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."