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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Peppers enjoyed a luxury today’s athletes lack: Time to excel at two sports

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning is sacked by Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers at Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey on Sun., Dec. 27, 2009. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

By Joseph Person / The Athletic

One of the great things about sports is just when you’re sure you’ll never see another athlete like Player X, another one comes along a decade or two later to make fans reconsider their position.

But in the case of Julius Peppers, a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer who will be enshrined this summer with six others, there may in fact never be another athlete quite like him — if only because there are not many two-sport stars anymore.

A former Carolina Panthers and University of North Carolina star, Peppers is the only player to appear in a Final Four in men’s basketball and a Super Bowl, having played basketball and football for the Tar Heels for two seasons. But Peppers said demands on athletes have changed since he was a two-sport star at Southern Nash High School in Bailey, North Carolina, in the 1990s.

“It’s tough,” Peppers said recently in Charlotte, N.C. “And the reason I think you don’t see it as much is everybody is selfish with the time.”

He added: “Nowadays, sports is year-round, especially football. Nobody wants to give up their time. Football coaches don’t want to give up their time. They want you there for spring. Basketball players, that’s a year-round thing, too. It’s that simple. Everybody is selfish with the time. Nobody wants to give it up.”

The NCAA does not track how many of its 520,000 athletes play more than one sport. But anecdotally, it certainly seems like the number of multiple-sport athletes has shrunk beginning at the high school level as AAU basketball, travel baseball and seven-on-seven football leagues have turned those sports into round-the-clock endeavors.

Peppers wasn’t even North Carolina’s only two-sport star when he was in Chapel Hill. Ronald Curry was the Tar Heels’ quarterback for three seasons and started 26 games at guard for the basketball team during the 2000-01 season, the last year he and Peppers played. The two gave up the sport the next year to prepare for the 2002 draft, when the Panthers took Peppers with the No. 2 pick and Curry went in the seventh round to the Oakland Raiders.

Charles Waddell was the Panthers’ director of marketing and sponsorships when the team drafted Peppers, despite public calls for Carolina to select Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington. Waddell felt a special connection to Peppers. Waddell played football, basketball and track at North Carolina from 1972-74, and remains the Tar Heels’ last three-sport letterman.

“People were saying, ‘Pep’s just like you.’ I said, ‘No, he’s a lot better than me. He’s exceptional,’” said Waddell, a special assistant to the athletic director at South Carolina. “For him to do the things he could do on the basketball court and in football, it was unbelievable.”

Like Peppers, Waddell said the year-round training in every sport had made it difficult on this generation of athletes to play more than one as they reach high school and college.

“Kids are specializing so early and just focusing in one sport rather than playing a variety of sports,” Waddell said. “Without a doubt, there are some kids that could have done it, that are good enough to play two or three sports. But they just don’t have the time. The expectations from their coaches are so demanding that they feel they just have to hang in there with that one sport.”

There have been exceptions. Bruce Ellington was South Carolina’s starting point guard for three seasons and a standout wide receiver for Steve Spurrier before the San Francisco 49ers drafted him in the fourth round in 2014.

South Carolina has had a few football players who have run for the Gamecocks’ track team, including former Panthers wideout Damiere Byrd and Nyck Harbor, a freshman receiver who recently recorded the school’s second-fastest 60-meter dash time (6.61 seconds).

Peppers admitted he didn’t know what he was doing the two winters he jumped right from football into basketball at North Carolina.

“People always ask me, ‘How were you able to do that?’ At the time I was just having fun,” he said. “I was just playing the sports that I love. It wasn’t a job. It wasn’t work. It wasn’t hard or anything. I was just playing. So it was a great time in my life just to be carefree and have fun playing sports.”

Peppers said some of the skills he needed to become an all-state basketball player as a senior and a regular on the Tar Heels’ 2000 Final Four team carried over to football.

“The footwork and agility type of things that you need to use on the court, I feel like translated to the football field and my style of play,” said Peppers, a power forward who averaged 5.7 points and 3.7 rebounds over his two seasons at North Carolina. “So I think that was an advantage that I had at the time, being shifty on the field. That came from basketball — and body control, stuff like that.”

One of Peppers’ basketball teammates and close friends in college was Jason Capel, whose father was a Charlotte Bobcats assistant coach. Capel said the Bobcats had conversations about bringing Peppers in for a workout.

But Peppers at that time had begun focusing on football. It was the right decision, but not an easy one for a player who was named Julius Frazier after his father’s two favorite basketball players: Julius Erving and Walt Frazier.

“It’s been well documented that basketball was my first love,” Peppers said. “It was one of those things where I had to give it up for my best interests because I knew — yeah, that’s your dream to play in the NBA and you probably could do it if you wanted to. But it’s probably not the best move for you.

“I was having those thoughts before I went into the draft. I think I could have played and had a pretty solid career. But it wouldn’t have been All-Star, Hall of Fame-type level. So when I think back on it, it definitely was the right choice to give it up and go the football route.”

The gold jacket Peppers will put on Aug. 3 in Canton, Ohio, is just the latest confirmation.

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