On May 26, 2013, ESPN’s number two overall high school recruit in the 2014 class committed to the University of Michigan in a unique way. With his first of many national introductions, Jabrill Peppers of Paramus Catholic High School (Paramus, New Jersey) announced his collegiate decision by rapping and holding up a winged helmet on a nationally televised broadcast. However, his unique abilities and character were not limited to rapping on ESPN; Peppers was an exceptional high school athlete.
In football, Peppers finished his career with 4,379 all-purpose yards, 64 touchdowns, all while being the nation’s most heralded cornerback. On the track, Peppers won back to back titles in the 100 and 200 meter dashes and broke the state record in the 200 meter dash as a junior with a time of 20.79.
With this level of versatility and speed, and commitment to Michigan, the Charles Woodson comparisons were inevitable. Shortly after his announcement, Peppers addressed these comparisons directly:
“That’s nice to be compared to him, but I’m more of a guy who wants to make my own legacy, start my own thing.”
Peppers began ‘his own thing,’ not under (our Lord and Savior) Coach Jim Harbaugh, but with Coach Brady Hoke in what would be a tumultuous 2014 season.
Brady Hoke began his tenure at Michigan in 2011 with an 11-2 season and the only victory over Ohio State, for any Michigan coach, since 2003 (sigh). However, Hoke’s success increasingly diminished each year, culminating with a 5-7 record in 2014.
Peppers started the first game of the 2014 season and appeared in two more, but injuries derailed his freshman campaign before it got fully off the ground. Fortunately, Peppers was issued a medical redshirt the following February to preserve his four years of eligibility. Hoke, however, was unable to secure any more time. After a losing record, an embarrassing shutout loss to Notre Dame (in the rivalry’s last regular season matchup to date), and another loss to the Buckeyes, Brady Hoke was fired.
As transfer rumors swirled around Ann Arbor, no one knew whether Peppers would stay or leave. After all, he came to play for Brady Hoke and his staff, not whoever they were going to hire next. As all of us speculated and searched for cryptic meanings in every tweet and post from a nineteen-year-old, Peppers never had any intentions of leaving Michigan. Actually, Peppers was one of the players who fought to keep the team together and prevent as few transfers as possible.
On December 30, 2014, Peppers’ commitment was rewarded when Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh as the next head football coach.
Harbaugh possessed a winning pedigree and more importantly, he was a ‘Michigan Man.’ He understood what winning meant to the university and he played quarterback for the most revered coach in Michigan’s program history, Bo Schembechler. The hiring of Jim Harbaugh was a home run for the team, the university, the fans, and most of all, for Jabrill Peppers.
Jim Harbaugh’s quirkiness is often overblown because it is difficult for people to understand him. Harbaugh is obsessed with football; football is his passion and everything else comes second. In Peppers, he found similar qualities stemming from his effort in practices and his ability to place team needs above his own.
Regardless of the situation, Peppers fully embraced the Bo Schembechler mantra of, “The Team, the Team, the Team.” Peppers understood some plays are meant for him to make a play, while others are designed to help his teammates. This type of personal sacrifice is seldom found in high level athletes and it all originates from his innate, selfless character.
This character comes from Peppers’ realization of football being bigger than himself and dates back to his childhood in New Jersey.
His father was incarcerated when he was seven and his older brother was murdered when Jabrill was only fourteen. Barely a teenager, Peppers understood he had to take care of his mother and football was the best way to provide that care. By succeeding on the football field, Peppers could elude the life he was living in New Jersey and pave the way for his mother’s escape from all financial struggles.
Peppers entered the 2015 season seemingly possessed and finished with 45 tackles, 374 all-purpose yards, 2 touchdowns, and led the Wolverines to a 9-3 regular season (unfortunately, an injury prohibited Peppers from contributing in their 41-7 Gator Bowl victory over the University of Florida Gators). Because of his efforts, Peppers was selected as the Big 10’s Freshman of the Year, first team All-Big 10 (coaches and media), and CBS Sports’ and Sporting News’ Second Team All-American honors.
Although this season was full of its fair share of pain and frustration (I have blocked out some punt play in my mind and the last regular season game as well), the hype was validated and the foundation had been set in the Harbaugh era.
If 2015 was the first glimpse of what makes Jabrill Peppers special, 2016 was a complete showcase.
