Julius Peppers has been on a national sports stage before, as a freshman reserve on the 1999 North Carolina basketball team that went to the Final Four. Now, as the starting defensive end for the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl, he has a chance to have a far larger impact on his team's fortunes in a game that annually draws the largest national television audience in American sports.
"I've been around big media events," he said the other day. "I knew this was going to be a big deal. But seeing all these cameras and all these reporters around makes it set in that we are definitely at the Super Bowl."
Peppers and his defensive teammates have a solid chance at being the stars of this game, one that many expect to be a defensive battle won by the strongest line. A line that many consider to be among the best in the game figures to get its toughest test from the New England Patriots.
The line's story begins two years ago, when the Panthers used the second overall choice in the draft to select Peppers, a 6-foot-6, 283-pound athlete who always knew his pro future would be in football. In his first dozen games last year as a rookie, he had 12 sacks and was leading the league before he was suspended the final four games for a violation of the league's substance abuse program.
The mere mention of it pains him to this day. He said he was taking a dietary supplement that, unknown to him, apparently contained a trace of ephedra, a stimulant that was added to the league's banned substance list last year. He knows there is always the stigma of trying to cheat the system attached to any athlete suspended by the league. And yet he would also like people to know "that I'm not a person who does that kind of thing.
"It was sort of a bad rap. The people who know me, the people in this organization, their view of me never changed. I didn't take drugs or supplements. I feel confident in my own abilities to perform at this level without any of that stuff. But some people probably still have that negative image of me. It's something I have to live with, and something I have to work through and deal with.
"I learned some life lessons about people. It also slowed me down and really made me look at my career. It definitely was a tough time for me, nothing I ever want to go through again."
Peppers admitted to being at his lowest point emotionally during his suspension, when he was not allowed at the team's facility. He went home to Bailey, N.C., and said he could hardly watch the Panthers play on television. He also said he vowed that he would never allow himself to get into a similar position, and his coaches all said he went through training camp this summer with a giant chip on his shoulder.
"He made a mistake and he paid a price and we got it out of the way a year ago," Coach John Fox said Thursday. "This year, he came in with a fresh slate. I think a lot of things probably motivated him. One of the most important things you can take away from these guys is not their money, but just their opportunity to play."
His coaches and fellow players also say he has barely scratched the surface in maximizing his talent and what he can accomplish in the league.
"Julius can be as good as he wants to be," defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac said. "The only one who can hold him back is him. As long as he keeps studying, as long as he keeps working, the guy will become unstoppable. That was the knock on him before; that he might not be willing to do what he takes, but it didn't come from us. He meets with his position coach an hour early every day. He wants to take his game to the next level, and that's going to be something to see."
"When he first came in here, his speed was so much faster than all of us," said defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. "We knew he wasn't going to slow down, so the rest of us had to work to get up to his level. . . . It's scary, because we're the best and he still hasn't learned how to be a football player yet. I think he can be great. Look at the guy. What doesn't he have? What part of the game doesn't he have? The only thing missing is more knowledge, and he'll get that the more he plays."
Peppers and his defensive mates have played brilliantly most of this season. And while his sack total fell to 7 1/2 this year, Peppers said he had no complaints because he believes his overall game — especially against the run — has improved. So, too, has the cohesiveness of a unit that includes tackles Buckner and Maryland man Kris Jenkins and defensive end Michael Rucker.
All of them are very much aware that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has not been sacked, and barely touched during the postseason.
"We've been doing a good job as far as getting pressure and trying to affect the quarterback's throwing ability," Peppers said. "We can't let him sit there and pick us apart. We definitely have to get to him and get some hits on him. We just have to find a way to get him out of his rhythm and get into his head a little bit.
"All quarterbacks are the same. None of them like to get hit. If you get a chance to hit him, you better take advantage. . . . Brady does a great job getting the ball out of there, but we have a lot of things we like to throw at you with our defense. By Sunday, I think we'll have something to throw them off."