Jabrill Peppers: "Itís good that people compare me to (Charles Woodson), but Iím not going to rock his jersey. Iím going to rock my jersey, No. 5." (Josh Newkirk / Fox Sports Next)
Michigan's highly-regarded football recruiting class added its most decorated member to date last week when Paramus (N.J.) Catholic cornerback Jabrill Peppers added his name to an already impressive 2014 ledger. Ranked a five-star prospect and the No. 11 player in the country by Fox Sports Next, the 6-0, 190-pounder is universally regarded as one of the most electric players in the country. But as remarkable as all of his athletic gifts are, they're only part of what makes this talented youngster a special recruit.
The Jabrill Peppers story could've easily unfolded very differently had he not overcome circumstances that portended a less promising future.
The first major obstacle emerged in fifth grade, when his father Terry was sentenced to over 10 years in prison on a weapons charge. While the two have maintained a strong relationship via phone and written correspondence during the elder Peppers' confinement, that long-distance interaction alone wasn't enough to keep an impressionable youngster on the right path. So in an environment with a paucity of figures he should emulate, Peppers appeared destined to head down an ominous path. That's when an influence some initially may have seen as a curse actually revealed itself to be a blessing.
"My brother (Don Curtis) was actually in (the street life), but that was the main person who sheltered me from it," Peppers explained. "He was my role model even though he was not doing what he was supposed to do. He kept me from doing the things that he was doing. I actually wanted to be out there with him. I didn't have a male role model in my life, so he was the closest thing to one. I was looking up to him so I was fighting every day, but every time he saw me out there in the street he would tighten me up and tell me to go home. He would tell me, 'This is not how (you're) going to do it! This is not how (you're) going to live (your) life.'"
Peppers added: "My mom instilled the right and wrong in me, but when it comes to actually keeping me off the streets, that was my brother. That's why I played so many sports when I was young -- to keep me busy because I knew that if I didn't have anything to do I was going to hang with the wrong crowd. I had a lot of friends that were doing that. That's why I thank my brother. I definitely wanted to follow in his footsteps and do everything he was doing. He kept me on the right track and I thank him to this day."
Unfortunately that gratitude can't be shown face to face. For years Curtis had diligently shielded his brother from the dangers of their surroundings, but no one was there to shield him. On Jan. 9, 2010 Curtis was fatally shot in the face while standing at the counter of takeout restaurant in Newark, N.J.
With his father in prison and his brother gunned down, suddenly the then eighth-grade Peppers was at a crossroads. It was at that point that he decided that his future would chart differently. If that meant moving to a different location and applying himself more academically and athletically, so be it.
"(Getting through the tragic losses) definitely makes you stronger, makes you more hungry," said Peppers. "It humbles you. It just makes you that much more hungry. You're behind the eight ball (because) you don't have a man in your life to guide you through right and wrong. So you are pretty much independent because even though you have your mom, your mom can't teach you how to be a man. It was definitely a struggle, but it made me that much hungrier just seeing my mom struggling, working two jobs for me and sacrificing by picking up and moving. That definitely has a lot to do with (why he works so hard). Until she is living comfortably in a house in Hollywood somewhere, I'm not going to stop."
'Real recognizes real'
With a newfound sense of purpose, Peppers' athletic ability began shining through even more. He found his mother to be extremely supportive of his athletic endeavors, but with one condition. He could work toward football being their ticket out of their environment, but could never let it be the only ticket. He obliged by becoming an honor roll student with a goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. When his recruitment intensified, his mother was again going to support whatever decision he made, but with one caveat.
"She didn't care where I went to go play football -- she cared about how they are going to treat me," stated Peppers. "And just the academic standpoint -- what can they do for me after my life after football? That's something that she instilled in me since I was a young kid and that's something I carry with me to this day. That's why I had Michigan, Stanford, Penn State and Ohio State high on my list. The degree that you get from those schools lives on way after you're done playing for them. That's the main thing that she really cared about -- how are they going to treat me? The academics and definitely distance also. You know how moms are."
Michigan provided an ideal mix of all of those attributes, but there was one specific trait that allowed the Wolverines to distinguish themselves tangibly from their opposition. The ability of the players and coaches to connect with Peppers during his early April visit to Ann Arbor was summed up in one memorable statement.
"Real recognizes real," Peppers said afterward.
By then he had grown accustomed to hearing pre-packaged recruiting spiels full of pomp, circumstance, and ephemeral promises. Brady Hoke and company bucked that trend.
"I knew right after the visit (that Michigan was the place), but I still just wanted to take it slowly and give some other colleges a chance," recalled Peppers. "I figured if Michigan could surprise me so much then I'm pretty sure that another one of my top choices could as well. But every visit I went on, I compared to Michigan, and it was just no comparison. It was just the feel of it, the coaches, just everything.
