17 and Out


Anybody who knows me knows I’m not big on words and I don’t like to put myself out there, so I’m just gonna get right to it.

Seventeen years is a long time to be playing this game. It’s two careers for a lot of people. I’m thankful that I have been able to play so long and still be healthy. I’m not all banged up and beaten down. I still feel good.

But as much as I would love to play forever, I know that I can’t. It’s gotta end at some point.

That point is now.

Today, I’m retiring.

But while I have you here, I do want to open up and say a few words before I shut it down.

I didn’t grow up playing football. I wanted to be a basketball player. MJ was my idol. I was lucky because growing up in tiny little Bailey, North Carolina, we had a satellite dish, so we got WGN. Which meant we got almost every Bulls game. So on most nights, you could find me in front of the TV, watching the G.O.A.T. do his thing.

As I got older, I started watching Tim Duncan.

I just remember how it didn’t matter what happened in the game — whether he just dunked on somebody or he missed a jump shot, whether they were up by 10 or down by 10 — he was always the same guy. Always cool. Always humble.

That really resonated with me.

I guess that’s just the North Carolina in me, you know? I’m from the eastern part of the state, where it’s very rural. My stepdad was a farmer, so growing up, during summer breaks, I woke up every morning and went to work. Harvesting tobacco, picking cucumbers, gathering watermelons from the patch, pulling up sweet potatoes … stuff like that. And through that, I developed the same traits as the other people in our community. They were all hard workers. Proud, but also very humble. They didn’t necessarily like attention. They just kind of went about their business and did their work. That’s it.

So when I first started playing football my sophomore year in high school, I played running back. I had to learn the position. Learn the game. Get used to contact. It was a big adjustment. It was all so new to me. But I didn’t quit, and I never complained. I just put my work in every day and kept my mouth shut, like I was taught.

The one time I did speak up, I’m glad that I did.

It was my freshman year at North Carolina. I played tight end, and I was buried on the depth chart behind Alge Crumpler and Allen Mogridge. Then I saw that our team was putting defensive linemen in the first round of the draft — guys like Greg Ellis and Vonnie Holliday. So I went to my coaches and told them straight up that I wasn’t getting any reps at tight end, so I wanted to try defensive end. Because my goal was to get to the league, and the defensive linemen seemed to be getting there.

The rest is history. They switched me to defense, I led the nation in sacks as a sophomore and then got drafted No. 2 overall by the hometown Panthers.

Rick Havner/AP Images

When I look back on my 17 years in the NFL, one thing that stands out to me — besides the people — is how your view of the game changes over time.

We went to the Super Bowl in my second season. And when Adam Vinatieri made that kick to basically end it … I didn’t necessarily understand the gravity of the moment. I mean, it felt terrible to lose. It always does. But my thought process was, It’s O.K. We’ll be back next year.

As you probably know, we didn’t make it back that next year. We had a great team a couple of years later that made it back to the conference championship game, and I’ve been on a lot of great teams since … but never another Super Bowl team.

I learned the hard way that those tough losses — those heartbreaks … they hurt a little more as you get into the later stages of your career. Because you get to the point where you’re not so young anymore, and there might not be a next year.

I think if I could go back, I would just tell myself to enjoy everything — the Super Bowl, the Pro Bowls, the time spent with my teammates. It’s like … people are always telling you to live in the moment.

I wish I would have done that a little more.

But I had a good career, man. The Super Bowl ring eluded me, but I don’t need that to validate me. I would have loved to have helped deliver that to the fans in Carolina, but I’m content with the career that I had.

Ric Tapia/AP Images

Before I hang it up, I want say thank you to the fans in Carolina.

It’s been a little bit of a love-hate relationship, hasn’t it. You loved me, then I left … and a lot of you hated me for that. Then, when I came back, most of you loved me again. So it’s been kind of a journey.

Well, I know it’s a little late, but let me explain why I left.

I spent the first 30 years of my life in North Carolina. I was a high-school star in Bailey, then I went to UNC, then I got drafted by the Panthers. And all the notoriety and attention that comes with all that … it was a lot for a quiet kid from the tobacco farm. At the time, getting out of the state where it feels like everybody knows who I am and exploring something different for the first time in my life … that was really important to me.

