Wow, what a sad day for the Carolina Panthers. On February 1st, 2004 John Kasay turned what would have been the first Super Bowl to go into overtime, into Adam Vinatieri’s second Super Bowl Winning field goal, by botching the kickoff out of bounds, giving the Patriots the ball at the 40 yard line. Fast forward 15 years, to the second saddest day in the history of the Carolina Panthers. The retirement of a legend on the field, and an even better humanitarian throughout the community. Here’s a tribute to the great Julius Peppers.
When I was 10 years old, I was playing football for the Pop Warner Panthers in Wilmington, NC. At that time, Julius Peppers was dominating the college football circuit at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, while also contributing to the basketball team. I graduated from UNC in 2013- you guys know what made me a Carolina fan? Julius Peppers. And when he was drafted 2nd overall by the Panthers in 2002, I became the Panther fanatic that I am today. I can remember that Christmas, all I wanted was a Carolina Tar Heel Jersey with Peppers on the back. My father one-upped my request, and got me a UNC Jersey, and a Carolina Panther Jersey, both with “Peppers” on the backside. It was the first of many Tar Heels and Panther jerseys, but they’re both the ones that I hold closest to my heart.
There aren’t many defensive ends that come out of college destined for greatness, and live up to the lofty expectations set for them. However big number 90 was one who exceeded the hype, as one of the most dominant pass-rushers of his era. Being compared to the great Lawrence Taylor, it appeared as though Peppers had huge shoes to fill, and boy did he ever? Compiling 159.5 career sacks, ranking 4th best of all-time behind Bruce Smith, Reggie White, and Kevin Greene, Pep was an absolute monster. He lost some speed in a 17-year career, so shuffled inside some, where he was able to use his strength and will his way to quarterbacks at ease. Add in 715 tackles, 79 passes defended, 11 interceptions, 4 brought back for touchdowns, and the most ever field goal blocks, you’ve got a hall of fame player.
What Peppers did on the field can never be questioned. He’s one of the best players to ever wear a Panther jersey, in my opinion, he’s the most talented football player this organization has ever had. What’s even more impressive, is he’s the team’s nominee for the Walter Payton man of the Year award this season, for all of the relief work and assistance he provided for victims of Hurricane Florence, which tore through the Carolina’s in September, and was one of the worst storms this state has ever seen. Peppers and teammates worked tirelessly to provide meals, water, and other necessities to folks who were affected by Hurricane Florence. He’s simply someone who cannot be replaced.
Today, Panther nations’ heart aches. We all knew this was coming, after all, 17 years in the NFL is far more trying than any of us could’ve endured. However we still feel the pain of #90 saying goodbye. There’s a whole to fill in that locker room. Not simply the stats, but the presence, the whole-hearted goodness that is Julius Peppers. At the beginning of his career, it was always a toss up, who would get the bigger ovation, Peppers or Steve Smith? Towards the end it became Peppers, Cam Newton, or Luke Kuechly? All of these names will live forever in Panther lore. However, nobody has to ask who I cheered the loudest for. And I loved Smitty, and Cam, and Luke, but Peppers brought me to this franchise. Peppers made me a Tar Heel graduate, and a Panther fan for life. He’s done so much good for this franchise, I’m happy he went out on his own terms. And if I had to choose the greatest Panther of all-time, that title would belong to the great number 90. So many memories will live forever in the hearts of the Keep Pounding Nation, but as Peppers said in his retirement announcement, “it’s not just something we say, it’s how we live.” The Panthers will continue to keep pounding, move on, and be a great team to watch, however, things just won’t be the same without number 90 on the field.
Dave Tepper, I beg of you, do not allow anybody else to wear that jersey. Julius embodied what it meant to be a Panther, and did so much good in Charlotte, that his number should never be worn by another Panther. Number 90 will forever be, Julius Peppers, defensive end, from the University of North Carolina.
I know this hurts, Panther fans. But remember the good times brought to us by Pep. All the huge sacks, all the pick-sixes, and most importantly, all the fun he had while performing for his hometown team. What a player, what a person, what an athlete, what a career. Here’s to you, Pep. #KeepPounding