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Last weekend, Brian Foster, the football coach at Southern Nash High in Bailey, received a text message on his phone.
It has been a tough year for Foster, whose brother died during the summer, and the message arrived at one of those moments when the sadness was creeping in again.
The message was short. It said, in essence, I love you and your family and thank you for all you've done for me.
It was from Julius Peppers.
"He's not going to say a lot," Foster said, "but when he says it, he means it."
Julius Peppers is just trying to get by being quiet and shy in a world full of pushing and shoving.
On the football field where he plays a violent game, Peppers plays with a transcendent grace. He is blessed with the uncommon combination of speed, size and power, allowing him to redefine the defensive end position he plays for the Carolina Panthers. He leads the NFL with eight sacks.
Like smoke, Peppers can seemingly be everywhere. Like Batman, he can come swooping in from nowhere.
"It's rare when you have the opportunity to see a player who is ahead of his time," said Howie Long, a Hall of Fame defensive end and Fox Sports NFL analyst. "Lawrence Taylor was ahead of his time. Kellen Winslow was ahead of his time. They gave you a snapshot glimpse of what you could see in the future. Julius Peppers is that way."
What does Peppers think when he hears the hosannas?
"It's like they're talking about somebody else," he says in a voice deep as distant thunder.
Julius Peppers has always heard voices.
He heard the men who drank beer and idled their lives away near the trailer where he lived in the tiny eastern North Carolina town of Bailey without his father.
He heard his mother, Faye Brinkley, who is almost as reticent as her 26-year-old son, when she gave him direction.
He heard Foster, who was an a.ssistant football coach when he befriended Peppers long before the athletic world knew about the big kid who dunked in junior high basketball games and could anchor the boys' 4x400 relay team in the high school state championship.
He heard Carl Carey, the academic advisor to the North Carolina football team when Peppers was in Chapel Hill, who saw the potential in Peppers the person the way scouts and coaches saw his potential as an athlete.
He heard the disappointment when he was suspended four games as a rookie for unknowingly using a banned supplement.
He heard the recruiters and the salesmen, the friends and the vultures, the good and the bad.
Peppers has heard it all.
And never said much about it.
"I'd just rather listen than talk," he says.
But like quietly falling snow, there is accumulation. There is a depth to Peppers that reaches beyond his closing speed chasing down a tailback or his ability to physically dominate blockers the size of boulders.
Ask one of the few people closest to him and she will tell you, "When he talks you want to listen. Whatever he says will be well thought out. A lot of people mistake his shyness for arrogance. It's the opposite. It's how humble he is."
Video game monster
In the prime of his football life, Peppers has found a peace and comfort that cloaks him like the oversized sweat pants and hooded sweatshirts he favors in the cold. The word "discipline" is tattooed on one of Peppers' wrists. On his hand, it's never far away.To say Peppers is not who you think he is would be inaccurate, because few people know who Peppers is when he takes off his shoulder pads and helmet.
His teammate Mike Minter makes a point of checking out the books Peppers has with him on flights to road games. He's seen best-sellers, motivational books, history books. But always books.
At home in his uptown condominium, Peppers occasionally plays classical music, appreciating the way it soothes him. He doesn't know the name of the pieces he hears, but he knows what he likes.
He likes chicken tenders, a well-done filet and he loves what he calls Thanksgiving turkey, the one dish he might ask his mother to cook for him.
He loves leaving the stadium in his black Range Rover and going home by himself to watch television, play video games or read.
It's where he can be Julius.
Not Pep. Not J.P. Not the guy thousands watch on Sunday, hundreds of them wearing his No. 90 jersey.
Just Julius, which is what he likes to be called.
When he's at work, Peppers is surrounded by teammates and he has gradually dropped his guard, showing more of the personality he says he often intentionally hides.
It's like the dimples in his cheeks. He has them. They're just hard to see under his thick black beard.
Lock Peppers into a video-game battle in Madden football like the ones that occasionally flare up in the dorms at training camp or at DeShaun Foster's place and Peppers' gets chatty.
"If he's beating you, he turns from a quiet guy into a monster," teammate Mike Rucker said. "He has this little rhythm he gets into when he starts talking."
Small circle of friends
When Peppers leaves the stadium, he walks into the world where he's a reluctant celebrity. He understands the trappings of fame, but he prefers a simpler life.
On a normal day, Peppers said, he will talk to only two or three people away from the stadium. One is Carey. Another is a female friend in Charlotte. Not a girlfriend, Peppers said, just a special friend.
"People are different," Peppers said, sitting in a small room tucked just outside the Panthers' locker room. "Everybody has their own way of doing things. Keyshawn (Johnson) would embrace (the attention). It's his personality. It's how he is.
"There's nothing wrong with me being quiet. It's who I am."
Peppers goes out occasionally, to restaurants or clubs or shopping.
"He's definitely not a club guy. He's a wallflower," Peppers' female friend (who asked not to be identified) said.
For all that's great about being an All-Pro defensive end with a contract worth up to $50 million, there is a darker, more threatening side. Almost everybody wants to be your friend, but not for the same reasons.
It's why Peppers' circle of close friends is small enough to fit around a kitchen table.
`I'm complex but simple'
In Bailey, Foster became his friend and his coach. On Sunday afternoons, Foster would take Peppers to the high school gym, where they would play basketball, often saying little, just to take Peppers where he wanted to be.He would take him to his house, where his wife would help Peppers with his school work. In the summers, when the heat was merciless, Foster would see Peppers running down the road, chasing what he now has.
Sometimes, when Foster would drive Peppers home, the coach would point out the guys with nowhere to go.
"You could be one of those guys," Foster told Peppers more than once. "All it takes is one bad decision and 20 years later you'll be sitting there with them."
It hasn't saved him from mistakes, but being young and wealthy and famous doesn't come with a how-to manual.
"That's been the hardest adjustment for me -- who is real and who is not," Peppers said. "That's trial and error.
"I've been burned a few times -- once in a relationship and other times when people were trying to get what they could get. There have been a lot of people who just want to hang around because of the person they see on Sunday. They aren't my true friends. People are clever that way."
Peppers said he learned a valuable lesson his rookie season when he drew a four-game suspension for taking a diet supplement that included ephedra, a banned substance. Peppers, who trusted a friend who suggested the supplement, paid a penalty that reached beyond the $1.5-million he estimated the suspension cost him.
It hurt his reputation. When reports surfaced recently that San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman would be suspended for violating the league policy, Peppers' mind raced back to the end of the 2002 season.
Since then, Peppers has been more careful in everything he does. With Carey handling his business affairs, Peppers has found a balance in enjoying his life today while planning for the future.
Blessed with wealth, Peppers has shared it. Though he has never publicized it, Peppers has made significant financial donations to churches in Charlotte, Bailey and around the area to help feed the homeless and counsel young people.
He has hosted events called "Rites of Passage," that focus on providing direction for young African-American males and plans to do more in the future.
He does little things and big things but, like everything but his football, Peppers prefers it low profile.
"I'm really a simple guy," he said. "I'm complex but simple. That's because I want my privacy."
A few years ago, he bought a house for his mother in Durham, his way of saying thank you.
She had an idea it was coming.
When Peppers was in college, he was at home on the Saturday night before Mother's Day. After his mother went to bed, Peppers slipped a handwritten note under her door for her to find the next morning.
In the three-page letter written on notebook paper, Peppers told his mother how much he loved her and all he would do for her when he turned pro.
Faye Brinkley still has that letter in the bedroom of her Durham house. Every so often, she re-reads the letter.
Because Julius Peppers doesn't say a lot. But when he says it, he means it.