Jabrill Peppers is Michigan’s most famous football player. From his versatility to his uncommon athleticism, he’s a magnet for fans.
Yet on U-M’s campus, the Heisman Trophy candidate tries to stay out of the spotlight.
“I try to lay low, I just want play football,” he said Tuesday. “All these cameras and stuff … I’m in class, I’m in my house. I don’t wear anything football-related, I try to keep a hat on, headphones on, do what I’ve got to do, stay grounded. Don’t get too low, don’t get too high.”
Peppers’ life has given him perspective.
“In high school, I kind of embraced all of it, because it was new to me,” he said. “Now I just want to play ball. People constantly at me on Twitter, saying stuff they would never say in my presence. It’s just crazy to me that all this stems from me doing what I love. I don’t understand it.
“But like my brother always told me: To whom much is given, much is expected. So it’s a double-edged sword, and it’s my responsibility to handle it the right way.”
His brother Don was the first one to tell Peppers that he could be a star -- well before anyone envisioned him in the Heisman Trophy conversation or the NFL, where he’s expected to be a first-round pick as soon as spring.
“He was the one who called it, actually,” Peppers said. “I can hear him now saying, ‘I told you, little bro, stick to the plan.’ I was probably 8 or 9, it was probably my third year playing. He was like, ‘Little bro, if anybody can make it, it is you.’ When he told me that, I was like, 'Yeah, right.' I was the youngest out of my cousins and my brothers. Typically, the youngest he gets picked on the most and you’ve got to play with old guys.
“I finally got a chance to play with people my age, and it was just easy. It felt natural.”
These days, everything feels natural. He has played nearly a dozen positions over all three phases of the game this year.
But handling the personal whirlwind might be his most impressive feat.
Peppers, a redshirt sophomore from East Orange, N.J., was the nation’s No. 2-ranked recruit in 2014. He experienced a lot at his Paramus (N.J.) Catholic games, from racial taunts to other teams’ cheap shots. He became a target.
Yet Peppers let most of it roll off because it, like this season’s explosion of attention, is nothing compared to what he has lost.
His father, Terry, was sent to prison when Peppers was 7. Then Don was killed in 2010, when Peppers was 14 years old and on the brink of stardom.
That perspective has allowed Peppers to pick his way through chaos. He’ll respond to haters on Twitter because he wants to remind them he’s an actual person.
“I don’t say anything that I wouldn’t say to someone’s face,” Peppers said about his measured responses.
He texts with his football hero, U-M legend Charles Woodson, for advice about how to handle the season and is told to stay focused on the game. “No matter good or bad it gets, stay humble” is Woodson's message.
Peppers' newest celebrity connection is with former USC star Reggie Bush. He's why Peppers wears No. 5 and “is the reason sometimes I carry the ball loose.”
Bush tweeted at Peppers on Oct. 29, following the impressive two-point conversion return against Michigan State, simply writing: “Beast Mode.” That initiated tweeting that has evolved into a new friendship.
“I was just happy I was talking to him,” Peppers said. “It’s still kind of crazy.”
His mother, Ivory Bryant, helps keep him grounded, too. She has attended every game this year and, after the home games, shares breakfast with her son at Benny’s, near Schembechler Hall.
Depending on how the regular season finishes, Peppers might get an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York, fulfilling Don’s prophecy.
For the next few weeks, though, he plans to keep his hat low during the week and save his public displays for Saturdays.
Michigan's Heisman Trophy candidate Jabrill Peppers spoke with reporters Tuesday in Ann Arbor. Video by Mark Snyder/DFP