The hurdle against Hawaii; the punt return against Colorado; the “almost” return in the biblical beatdown of Rutgers; the “two-point reversion” (thanks Bill Simmons) against Michigan State; his first interception against Ohio State; 2016 was a weekly guarantee of the spectacular.
The year did not end ideally for Peppers as the Wolverines once again lost to rival Ohio State (even though J.T. was shorter than Craig Krenzel’s NFL career) and an injury once again kept him from playing a bowl game (this time a disappointing 33-32 loss to Florida State).
The bitter end to the season however, did not stop the accolades from flooding in to Ann Arbor: Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s Most Versatile Player, LOTT Impact Trophy Award Winner, Consensus All-American, Heisman Finalist, and the first player in Big 10 history to win three individual awards - Nagurski-Wooden Defensive Player of the Year, Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year, and Rodgers-Dwight Return Specialist of the Year.
With all of this now behind us, what is the legacy of Jabrill Peppers? Undoubtedly his stories will exaggerate to Uncle Rico proportions in the eyes of some, but to truly understand what he has left behind, several perspectives must be examined.
To the fans… Jabrill Peppers was beloved and received “Woodson-esque” adoration. Even in times of frustration, Peppers was exempt from most harsh criticisms. At the 2016 Colorado game, when Michigan got off to a slow start, a fan behind me yelled, “Come on defense! Jabrill can’t do this by himself!” This exclamation epitomized fans in the Big House even when he was at fault on a play; fans were blindly supportive because of their infatuation.
He united fans young and old with his ability to make flashy plays with blue collar work ethic. Children love an exciting run, juke, or hurdle, and imitate him at tailgates across Ann Arbor. Older fans can relinquish their “back in the day” arguments because Peppers’ hard-nosed style of play is timeless and eternally relatable. Peppers is an all-timer when it comes to fan favorites.
To the by-stander… Jabrill Peppers was too overhyped. Casual football fans only heard about Peppers because he was discussed on ESPN nightly as a Heisman candidate. These fans would hear his name and decide to watch him on television the next time Michigan played. Expecting a Reggie Bush type performance, by-standers would label Peppers as “overhyped” and “overrated.” Peppers played high-level 3-way football, unprecedented at this level, and the majority of his defensive snaps were at linebacker. Media outlets would misconstrue the narrative and expect him to be a player he was not. (Clearly, I handle this perspective with limited patience). He was a good player, but from this vantage point, he was “nothing special” (Woosah).
To the rivals… “Thank God #5 is gone.” At all times, Peppers had to be accounted for on offense, defense, and special teams. Mark Dantonio and Urban Meyer were very aware of the effectiveness of Peppers, especially outside of the box score, in every match-up. Dantonio finished 1-1 against Peppers, while Meyer was 2-0 (despite J.T. being shorter than Kim Kardashian’s first marriage) and the gameplan for Peppers was integral in their success. Even fans of rival schools, who swore he “wasn’t even that good” are counting their blessings that he declared for the NFL Draft. Michigan’s rivals will always remember Peppers as the player they verbally criticized, internally feared, and will retrospectively appreciate for his greatness (at least some will).
To the University of Michigan… Jabrill Peppers is symbolic of a “Michigan Man.” He will be remembered for his character, work ethic, and unrelenting competitiveness. Peppers personifies the present day “crazy character” of Jim Harbaugh as a football player, with the calm, off-the-field demeanor of a Desmond Howard. Truly unique, Peppers is incomparable to any previous Michigan alumnus and will always be remembered firstly as a “Michigan Man,” and secondly as a Michigan player.
To myself… At age 25, I have watched many greats players dawn the maize & blue, but never one that wholly captivated me like Jabrill Peppers. Walking into the stadium, I would fill with childlike giddiness at thought of Peppers making a big play or laying a huge hit. I’m sure this was true for thousands of others who would flood Ann Arbor to watch Desmond Howard, Charles Woodson, Anthony Carter, or Braylon Edwards on a chilly Saturday morning, but Peppers was my guy. From the ritualistic last punt return catch of pregame warm-ups to the ferocity in which he played every snap, Peppers is my favorite Wolverine of all-time and it’s not even close.
From fans’ adoration to by-standers’ annoyance, Peppers impacted everyone affiliated with college football in two seasons in Ann Arbor and that is truly the mark of a great player; a mark that cements an enduring legacy.
So with the 25th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns selected linebacker (cornerback, safety, nickelback, halfback, wide receiver, quarterback) Jabrill Peppers, and now he gets to make his own legacy, start his own thing, in the NFL.