|Wednesday, February 19
Updated: March 25, 3:49 PM ET
Peppers turns to former advisor for help
By Tom Friend
ESPN The Magazine
Behind every great college athlete is … a tutor.
And behind every great two-sport college athlete is … a miracle worker.
I'm reminded of this after visiting with Julius Peppers, the current Carolina Panther who spent two seasons as a Tar Heel football and basketball star. The kid has encountered a series of crises over the last five years -- particularly last November -- and every time, he has gone running to one and only one person: his Tar Heel academic advisor.
Anyone who thinks these tutors are in it for the short term need to hear this story. They need to know that Peppers could be hanging with a posse right now, but instead is hanging with … a PhD.
Meantime, just as Peppers was being thrown off campus, Carl Carey was accepting a job as the North Carolina academic advisor. An assistant football coach named Donnie Thompson hurriedly approached Carey in those first few days and said, "By the way, you have a problem on your hands, and his name is Julius Peppers."
Carey's response was, "How can he be a problem already?" Which is how it all begins.
Eventually, Carey and Peppers are introduced, and when Peppers is told Carey will be "the one to straighten him out," Peppers literally laughs outloud. But this is how most student-tutor relationships start -- with a roll of the eyes.
Of course, when a kid is about to flunk out, that changes. Peppers, in that first semester of his freshman year, failed two classes and found out he had to pass a third class -- Drama 15 -- or be sent home. On the final, Peppers scored a 59.7, which the teacher considered a failing grade. But Carey felt a 59.7 should be rounded up to 60, and was convinced Peppers had passed. Normally, the Dean (not Dean Smith) would be the one to mediate, but the Dean was still angry about the Air Jordans. So Carey never called him. Instead, Carey banged and banged on the door of Peppers' teacher, asking for a re-test. The teacher said yes, and Carey and Peppers crammed together, learning every four theatre productions backwards and forwards. Peppers passed the final exam -- and his life was never the same.
From then on, you never saw Peppers without Carey. There was an 11-year age difference, but Carey had become the buffer between Peppers and his coaches. And, phew, did he have a lot of coaches.
By his second year at Chapel Hill, Peppers was starring as a football pass rusher and was an important power forward on the basketball team. He went to a Bowl game, and he went to a Final Four. But … he didn't always go to class.
"Playing two sports, he needed that much more supervision," says Carey. "From August to March, he was on a team. And that's basically the entire school year. But what it also did was solidify our relationship as brothers."
Peppers was such a muted personality that Carey essentially became his spokesman. At the time, Carey had no idea the kid would play pro sports someday; all he knew was that two coaching staffs were calling him at all hours, saying: Keep him eligible, keep him eligible.
"Now I had two coaching staffs making sure he made it," Carey says. "We had a meeting once that his mother drove up for. It was Julius, Coach Thompson, myself and my boss, and Coach Thompson is yelling. We say, 'Julius, why won't you do your work?' He's, 'I don't know.' Even today, that's his answer, 'I don't know.' That's his answer to 700 questions: 'I don't know.' And it's not that he didn't know. It's just he's intensely private."
There were close calls every semester. The year he and Tar Heels reached the Final Four, he was almost certain to flunk out again. Carey implored him to get to work, but Peppers said, "I'm too tired." Carey said, "I understand you're tired, but if you don't do this work, you'll be playing zero sports instead of two." Peppers said, "Aw right, I'll be right over to your office." But three hours later, four hours later, 12 hours later, Julius Peppers wasn't there.
Eventually, he came back -- he always came back -- and he'd always stay eligible, too. "I'll never forget his last season at Carolina, when he cleared his last academic hurdle to stay eligible," Carey says. "I thought I'd made it. I literally celebrated in my office. Celebrated. But I wasn't done with him. The agents began showing up."
Peppers, by this time, had won the Lombardi Award as the nation's premier pass-rusher, and was almost certainly going to go No. 1 or No. 2 in the 2002 NFL draft. Carey noticed the agents camping out at Peppers' door, noticed all the agents calling Peppers, at all hours. He asked Peppers what he was going to do, and Peppers said, "What am I gonna do? I'm going to let you handle it."
So that's what happened. Carey may have had his ph.D in educational psychology, but now he was a broker of sorts. Now he was being offered money and other loot by would-be agents. Now he was the one telling those agents to get lost. Now he was in way too deep.
So that takes us to last November. Julius Peppers was devastated, absolutely devastated. He had taken an energy pill last year, as a rookie with the Panthers, and it turned out that the pill was laced with an ephedra-like substance. The NFL suspended him for four games, saying he violated its policy on steroids and related substances, and Peppers' name was officially dragged through the mud. In his first extensive interview on the subject, published in this current issue of ESPN the Magazine, Peppers claims it was all a mistake, an innocent mistake. But he also knows -- from talking to other NFL players -- that the rest of the league doesn't buy it, that they think he had taken steroids on purpose.
Who did he turn to get through it all? The tutor.
So, the tutor is still there, still calling him into his office. Once a tutor, always a tutor. Carey -- now an administrator at the University of Houston who has a web site, championpro.com, that helps college athletes and their families learn how to pick an agent -- is the one who now assures the Carolina Panthers that Peppers is clean. He's the one who now assures Peppers that he can get his name back. He's the one who's not leaving Peppers any time soon.
Even though school's over.