PARAMUS, NJ — Jabrill Peppers was the kid who scored a touchdown without his shoe.
It was the fourth quarter of the regional championship in junior pee-wee football and Peppers’ East Orange Rams were playing the Rockland Raiders of New York when he was nine years old.
The Rams were losing and had the ball around their own 18-yard line. The coach called a handoff to Peppers, a typical play in a game full of nine-year-olds. What happened next was anything but typical.
Peppers shook off one tackler around the line of scrimmage, losing a shoe in the process. He continued running in one cleat and one sock, but he never slowed down. He didn’t stop until he reached the end zone, 80 yards later.
In another game, one of his Rams teammates who played with Peppers at Paramus Catholic, Jamad Thomas, remembers Peppers hurdling an opposing player on his own 20-yard-line and then running 80 yards for a touchdown.
He was in elementary school.
Chris Spivey knew Peppers was different the first time he met him. He was preparing to coach the East Orange Rams in 2005 and everyone told him he needed to meet the kid who scored 28 touchdowns the previous season, the one who scored without his shoe before he was in fourth grade.
“When he walked towards the coaching staff, I could see he had the swagger of a college kid and the talk of a high school student,” Spivey said.
Once he got to high school, his feats were Herculean.
There’s the run that made SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays, the one that had Michigan fans drooling. Paramus Catholic was playing Red Bank Catholic High School in a scrimmage last August.
Peppers took a handoff on Red Bank Catholic’s 30-yard line and then the evisceration began. Nine defenders got their hands on Peppers, but none could bring him down. He weaved in and out, hardly slowing with the hits. He inflicted more damage on the defense than it did on him, dragging the final would-be tackler into the end zone from eight yards out.
When Paramus Catholic coach Chris Partridge lists the positions Peppers played for him in one game, it reads like a lengthy shopping list.
On defense, he played strong safety, free safety, cornerback and outside linebacker. On offense, he lined up at inside slot receiver, running back, quarterback and receiver. He also did the jobs that weren’t as glamorous.
“He played fullback and kicked someone out, he played tight end and put his hand in the dirt,” Partridge said.
This kind of versatility and dominance makes Peppers the next great hope for Michigan fans, an 18-year-old who can change everything. He was the recruit of all recruits, the one Wolverine legend Charles Woodson compared himself to, the one who could bring Michigan back from the depths of mediocrity.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke has said that all of his position coaches want Peppers, but hasn’t said when he will appear on offense.
A good friend and former teammate at Paramus Catholic, Najee Clayton, said he has talked to Peppers since he arrived in Ann Arbor and is confident he will play offense this season.
“I’ll say the first couple of games, they’ll just get his feet wet,” Clayton said. “I’ll say by the fifth or sixth game, we’ll see. Everybody’s gonna see.”
He is more myth than man, more a YouTube sensation shaking off eager tacklers on a computer screen than a Michigan football player.
That will change Saturday, when Peppers wears the maize and blue, runs onto the field at the Big House and touches the banner for the first time. He will be the Wolverines’ punt returner and play nickel cornerback. He could play almost any position on the field.
He’s still a kid, but in the eyes of Wolverine fans, Peppers represents hope. Can one teenager shoulder the load?
Peppers has felt the weight of expectations before, the pressure to be the star. He left football power Don Bosco Prep after his sophomore year of high school to go to less-heralded Paramus Catholic.
Don Bosco finished the previous season as the top-ranked team in USA Today’s national high school football ratings. Peppers said he wasn’t happy at Don Bosco and he preferred the education at Paramus Catholic.
Message board critics questioned his motives at the time. They whispered that he wanted to be the face of the program at Paramus Catholic, not a cog in the machine at mighty Don Bosco. They thought it was all about him.
It takes a special football player to play multiple positions at a high level, one, who has a developed understanding of the game.
It’s no accident that Peppers has a mind that’s up to the task. His mother, Ivory Bryant, made education the top priority even before her son was born. When he was in the womb, she made a concentrated effort to listen various genres of music and tapes. She was going to do anything to make sure Peppers was intelligent.
Her ideas began to manifest once Peppers was born. She pushed him in school; slacking off wasn’t an option. Bryant knew her son was gifted early. His first teachers noted how quickly he grasped concepts early on in his education. If they taught a concept in the morning and gave a test in the afternoon, he would never get lower than a B.
“They were fascinated at how he was able to grasp and understand, and not just retain as in regurgitate what was taught,” Bryant said. “But he actually understood it and learned it.”
Unintentionally, his quick comprehension translated onto the football field.
