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Man of steel Julius Peppers
The standards are simply different for Julius Peppers.
When discussing the preternatural brilliance of the Carolina Panthers defensive end, the normal compliments don't seem sufficient.
Because he's so singular an athlete -- by alarming degrees sometimes, even in a pro locker room -- it's often hard for those who watch him play to quantify just how good he is and how good he might become.
The only explanation, it seems, is that the 6-foot-6, 290-pound behemoth simply started out ahead of most and has continued to progress.
"It's like Mother Nature just decided to scratch her chin and say 'I'm going to create me something special right here,'" Panthers radio announcer Mick Mixon said of Peppers, whom he covered at the University of North Carolina.
If you want to get people talking, ask them the most amazing thing they've ever seen the fourth-year defensive end do. In most cases it will be one of those highlight reel plays, something involving jumping high or running fast or getting away from extremely large men who attack him in multiples.
But perhaps the most impressive thing is that with his profile rising and millions in the bank, Peppers seems unaffected by it all.
Quiet and humble -- yet of a steely resolve -- Peppers shrugs off expectations as easily as single blocks, setting a career course none may be able to match.
"I'm doing well," Peppers said. "I'm still working on things to get better. I'm not where I want to be. I'll never get where I want to be. But I'm satisfied with where I am so far."
That he acknowledges room for improvement puts him ahead of most. He's already widely regarded as one of the top two or three defensive players in the NFL, but sees more to accomplish.
"I don't think you ever get to the point where you're as good as you want to be," he said. "Or at least I don't feel like you can do that, because I'm always trying to do anything I can to get better.
"The top is perfection and perfection is something that normally we don't reach. So that's why I say that."
Peppers has always been pushing toward that standard.
Brian Foster remembered seeing Peppers for the first time as a tall, lanky, graceful seventh grader. They put him at running back when he got to Southern Nash High.
He ran for 3,501 yards and 46 touchdowns in three years on the varsity, one of the early signs of what was to come.
"It didn't take a genius to figure out what he had athletically," said Foster, now the Firebirds head football coach. "He was just about to do so many different things. You just don't see a 6-6 kid doing spin moves the way he did. You could just put him in the basketball gym and let him go, because he was just that good.
"But to Julius, he was just playing, because he didn't realize how special he was."
Foster, like many other who have crossed his path, talks at length about Peppers' gentle personality. He mentioned that Peppers led the Southern Nash basketball team in assists, even though he was by far the best player. He recalled Peppers being a little surprised when besieged by autograph requests when he went home for a football playoff game against Kinston two years ago.
"As many people as want to talk to me about what kind of player he is, I tell them he's a better person," Foster said. "He's just so unselfish, works so hard, does so many things for so many people. I just can't say enough about him."
Though tucked away at a small rural high school, he was a Parade All-American as a an all-purpose football talent and recruited by nearly every significant Division I program.
But nearly every player who makes it to the NFL was the best player at his own high school. It was when Peppers arrived at UNC that it became clear he was something different -- and not just on the football field.
Mixon, who called Tar Heels basketball and football before joining the Panthers, said his most vivid memory of Peppers in college came from Dec. 7, 1999, his freshman year, when he joined the basketball team a few games into the season.
The Tar Heels were playing in Buffalo, and as expected, the game got out of hand early, giving the freshman forward the opportunity to get on the court. It didn't take long for him to introduce himself as a player.
"There's a breakaway and he comes running down the court," Mixon said, voice rising with the re-telling. "Somebody pitches it ahead, and Pep gets it, and it looked like he jumped four feet in the air. And he's got the ball in his left hand, and he's got it way back here, and he slammed it in.
"I mean, the sound in that gym, even the Buffalo players on their own bench. I remember thinking several of them looked like a spider when you whack it with the heel of your shoe, the way its legs will fly up all at once. That's the way the Buffalo players looked, they were going 'Oh my gosh.' They were high-fiving each other, the Carolina guys were high-fiving each other.
"Just to see Pep get that weight -- I knew him when he was just a baby, just 275 pounds -- and that girth up so easily and so quickly off the ground. I still get chills thinking about it."
Then-UNC coach Bill Guthridge often felt the same way, marveling at how good Peppers could be with so little time invested in basketball. Peppers quickly became more than a novelty, playing a key role as the Tar Heels made a Final Four run.
Guthridge recalled key rebounds in the upset over No. 1-seed Stanford, the way Peppers became the center of the interior defense when starter Brendan Haywood ended up in foul trouble the next game against Tennessee. Peppers played most of the final eight minutes of that game, playing physically but intelligently after picking up his fourth foul with six minutes left.
"He had to be our guy in the post, play the middle of our point zone, none of which he had done much of," Guthridge said. "That's where his savvy came in. He had all the tools, but he became a pretty good basketball player in time."
Comparisons are difficult to make with Peppers.
Guthridge said despite Peppers' hulking frame, it was his soft hands that stood out, hands that reminded him of basketball greats Bobby Jones and Adrian Dantley. Combined with his strength inside, that had some thinking his professional future could have been in basketball.
Ryan Blake, the NBA's assistant director of scouting, wasn't sure where Peppers would have been drafted with only two years of college hoops experience, "but he was definitely a prospect in our minds."