"My main thing with all these visits is that some schools try to doll everything up for you. Some recruits like that, I don't. I'm more like, just be real with me. If it is not going to be like that when I get there, why are you advertising it? A couple of schools did that and that's where they lost me. I'm not one of those guys who liked to be dined. Treat me how it is going to be when I get there. I just want to go someplace where I can get a good education and play some good ball and that's going to prepare me for the league. I don't need all that extra stuff."
Even from afar Terry Peppers could sense that Michigan was the best fit for his son.
"He actually called me the day before the announcement," Jabrill said. "I asked him, 'Dad, what do you think about Michigan?' He said that was a perfect for me. That's actually where he wanted me to go himself just because he knows me, he knows the type of kid I am, and he know where he could see me having the most success at. He was definitely onboard with it. He was happy about the decision."
Music to Michigan's ears
All that was left for Peppers was to figure out a unique way to announce his choice. He decided to do so by showcasing another of his exceptional talents. An aspiring rapper with the stage name J-Reall, he declared his intentions on national television with an impromptu rhyme:
You see, it started as a dream
My dad planted the seed
Though when I started to sprout
He couldn't be there to see
Still I remained focused and transcendent
The rest solidified through my journey
How can you not be impressed?
And yes, to those who wait
The Lord brings blessings
I had this dream since I was seven
Now I'm dream tellin'
I could see it now
The fans scream and yellin'
As I'm walking out of the tunnel
Wearing the winged helmet
"I've been rapping my whole life," Peppers said later. "My whole family is just musically inclined. That little freestyle I did for my commitment, some liked it and some didn't, but I just wanted to be different. I didn't want to do the traditional putting on the hat thing. The only bars that were rehearsed was, 'The fans scream and yellin' as I'm walking out the tunnel wearing the winged helmet.' That's how I knew I wanted to end it because that was my commitment line. All the rest of it was just freestyle. That's just what I do."
The display wasn't without criticism, however, as observers with more rigid and antiquated definitions of character deemed the performance lacking class. Such responses fell on deaf ears, though, because to Peppers it was an example being himself. He plans on continuing to do just that.
"Whenever I'm not doing something in football, I'm doing something for music," he said. "I'm always busy. Being the recruit that I am and dropping all this music, it is going to get a look. But is it going to be looked at because of the recruit I am? I want to get looked at because people know me on the musical side too. So I'm going to keep grinding in that aspect, but football is going to be my main priority because the music is always going to be there. I'm going to keep doing it while I can for now."
With both the recruiting process and his junior year in his rearview, he will be able to spend more time in the studio. He'll also be able to spend time luring other players to Michigan.
"They call me 'Commissioner,'" he said proudly. "I'm about to go on a recruiting rampage and just try to bring everybody. Just try to get every to Go Blue with me. I'm definitely going after the top recruits such as (Da'Shawn) Hand. I'm not really worried about the other colleges coming (to still recruit him) and Michigan shouldn't worry either."
Michigan is one of a quintet of favorites for Hand, a five-star defensive end prospect from Woodbridge, Va. Peppers is determined to help his future team win the battle, but he won't be belligerent about it.
"That's my man," exclaimed Peppers. "I told him that a great D-line makes a great DB. 'I need you, and you need me. I'm going to lock the guys down so you can get your sack on, and you put some pressure on that quarterback so I get my pick on.'
"That's my man. He definitely knows what we're doing (at Michigan). He definitely understands the tradition. He just wants to explore more. I'm not going to put any pressure on him. I'm going to let him enjoy the process like people let me enjoy mine. But I told him there is no other place like Ann Arbor. Those guys are real genuine. I'm definitely going to be coming after him, but whatever he decides to do, I'm going to be supportive."
Whether Hand joins him or not, Peppers believes major success lies ahead for the Maize and Blue. He also believes he can be the catalyst for that success. Legions of Wolverine fans certainly agree and many have even suggested he wear the No. 2 to carry on Charles Woodson's legacy. That comparison might be intimidating to a lot of youngsters, but if Peppers was one of them the "special" tag just wouldn't fit.
"Right now (Woodson) is the best that's done it up there, but I'm the type of kid that I just want to start my own legacy," he said. "It's good to be compared to him, but I just want to go as Jabrill Peppers. I want to be the best to ever play there.
"It's good that people compare me to him, but I'm not going to rock his jersey. I'm going to rock my jersey, No. 5. Start my own little legacy and by the time I'm done there when people speak of Michigan, they'll start bringing up my name and say, 'I want to be just like Jabrill Peppers,' and start comparing other recruits to me. That's my hope."
Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine.com and co-host of the "Michigan Insider" morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA. His Michigan recruiting column appears every week at detroitnews.com. For more on U-M recruiting, visit michigan.scout.com.