His mother remembers Peppers first picking up a football when he was on the sideline of his brother and older cousin’s games when he was three or four years old. He was jealous he wasn’t old enough to play, so he spent his time at the games running around with a miniature football as if he were playing with the older kids.
When Peppers was old enough to start playing, his coaches saw how quickly he understood complicated instructions.
“He was a little coach,” Spivey said.
In one junior pee-wee practice, Peppers was on the punt coverage team. Per usual, he was the first player down the field. Another teammate quickly joined him and they watched the ball roll, waiting to down the punt. But then a coach swooped in, scooping up the ball and running. The coaches told Peppers he needed to guard against that.
In the team’s next game, Peppers lined up as a punt returner. The players on the other team let the ball roll to the 20-yard line. Then Peppers’ instincts kicked in. Just like his coach did in practice, he picked up the ball and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown.
One lesson was all he needed to understand what he needed to do on both sides of the ball.
Some of the most important lessons to prepare Peppers came off the field. When he was 14, his older brother, one of his mentors, was shot and killed. His father was in jail and things could have spiraled downward quickly. Instead, Peppers came away understanding the brevity of life and refused to let opportunity pass.
“He persevered through all of that and used his pain to help propel him to where he wants to go,” Bryant said. “And I think that because of everything, because of the encouragement of his brother, his love for his brother, has been that motivating his factor.”
With this motivation, he wouldn’t let the doubters win when he transferred to Paramus Catholic.
Paramus Catholic coach Chris Partridge cited Peppers’ actions in saying the cynics were wrong. Like any other player, he waited his turn to lead. He wanted to fit in rather than be the star. Peppers had a chip on his shoulder then, and he still does now.
“The thing that makes Jabrill Jabrill is he feels like he has that chip on his shoulder every single rep, every single lift, everything he does, he feels like he has to prove himself,” Partridge said.
Partridge said Peppers quickly became the kind of person everyone at the school wanted to be around. He kept his standards high for himself and others noticed.
His teammates at Paramus say he cared about four things: academics, football, track and field and his passion for rapping. He pursued each doggedly.
“In math class, if he gets an 80, he’s mad, he wants to get a 90, a 100,” Partridge said.
Peppers didn’t take shortcuts when it came to the pursuit of excellence.
He spent time in Partridge’s office during every lunch period. Peppers always wanted to go over coverages, to understand what other teams would be trying to do. He wanted to become a student of the game.
“You have athletic guys all over the place, but what separates him is his mind,” Partridge said.
In the playoffs in his senior season, Peppers got a chance for revenge against Don Bosco. The results of his studies became tangible. Even with all of his athletic ability, Peppers got his payback with his brain.
It was in the state semifinal with just under three minutes to go. Paramus was losing but driving down the field when they called a play they refer to as “follow.” Peppers was supposed to run the deep rout while fellow wide receiver Dejon Harrison was supposed to go underneath. Peppers read the eyes of the safety and knew he would be covering him, so he switched the rout at the last second and told Harrison to go deep.
Peppers commanded the attention of the safety, allowing Harrison to catch the winning touchdown.
Since he’s been at Michigan, Peppers has been shielded from the media. After years under the watchful eye of the public, he can focus on adjusting to college, away from the spotlight, something his mother and Partridge consider beneficial.
Hoke says he will take things slowly with Peppers. First, he wanted him to master the nickel cornerback spot but Hoke also named Peppers the team’s punt returner this week.
“The confidence that he has gives me confidence,” Hoke said Monday.
Michigan punter Will Hagerup spoke of Peppers’ ability to field his punts no matter where he kicks them. Peppers hasn’t missed one yet.
Despite the rave reviews, just how much and where Peppers will play is a mystery.
“The more they can give him, the better off think he’ll be and the better off they’ll be, because I’ve seen how dynamic he is and how much he can help,” Partridge said.
Partridge has texted Peppers regularly since he’s been in Ann Arbor and thinks Peppers will be used as an offensive weapon this season.
“I think he’s too dynamic of a player not to be,” he said.
His high school friends and coaches say Peppers’ attitude hasn’t changed since he began college. Clayton said Peppers keeps a tape recorder in the closet of his dorm room so he can rap when he’s not playing football.
His mother expects him to approach this season as he approached his first year at Paramus Catholic. If he’s the savior of Michigan football, she doesn’t expect him to act as such.
Partridge witnessed the last time Peppers was supposed to be the singular star and earn his role. He isn’t guaranteeing a big splash for his former player or a program-altering season.
But he’s definitive when asked about Peppers’ ceiling.
He says there is none. Jabrill Peppers can do anything.