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Julius Peppers stories: First-hand accounts of an athletic freak

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Julius Peppers announced his retirement Friday via The Players Tribune after 17 years in the NFL as a member of the Carolina Panthers (2002-09, 2017-18), Chicago Bears (2010-13) and Green Bay Packers (2014-16). The nine-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro ranks fourth in NFL history with 159.5 career sacks, including a franchise-record 97 in Carolina. With 11 interceptions, he is the only player in league history to record both 150 sacks and 10 interceptions. Three NFL.com analysts who saw Peppers' work up close -- Bucky Brooks, who scouted Peppers; Steve Smith Sr., who played with Peppers; and Kurt Warner, who played against Peppers -- look back on the dynamic edge rusher's storied tenure.

THE SCOUT: Bucky Brooks

It was interesting scouting Peppers because he went to my alma mater, the University of North Carolina. Everyone knew who he was before you even got on that campus. He was a defensive end on the football team (who played running back in high school) and the sixth man on the UNC basketball team, one of the most well-known collegiate sports programs in the nation. To have an impact in multiple sports at that level was special, and he made plays on the court and on the field. Evaluating him as a scout with the Seattle Seahawks, I was struck by his extraordinary physical gifts. He moved effortlessly with great speed and was an impact player in whatever he did. I knew early on that his talent made him worthy of being a top draft pick; he had the kind of skill set that screamed perennial Pro Bowler with Hall of Fame potential.

In 2003, I joined the Carolina Panthers scouting department, and that's when my perspective proved true, watching him practice every day. I learned to appreciate just how special, explosive and dominant he was coming off the edge. That season -- his second year in the league -- the Panthers had a tremendous defensive line that helped guide the franchise to its first Super Bowl. And Peppers was the guy who made everything go. He took on double-teams, freeing up space for others, and routinely got to the quarterback himself. When building a defense, coordinators always aim to start with a disruptive guy on the edge, and Peppers was the perfect piece. But because he made everything look so easy, I think Peppers was underappreciated during his first stint in Carolina.

During my NFL career as a player, I played with some of the best pass rushers in the game's history -- including Reggie White, Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas -- so I understood how special Peppers was. When you go back and really pore over his production, he arguably had more disruptive plays than almost every defensive end. It's hard to find players who are so disruptive and well-rounded at their position. Peppers deserves to be mentioned with the all-time greats and is a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

THE TEAMMATE: Steve Smith Sr.

Julius Peppers -- or "Pep," as I call him -- is the complete opposite of me. I always spoke my mind, but Pep often kept to himself, especially in public. Always thoughtful and quiet with a sense of humor, Pep was someone you paid attention to when he spoke in the locker room, at practice or on the sideline. He was a remarkable teammate who went above and beyond what was asked of him. His impact on the field didn't always show on the stat sheet. Yes, he had a ton of sacks and disruptive plays, but he constantly kept the edge, collapsed the pocket, sealed the edge to force the running back to bounce back inside -- and you know damn well that the quarterback always felt his presence. Also, when the defense gave up a touchdown, the extra point -- which, at the old distance, was typically automatic -- was never guaranteed with him on the field. There were a number of guys who were part of that special teams unit, but he was extraordinary in that way -- there was always a chance the extra point (or a field-goal attempt) would get blocked.

We respected each other as teammates and people, and a tradition that started from the time he was drafted in 2003 was shared with everyone, year after year. Wearing Nos. 89 and 90, we were always next to each other in the team photo, displaying quite the contrast between the two of us, considering I'm 5-foot-10 and he's 6-7. I tried to stand on my tippy toes at times. It did nothing for me. Earlier this season, when I was the honorary captain at a Panthers game, Pep walked up to me and said he needed 89 next to him. That statement went a long way, because I knew I meant something to him after all these years.

There are always those players who are special to play with, but Pep was in a league of his own. When I look back on my career in Carolina and all of the things I got to experience in the NFL, playing next to him certainly ranks up there.

THE OPPONENT: Kurt Warner

Peppers was just one of the biggest, best athletes I ever saw on a football field. The combination of his size and athleticism was unbelievable. I would watch him on film and think, Man, this guy is a great athlete. Then, every time I saw him on the field, I remember thinking, He's a giant, too. How do you have that combination?

I played against him several times in my career, but I specifically remember one meeting in 2009 when I was with the Arizona Cardinals. In the week leading up to that game against Carolina, we put in this play to attack Peppers where one of our guys was going to fire out and cut him, and then I could throw this swing pass up over the top of him. I begged my coach all week long to run the play the other direction. I knew it wasn't going to be pretty, and asked him several times, "Please, when we get into the game, call the play to the right, not the left." Sure enough, my coach calls it to the left. The ball snapped, our guy cut Peppers, and I saw him go down and tried to throw the ball as quickly as I could. He bounced back up, picked it off and walked it into the end zone for a pick-six.

I remember glaring at my coach with that I told you look. I looked like the idiot because I threw it right to him, but he was one of those guys that you had to attack in a completely different way than every other defender. I know we play a game where everyone is a great athlete, but some guys are just rare. He was one of them.

Follow Brooke Cersosimo on Twitter @BCersosimo.

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