Julius Peppers watched impassively as the images flicked across the television screen. He was relaxing at a friend's home in St. Louis in early July when news reports revealed that Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant had been accused of rape. Within seconds, everyone else in the room had concluded that Bryant must be guilty of some criminal act. Not Peppers, the Carolina Panthers' second-year defensive end. He told his pals that they didn't have enough information, and without knowing the facts, they shouldn't be judging the man. � Peppers's stance wasn't based merely on due process. He has an intimate understanding of how hasty the court of public opinion can be, and how harsh. He's heard the rumors that he was juicing after he was suspended for four games at the end of last season for violating the NFL's policy on anabolic steroids and related substances—and he's spent the last nine months working to repair his tarnished image.
In Peppers's mind, there's no reason to celebrate his 12 sacks in 12 games and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2002. His pride has been wounded, his integrity damaged. "It's crazy that people talk like I had to take steroids to help my performance," says Peppers, who insists that the positive test was the result of taking a diet supplement given to him by a friend. Fuming as he recalls last year's Pro Bowl snub, Peppers says, "Believe me, they're going to have to vote me in this year."
There are certain moments in sports that clearly bear watching: Barry Bonds settling back into the box after a brushback pitch, Shaquille O'Neal responding to a flagrant foul and now Peppers returning to the field, against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, intense and incensed. His half-brother, Stephone, can't remember the last time Peppers was this upset about anything. As Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio says, " Julius Peppers with a chip on his shoulder is a scary thought."
As he showed last year, the 6'6", 283-pound Peppers, the second player selected in the 2002 draft, has exceptional speed, quickness and agility. He improved a line that already included tackle Kris Jenkins, who was an All-Pro last season, as well as end Mike Rucker (10 sacks in 2002)., and helped transform the Carolina defense into the league's second-ranked unit after it had finished last the year before. Now he's getting serious. When he wasn't participating in the team's off-season conditioning program, Peppers was lifting weights and running sprints this summer at North Carolina, his alma mater. He has given up red meat and has drunk only bottled water and fruit juice. While on vacation he'd hustle to a nearby gym or go for a run. "I've never seen Julius this focused," says Indianapolis Colts linebacker David Thornton, Peppers's college teammate. "He wants to redefine his position, and he knows that he has to really study film, hit his playbook and learn the subtleties of the game. I'm not saying he didn't do that before, but he's always been able to just line up and intimidate people."
As a rookie Peppers showed surprising instincts at times. "The guy sniffed out a couple of screen passes against us just by noticing I had lined up in a softer stance," Atlanta Falcons tackle Todd Weiner says. "That's what 10-year veterans do." But he discovered that his football acumen was limited and that he had a lot to learn about such things as the proper technique for getting off the ball. "The coaches would tell me to do one thing against a certain formation and another if a guy shifted, and I had no idea what they were talking about," Peppers says. Still, he dominated. He had three-sack games against the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions and two takedowns against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This preseason, says defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac, "he's starting to dictate the action. If a tackle gets wide on him, he'll go underneath; if a lineman jumps out on him, he'll freeze and change directions." In one drill during an April mini-camp Peppers, who relied mainly on finesse moves last year, bull-rushed a lineman into the quarterback. "He's added power to his game," strong safety Mike Minter says. And it's obvious that Peppers has been doing his homework. "He's recognizing more plays before they happen," says defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, a 10-year veteran. "He's even starting to tell me what to look for in certain situations."
"I understand the game much better," Peppers says. "I have a lot to learn, but I'm not just listening anymore. I'm telling people what I know. I want to make sure I'm not the weak link up front."
Perceptions have been a preoccupation with Peppers since his suspension last November. He maintains that on three occasions he took diet pills—Peppers won't identify the acquaintance who provided them—to combat fatigue. As it turned out, Peppers says, those pills contained an ephedralike substance that's banned by the NFL. (The league doesn't comment on suspensions.) "It was an honest mistake," Peppers says. "People make them all the time."
On Nov. 14 Peppers issued a statement apologizing to his team for testing positive, and his agent, Marvin Demoff, announced that the suspension was due to a dietary supplement Peppers had taken. Sources cited in reports indicated that he had had a substance similar to or a derivative of ephedra in his system. Still, Peppers says, that didn't stop some of his NFL colleagues from advising him how to avoid getting caught while taking steroids. He was stung that his peers would believe he had resorted to juicing. "Julius wasn't trying to beat the system," says Del Rio, Carolina's defensive coordinator last season. "He's a good kid who was a little naive."
A loner in college—one of his former roommates claims that during one semester Peppers scarcely uttered a word—he was suddenly making new acquaintances. "Julius can be very nonchalant about things," says Carl Carey, Peppers's former academic adviser at North Carolina, who remains a mentor. "There were situations in college where he was borderline academically and close to losing his eligibility, and he'd say everything was fine. When this suspension came up, I told him there are some mistakes you can make and some you can't."