By Jason Rubinstein, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 14, 2013
Reporters, friends and family crowded a glorified media closet that, on the afternoon of May 27, 2013, served as an ESPNU studio to broadcast the college decision of a 6-foot, 205-pound athlete who can score from virtually any position — Jabrill Peppers.
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Once the cameras started rolling, Peppers dove right into a rap:
“I could see it now
The fans scream and yellin’
As I’m walking out that tunnel
Wearing a winged helmet
Go blue, baby. I’m going to Michigan.”
Seconds later, ESPN’s No. 2 high-school player in the country, an Under Armour All-America Game invitee, put on the winged helmet. Beaming with happiness, he sealed his commitment to Michigan.
The Wolverines hadn’t seen a commit with his potential two-way abilities since they signed Charles Woodson over a decade ago. The ex-Don Bosco Preparatory (N.J.) and current Paramus Catholic (N.J.) star had become Michigan’s highest-ranked commit ever, and any doubts about coach Brady Hoke as a recruiter were squashed.
The Woodson comparisons immediately ensued. Yes, Charles Woodson, the Michigan legend and surefire NFL Hall of Famer. Comparing a high-school senior to arguably the best Michigan defender ever seems a bit unfair, but the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner loves it.
“I don’t think he should dampen the expectations, but he should embrace the expectations,” Woodson said in an phone interview with the Daily last week. “From everything I have read about Jabrill, he is a very confident player, and you bring that confidence to the next level. It’s good to have expectations, and I see him coming in ready to perform and live up to what everyone thinks.”
Starting for Don Bosco Preparatory is an honor. The football factory in Ramsey, N.J., has churned out dozens of Division I players. The school has a military-like setup with its players working their way up, learning from the upperclassmen along the way and earning a starting varsity spot by junior or senior year. But Peppers wasn’t about conformity. He ran a 4.4 40-yard dash and won the state championship for the 100-and 200-meter race. More impressively, though, was his ability to cut without losing any of his record-breaking speed.
So Peppers broke the status quo and was thrown into a starting role as a freshman. At the time, Don Bosco was the No. 1 team in the state and played longtime rival, No. 4 St. Peter’s, in the state semifinal. Regional supremacy was on the line.
St. Peter’s had a simple game plan: exploit the 15-year-old freshman corner and throw his way all game. After all, on the other side of the field was one of the state’s best cornerbacks, current Colorado defensive back Yuri Wright.
But it didn’t take long for St. Peter’s to reconsider its original plan. In the first quarter, Peppers scored on an 87-yard blocked field-goal return. In the second quarter, he intercepted a pass and returned the ball 94 yards for a touchdown. Don Bosco won easily, 37-0. Fans and coaches alike were sold. And any questions of Peppers’s ability were thrown away.
“That game put me on the map,” Peppers said in a phone interview. “That was definitely the game breaker that put me over the top.”
And behind Peppers’s heroic plays, Don Bosco went on to win the state title. The expectations to perform continued into his sophomore season, but no matter how large they were, Peppers produced. In his sophomore year, he scored 22 offensive touchdowns and accumulated over 1,000 total yards, leading his school to another state championship.
Despite the overwhelming success, Peppers needed a change from the football-before-everything culture. The football system at Don Bosco was too much to handle, prompting Peppers to transfer to another New Jersey high school, Paramus Catholic, which values academics over athletics — a value that should suit him well at Michigan.
“I’m definitely enjoying my life a lot better,” Peppers said. “I got a group of guys around me that want to see me succeed not only on the football field, but also off of it. Winning is important here, but it’s not the only important thing. I think some coaches get caught up with themselves rather than actually producing young men on and off the field.”
Even though the Don Bosco culture didn’t mean much to him anymore, the idea was that whatever team he suited up for would win.