Before he was spending most of his Sundays every fall tracking down quarterbacks, forcing offensive linemen to stumble and ball-carriers to fumble, Julius Peppers was emptying the breadth of his athletic gifts by making hoopers on the hardwood crumble, too.
Peppers, a transcendent athlete with an array of talents, was a surefire star on the gridiron early on. There was no questioning his dominance as an edge rusher. Out of high school, he had numerous opportunities before staying close to home -- and shining -- for the North Carolina Tar Heels. And shine he did. He became a two-time All-American for the Heels before he left school early and saw the Carolina Panthers make him the No. 2 pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.
But few know he also played a role in basketball for the Tar Heels -- and one larger than you might expect. Peppers played 56 games and started in three at UNC as a hooper, and just as he's done skillfully as an elite NFL edge-rusher over the last 17 seasons, Peppers leveraged his 6-7, 290-pound frame with grace and power. He was a dynamic rebounder and rim-rocker. The same unstoppable force he's channeled to hunt down quarterbacks in the backfield for close to two decades in the NFL, is the same he used at North Carolina to power through alley-oops and putbacks.
There's some who even believe he could have pursued a professional career in basketball -- and succeeded.
"I'll tell you this, I do believe if Pep would've just focused on basketball, he could've played in the NBA," Matt Doherty, a former coach at UNC told ESPN in 2015. "[Julius] had feel. He wasn't just a rebounder or banger. He could pass the ball, make the 15-18 foot shot and had soft hands."
Peppers could be playing in his final NFL game on Sunday, fittingly, with the Carolina Panthers. The same team that drafted him, from which the same state he attended college, and the same state he was born and raised in. He says he has no doubts about which path he ultimately chose -- and if you watch his incredible UNC football highlights, you'd likely agree -- but it's incredible to think what might have been. How many high caliber players could realistically have pursued pro careers in two sports?
As Peppers races onto the turf in New Orleans on Sunday, he can do so knowing he probably made the right choice -- probably being the operative term for absolutely, positively without question. The 38-year-old has played in 265 games, started 240 and put up numbers worthy of a future Hall of Fame enshrinement: 11 interceptions, four touchdowns, 81 pass deflections, 52 forced fumbles, 720 tackles, 172 tackles for loss, and oh, 158.5 sacks for good measure. For perspective: That's more sacks than Jason Taylor (a Hall of Famer enshrined in 2017), more tackles for loss than Michael Strahan (a Hall of Famer enshrined in 2014), and excluding Taylor, more touchdowns than the four defensive linemen enshrined into the Hall ahead of him.
Peppers is a lock to one day have a Gold Jacket custom-tailored for his jumbo body, and you can bet he'll have a carefully crafted bust made and featured in the halls of Canton, Ohio, too. He's earned it all, incredibly, with basketball as no more than a footnote -- a did you know as interesting and entertaining to relive as his legendary cameo in the 'Hot in Here' music video -- to his illustrious career.