Sunday, August 31, 2003

Peppers watches fame grow beyond Carolina

But defensive end content with Southern lifestyle

By Jenna Fryer
The Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Julius Peppers is too big-time to still shop at Wal-Mart, and he's too small-town to have a wild night with his rapper buddies at the Grammy Awards.

The budding NFL star is still feeling his way through fame, trying hard to settle into Charlotte. A standout defensive end on a Carolina Panthers team that lacks offensive stars, Peppers may be the city's biggest sports celebrity.

"When we go to the mall, sometimes I feel bad for him," said running back DeShaun Foster, one of Peppers' closest friends on the team. "It's like one person sees him, and word spreads and he gets totally mobbed."

Peppers is an enormous fish - 6 feet 7, 285 pounds - in a very small pond. But he's quiet, almost shy, and doesn't have much interest in cashing in on his celebrity status.

In some ways, he's an unassuming child in a man's body and doesn't quite understand why he's such a big deal.

"It's kind of hard for me to go anywhere in Charlotte because I draw a lot of crowds," he said, taking one of his trademark long pauses to think about his answer. "And I don't really get why. I guess I really just don't see myself in a famous light."

Charlotte has never really had a marquee athlete and counts NASCAR stars among its most famous residents.

Big names have come through the small city - Alonzo Mourning, Vlade Divac and Larry Johnson all played here for the now-departed Hornets. But all went on to bigger things in the bright lights of Miami, Los Angeles and New York.

For the Panthers, about to begin their ninth season, Kerry Collins made a small splash on the nightlife scene early in his career, but tight end Wesley Walls was the only player with any celebrity staying power.

That leaves Chris Leak, a freshman quarterback at Florida who set national high school records while playing in the city, as Charlotte's most celebrated athlete.

Peppers is about to change that, whether he wants to or not.

When the Panthers took the North Carolina standout second overall in the 2002 draft, he already had a following with many of the team's fans, having starred at nearby Chapel Hill.

Then he earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, getting 12 sacks in the 12 games he played. Peppers probably would have done more, but he was suspended from the final four games of the season for testing positive for an illegal supplement.

In the time he did play, the native of tiny Bailey, east of Raleigh, attracted an impressive fan base that stretches far beyond the Panthers' faithful.

Now he's on the verge of becoming Charlotte's first superstar, its first athlete to draw widespread attention outside the Carolinas.

Peppers is considered an A-list athlete among A-list celebrities. But if he's impressed by the doors it has opened for him, he doesn't let on.

He had a prominent role in one of Nelly's videos and now considers the St. Louis-based rapper a friend. ( "I know his crew pretty good.") He attended the Grammy Awards. ("I mean, you go to the Grammys when you get asked. It was cool, it was all right. It wasn't all that.") And he got great seats at a Mike Tyson fight. ("Going to fights is cool, I guess.")

"A lot of famous people, instead of watching MTV or BET, they watch ESPN. So I guess some of them kind of noticed me and became fans of mine," Peppers said. "I guess that's just the way it works."

If it has to happen, he's glad it's happening in Charlotte and not in New York or Los Angeles.

"It's a nice style of living here," he said. "I mean, I'm big here, but I can handle it. I don't know if I'd want to be in New York and getting the attention that (Giants tight end) Jeremy Shockey does. That stuff is out of control and I don't want none of that."

So a typical night for Peppers is settling into his swanky downtown apartment, eating a dinner pre-prepared by a chef who keeps the fridge stocked, and making sure he doesn't miss an episode of the MTV show Making the Band.

Someday, Peppers wants to be compared to Reggie White, Bruce Smith and Michael Strahan. Until then, he just wants to be left alone.

"I ain't afraid to say I want to be in the same sentence as those cats, and I ain't afraid to shoot for it," he said. "I want it all. I want to be the best, and I'm a long way away from there.

"So until I get there, I need to just keep quiet and worry about my job and what I'm supposed to do. The rest of this stuff - fame, parties, people - it's just not that big a deal."

Julius Peppers file

Team: Carolina Panthers

Position: Defensive end

Height: 6-6

Weight: 283

Born: Jan. 18, 1980

College: North Carolina

NFL Experience: Second season

Last season

Games: 12; Sacks: 12; INTs: 1

Awards: NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

Note: Was suspended from the final four games of the season for testing positive for an illegal supplement.

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