And I’m glad I did it. The amount of personal growth that I achieved in those years away from Carolina has been huge for me, and I honestly believe it’s the kind of growth you can only experience when you leave home and go out into the unknown.

So to those who supported me regardless, thank you.

And to those who weren’t happy with me … I understand. And I still appreciate you.

Because North Carolina is home, man. I love the people there, and I wouldn’t be the man I am today if I didn’t grow up amongst you and been lucky enough to play in front of fans like you for as long as I did.

So thank you for the support and the understanding.

You guys will always have a very special place in my heart.

Chuck Burton/AP Photo

I gotta show some love to the fans in Chicago and Green Bay, too.

Bears fans … man … I could not have chosen a better place to make my first stop outside of North Carolina. You were so welcoming and so supportive. I was very proud to wear that uniform. I’ll always love the city of Chicago.

And Packers fans? I guess more than anything, Green Bay just felt like home. You know, small town, good people who love their football … it was a really great experience being a part of that culture. I was sad to leave Green Bay, and I don’t think I would have left to go anywhere but home to Carolina.

So to Chicago and Green Bay: Thank you for embracing me and allowing me to be a part of your families.

I’m lucky that I got to play for three incredible fan bases, but my career would not have been possible if it weren’t for so many individuals who have been a part of my life along the way. Far too many to thank here, but let me mention a few before we shut this thing down.

First and foremost, to my mom and my family: Thank you for supporting me through everything. I love you all.

To my high school football coach, Ray Davis: Thank you for stopping me while I was leaving for a track meet in high school and asking me to try out for the football team. That moment changed my life forever.

To Brian Foster and Carl Carey: Thank you for mentoring me throughout my life, for teaching me how to be a man and for being my great friends to this day.

To Coach John Fox and the entire Panthers organization: Thank you for taking a chance on me. A lot of people wanted you to draft a quarterback with that second pick, but you stuck your neck out for me. Thank you for believing in me. I hope I made it worth the trouble.

To my other coaches — Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli in Chicago, Mike McCarthy (who got a raw deal in Green Bay this year), Ron Rivera and all my coaches in Carolina: Thank you for being incredible leaders and great men. I’m proud that I got to play for each of you.

At the end of the day, the wins are the wins and the losses are the losses. But the relationships are everything.

And thank you to all of my teammates….

Mike Rucker, for teaching me how to be a professional and to approach pass-rushing as an art form. You were a technician, man — and a great teacher. I appreciate you.

Brian Urlacher, for leading by example and showing me the importance of paying attention to detail and the art of calling a game.

Aaron Rodgers, just for being an all-time great player and teammate … and for making me believe that somehow, a Hail Mary can be a high-percentage throw. I’ve never seen anybody do some of the things you can do, man. I’m glad I had a front seat for some of it.

Thomas Davis, for helping me come out of my shell and get active in the community. You taught me that I could be my quiet and introverted self, but still be out in the world and making a difference. Thank you for that.

And to one of my favorite teammates of all time, Steve Smith.

Thank you for catching that 69-yard touchdown pass in double-overtime against the Rams back in 2004, man. If it weren’t for that catch, I would have never even made it to a Super Bowl.

But also, thanks for being a great teammate. You were one of the most fun, competitive guys I ever played with. I appreciate you, man.

Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated

At the end of the day, the wins are the wins and the losses are the losses. But the relationships are everything.

Now I’m, turning my focus to a different set of relationships.

My three kids.

My daughter, Keana, who’s 10, and my two sons — my four-year-old, Elijah, and my three-year-old, Amare.

For my whole life, I’ve been so determined to be good at sports.

Now, I’m just as determined to be a great dad.

That’s my next chapter — my next challenge. And I’m fully committed to it. There won’t be no comeback. No sir. Once I’m out, I’m out.

It’s been a great 17 years.

I just hope you guys enjoyed it as much as I did.

— Pep

In celebration of Charlotte hosting the 2019 NBA All-Star game, Julius Peppers will host a Sneaker Ball charity event to support three local Charlotte organizations: Young Black Leadership Alliance, Girl Talk Foundation Inc. and the Center for Community Transitions. For more information, please visit www.juliuspeppers.org.