Blake said that while Peppers clearly lacked polish, many of the same things said about him as a basketball player were once said about Ben Wallace, the 6-foot-9, 240-pound power forward who helped lead Detroit to the 2003-04 NBA title with defense and rebounding.
"It's a good analogy," Blake said of the Peppers-Wallace comparison. "Both are undersized for the power forward spot, but they make up for it by being strong and athletic. Like Ben, Julius played above his height."
But it didn't take long for most to realize football was where Peppers would make his biggest impact, even if it wasn't always clear how.
When he got to Carolina, he was given uniform number 49, partly because they didn't know exactly where to put him.
Tar Heels football coach John Bunting has little doubt Peppers could be "a dominant tight end, an All-Pro tight end like Tony Gonzalez. Heck, he might be able to play safety."
But that would be taking away from the things Peppers does best, and Bunting had a front-row seat for one of the early entries into the lexicon of Peppers highlights.
On Oct. 20, 2001, Clemson quarterback Woodrow Dantzler (then considered a Michael Vick-type talent) was trying to throw a screen pass, but threw it with plenty of steam. Peppers got off a cut-block, jumped straight into the air to tip it, then intercepted the ball several yards downfield.
"He's simply the most unique athlete I've ever seen on the football field, and I had (linebacker) Derrick Thomas in Kansas City," Bunting said. "Julius just has every tool you want in a football player."
Bunting suggested Peppers could change positions easily.
"He could trim down to 250 or 260 pounds and be a dominant outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense," said Bunting, who coached in the NFL for eight years before taking over the Tar Heels prior to Peppers' last college season.
As intriguing as that seems, there's one major flaw.
"Where's he going to lose 35 pounds?" Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac said. "There's not a lot of extra on him at 288."
That size made him the prototype NFL defensive end before he took his first snap. But there was much refinement that needed to occur -- which has in his first three years in the league.
"When he first came here, he wasn't exactly a run-stuffer," Panthers coach John Fox said. "He's become very good at that. He's not a one-dimensional guy."
Which is why the lore of Peppers' skill is filled with many different plays.
Sacks seem pedestrian. Tackles are limiting and don't begin to reflect the complexity of what he can do. Even plays such as his one-handed recovery of a Vick fumble which he returned 60 yards for a touchdown last December don't seem to capture his ability.
Trgovac could seemingly talk all day about a play at Denver last year, and not the 101-yard interception return most recall.
On the play before, a third-and-goal from the Panthers 3, Peppers was blocked away from Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer's roll-out. And though Plummer's one of the more athletic passers in the league, Peppers rolled his hips, got back to his feet, turned and chased Plummer out of bounds a yard shy of the goal line.
"There's not another defensive end that can make that play," said Trgovac, a man not given to brash pronouncements. "Nobody else could get fooled and recover like that. It should have been a touchdown, and then there wouldn't have been the big interception return."
Quarterback Jake Delhomme recalled laughing when he saw Peppers chase down Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman from behind -- from the other side of the field.
"It's not supposed to happen," Delhomme said. "I remember watching it on the screen because I normally don't get to watch our defense during a game, and thinking, 'That just doesn't happen.'"
Men who approach 300 pounds aren't supposed to run like that. But when the defensive backs and running backs and receivers were picking fantasy track teams last year, they all seemed to want Peppers on their 4x100 relay team.
He said the fastest he's ever been timed in the 40-yard dash was 4.55 seconds.
"But I've raced guys who ran 4.3s and beat them," he said, a slight grin creeping over his face. "I think speed is different. Game speed is different. Some guys can run 4.3s and they get on the field and they're slow. It's a different type speed you can have."
It's also a different kind of agility.
Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins recalled a play from Peppers' rookie year, when he was turned upside down and landed in a back bend.
"He had his hands on the ground and his feet on the ground at the same time," Jenkins said. "I remember saying, 'If that was me, my career would be over.' But he just walked off the field and I was like 'Is he serious?' ... If I did that, I'd probably tear every ligament I had in my knees and shoulders and probably pop a couple discs out of my spinal cord.
"We call him the next evolution of man. Some of the things he does, it just doesn't make sense."
The scary part? He can get better.
With a straight face, veteran safety Mike Minter suggested earlier this year that Peppers could break the NFL's single-season sack record of 22.5.
Fox says Peppers can become more proficient at other things, because of the way Peppers works.
"He expects it; that's what you want in a player," Fox said. "It's how he practices every day -- he comes to work and brings his lunch pail. I think he has developed his game more each year. He understands the game faster. This game is about playing fast. The more you see it, the faster you get. When you match that with the fact you are fast, that's when you get great players.
"That attitude is the thing that's awesome. When you think you've kind of got it figured out, that's when you get bit. He's still continuing to try to learn. He's become a student of the game. Each opponent brings a new challenge. Each style of offense is a new challenge, and he thrives on it."
Peppers is aware that with each year, he's going to see new wrinkles, new ways opponents will try to slow him down.
"Everybody knows I'm a good player, and everybody's going to prepare to stop me," he said, without a trace of arrogance.
As talented as he is, he is just as cognizant of what he can do. And that may ultimately be the thing that separates him.
When asked which of his moments best sums up his ability, he pauses and thinks, scratching the back of his head.
"There's not really one play," he said. "I think a lot of different plays illustrate the range of abilities I have on the field.
"I think the best is yet to come."