For a relatively modestly populated state, North Carolina has had an incredible share of big time athletes raised within it’s borders. Even more fortunately, many of these athletes have passed through the North Carolina University system, and a select few have even gone on to play professional sports for their home state as well. Though Michael Jordan never played ball for the Charlotte Hornets (because they were morons), he will probably always be the shining example of homegrown North Carolina talent (technically born in New York, but moved to Wilmington as a toddler), and why wouldn’t he be? He’s the greatest player to ever play basketball. Period.
Julius Peppers isn’t the greatest football player of all time, though he certainly has an argument for the best ever at his defensive end position. Football has seen some incredible athletes, but only a handful possessed the combination of size, speed, strength, and pure athleticism that Peppers did at his peak. Of that handful, it would be difficult not to declare Peppers the true best of the best, and you’d be hard pressed not to consider him one of the top five best athletes of the 21st century (from a physical perspective). Just have a listen at what some of the current greats of the game have to say about him:
Everyone has a lot of respect for number 90, particularly the guys who took a beating from him over the years. On a personal note, Peppers is the reason that I wanted to play defensive line in high school. I played a little bit of defensive end, but mostly the coaches wanted my 280 pound frame right smack in the middle of our 3-4 defense at nose tackle. I just wanted to hit quarterbacks and running backs, not protect them, and watching what Peppers did was the reason for that.
I didn’t play in middle school, and in fact didn’t have much interest in football until Peppers started his career at the University of North Carolina when I was a freshman. I admired him because he was a two sport athlete, playing both basketball and football at a very high level. In fact, it was watching him and Ronald Curry on the court that led me to watching him on the field, since I was and still am a big fan of Tarheel basketball. Peppers was a terror at power forward, fouling out a lot, but he cemented his place in my heart with this moment on the hardwood in a huge game against Wake Forest...
That’s two UNC football players (and eventually professional football players, Ronald Curry played wide receiver for many years in Oakland) hooking up for an alley oop, one of which is a massive individual who has no business getting his forehead level with the rim. Can you imagine Peppers running full gallup down the lane about to dunk on you? It was terrifying for all of UNC’s opponents.
It’s crazy for me to think that Peppers has been playing football for that long, and the amount of training plus physical upkeep it takes to maintain a body through such a grueling sport. He has earned his upcoming rest more than most people.
Even though Julius Peppers won’t retire as the all-time leading sack artist in NFL history, there are just so many reasons that he still might have been the best to ever do it. I remember a score of tipped passes, interceptions, pick sixes, and probably more running plays than I can quantify that were completely busted thanks to Pep. I remember a guy so strong that not even two people could halt his forward momentum, and so fast that wide receivers couldn’t always catch up to him. It was a pleasure to watch him play almost all his years on some of my favorite sports teams.
So, it is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to the best of the best. Goodbye, but certainly a long way from ever being forgotten.