HOUSTON – If there's one group who knows, completely knows, that Julius Peppers is a stud athlete, it is his fellow Carolina Panthers. For two years the 6-foot-6-inch, 283-pound, fleet of foot defensive end had wowed them in games and practices with feats of awe-inspiring skill and strength.
Even by professional football standards.
"It's scary," Panther defensive end Al Wallace says. "I've been playing football a long time. I've been in the league since '97. When I saw him in training camp my jaw just dropped. A guy his size with his athletic ability, you can't fathom it."
Just when his teammates thought they had seen everything from the Amazing Mr. Peppers, along came the wild-card game against Dallas. Speedy Cowboy receiver Joey Galloway got loose in the secondary, hit full stride only to get caught from behind by ... a near 300-pound defensive end?
"[Peppers] chased him down like a 5-year-old child," defensive tackle Omari Jordan recalls. "It was like one of those cowboys with the bull. He just tied him up. I saw that and I said, 'Oh man. He just chased down Joey Galloway, one of the fastest players in the league.'"
The play that defied belief is beginning to define Peppers.
The 24-year-old is starting to look like not just the future of the NFL, but the present too. These playoffs – culminating with Sunday's Super Bowl against the New England Patriots – have exposed everyone to Peppers' ability.
"I think he scared himself on that [Galloway tackle]," Wallace says. "He got back to the sideline and said to me, 'Man, did you see that?' ... He was in shock too."
In just his second year in the NFL, Peppers has been voted to the Pro Bowl. But it is eye-popping plays that have the league abuzz. The play on Galloway, the 34-yard interception return in the same game, and the way he can plow through blockers or race around them have amazed everyone.
"I tell you," guard Bruce Nelson says while shaking his head in amazement, "what an unbelievable athlete. It's not that I haven't seen athletes as good as Julius. I've just never seen one that big. He moves the way players 50 pounds lighter, six inches shorter do."
Everyone agrees the Panthers' defense is the key to their success. Peppers is a key to that. He shuts down one side of the line, and can step back and knock down a pass as easily as he can cover running backs turned receivers.
And while coach John Fox rightfully gets a lot of the credit for turning around a 1-15 team, Peppers arrived at the same time in the form of the second pick overall out of the University of North Carolina.
This brilliant athlete stuff is hardly new for Peppers. At UNC he was not only Lombardi Trophy winner as the best lineman in college, he played three seasons on the Tar Heels basketball team and was the starting power forward on a Final Four team. Virginia basketball coach Pete Gillen once suggested Peppers should take up lacrosse. "He could be Jim Brown," Gillen said.
Peppers grew up in little Bailey, N.C. – "Don't close your eyes [driving through]; it is so small you might miss it," he says – where he understandably became a local legend. At UNC he was more famous as a hoops player than football player, mostly because the football program was struggling.
"I went to Maryland so I watch [ACC basketball]," Wallace says. "When I heard his name before the [NFL] draft, I said, 'Is that the basketball guy playing defensive end?'"
By going with UNC hoops to the Final Four and now with the Panthers to the Super Bowl, Peppers has hit an almost unmatched level of popularity in his home state. If he only drove in NASCAR he could hit the holy trinity of local sports.
Instead he is concentrating on reaching his immense potential in football.
"In college I could beat guys just on my natural ability," he says. "In this league everyone is good. You have to learn technique. I'm just working on my game. I still want to improve [and] eventually want to be the best defensive end in the NFL."
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady hasn't been sacked in the postseason, but Peppers aims to change that. He'll get plenty of New England's attention, but whether he can be stopped remains to be seen. If you see Peppers hanging out in the backfield, it spells trouble for New England.