he had been wrong to go public with a team matter, and both players and coaches came to Peppers's defense. "I never saw the kid take a practice off," says Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme, a teammate of Peppers's in Carolina for seven seasons. "I never saw him miss a practice in training camp. I never saw him miss practice during the season. I never saw him gloat. He came to play, he came to work. Julius is a quiet guy, and people might misunderstand him because he keeps to himself."
Delhomme remembers that the negative chatter about Peppers was loudest in 2007, when Peppers had just 2½ sacks. "We were 7--9, and he was just crucified," Delhomme says. "People seem to forget, we weren't winning games, so teams were running the ball late in the game and you're not going to get sacks. And then the next year he has a good year [a career-high 14½ sacks], but we were 12--4 and teams had to throw it. You have to look at the big picture."
Peppers says the criticism used to bother him, but he understands that it's inevitable, given his nature. "You can be an emotional, high-strung guy, and that might work for you," he says. "I think I can be reserved and quiet and play as well as the next guy."
Sal Sunseri, the linebackers coach at Alabama, was a Panthers' defensive coach from 2002 to '08. "There was never a guy I coached who was better prepared," Sunseri says. "Sometimes a young man gets frustrated when they're sliding protection over and doing everything they can to block his ass. When you're the top dog, they're doing everything they can to keep you from the quarterback. If you're an offensive coordinator, you better know how you're going to block Julius Peppers."
Even though he had allies among the Panthers, Peppers admits he had been thinking about leaving Carolina for two years. After he turned down a four-year, $54 million offer from the team before the 2009 season, the Panthers placed a franchise tag on him, which meant he made more than $18 million last year. This season, citing financial reasons, the organization decided against using its franchise tag on him (it would have cost more than $20 million), leaving Peppers free to test the market.
Departing meant leaving behind a remarkable legacy of triumph—and controversy. Peppers was named Defensive Rookie of the Year for 2002 after a season in which he had 12 sacks in 12 games, but he missed Carolina's last four games for violating league policy on banned substances. (Peppers, who has said the positive test was the result of a diet supplement containing ephedra that he obtained from a friend, called it "crazy" for people to think he needed steroids to boost his performance.) The following season he helped lead Carolina to the Super Bowl, which the Panthers lost to New England on a late Adam Vinatieri field goal. Carolina hasn't made it that far since.
"It was time for a change, not only from that franchise but from the state," says the 30-year-old Peppers. "I'm from a small town, and I've lived in Charlotte, which is really a small city and a small town too, but I've never lived in a big city or had to perform under the spotlight in one. That's a challenge in itself. I like those things. I wasn't going to shy away."
Peppers has quickly warmed to Chicago, where he plans to start a foundation to help at-risk young men. He also embraced the city's fast pace: Following his introductory press conference in March, Peppers ventured out to the club Crescendo and bought 25 bottles of Perrier Jouet Fleur de Champagne (about $350 per bottle) for the patrons. Captured on YouTube, it's a big-city moment light years from Bailey: As bottles lit by sparklers are passed around the room, the DJ can be heard shouting his appreciation over the thumping sound system. "Make some noise for the new Chicago Bear, J. Peppers in the building!" the DJ says. "Super Bowl, next year, 2010, Chicago Bears. Thank you, Julius."
The Bears see Peppers as a complete defensive end who can help stop the run and cause general discomfort to opposing offenses, but it's his ability to pressure the quarterback that makes him most valuable. "Our scheme is predicated on the pass rush," says Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo. "We think third down on first down, so a player of Julius's skill set really accentuates what we want to do on defense."
His teammates are already getting a taste of the discomfort Peppers can cause. At a recent practice he lined up at right end. At the snap he engaged the left tackle, freed himself, rushed the quarterback, leaped into the air as the quarterback threw a screen pass into the flat, spun around and chased down the running back, who saw the ball sail over his head. Peppers did it all so quickly that he made it look easy.
"You go up to block him, and you don't expect to get pushed back, because it doesn't look like he's coming off real hard," says Bears tight end Desmond Clark. "Then you lock onto him, and you find yourself backpedaling. As soon as you meet that force and he's pushing you back, it doesn't matter what it looks like. It didn't look hard for Michael Jordan, but he always got it done."
Urlacher shakes his head. "Three hundred damn pounds," he says. "I don't know how a man his size moves as good as he does. This dude busts his ass every day. I don't understand [the criticism]. The expectations for him are so high, people wanting him to get a sack every single play—you can't do it."
Coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli plan to take advantage of what Smith says are "a couple of outstanding [pass-rushing] moves and a great countermove off them." The more attention an opposing offensive line pays to Peppers, the more it opens up chances for other pass rushers. "Everybody you talked to about Julius said the same thing," says Smith. "A guy like Ron Meeks, his defensive coordinator [with Carolina last season], said, 'This is one of the best guys you will ever be around.' And Julius did his homework on us too. I talked to him about the teachers we had on our staff. Stern teachers. We're not going 'm-f' and cursing guys out on the football field, but each day we're going to coach them hard and try to teach them exactly what we want them to do."
Marinelli, a former defensive line coach to Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice, says of Peppers, "It's his work habits, attention to detail, his presence at meetings, how he takes notes. He's a pro, and he's setting a standard on how to be a pro, and he doesn't even have to say anything."
And so Peppers doesn't. The giant man maintains a low profile as usual. But one thing about him has changed. Never a stat hound in his career, Peppers has made it known that he has his eye on Michael Strahan's single-season sack record of 22½. "Realistically, who knows if I ever get there, but if you don't shoot for it, you never will," he says.
He'll have to run like the wind to do it.
PEPPERS BENEFITED FROM HIS THREE-SPORT BACKGROUND, BUT, SAYS HIS HIGH SCHOOL COACH, "I THINK HIS BURST IS FROM GOD."
Photograph by JOHN BIEVER
THROUGH HOOPS Peppers, a five-time Pro Bowl pick, might also be the NFL's best power forward: He was a key reserve for Dean Smith's Tar Heels for two seasons.
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