Jabrill Peppers dives for a touchdown while playing the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium on October 29, 2016, in East Lansing, Michigan. (Getty Images)
Peppers retrieved his belongings.
But he'd lost his privacy.
His address no longer a secret, Peppers was greeted by a herd of autograph-seekers when he returned from the game that evening. A few days later, a student he'd never met dropped off a batch of pasta marinara with his roommates. Her mom made it for Jabrill, she told them. Others have made clever attempts to get a peek inside.
"Guys knock all the time and ask to use our restroom," chuckles Raymond Smith-Byrd, one of Peppers' four roommates. "People will try anything."
Such is life for Peppers. Each time he touches the ball, his celebrity increases right along with Michigan's national title hopes.
"I have not coached a more versatile player than Jabrill Peppers. There's nothing he can't do."
— JIM HARBAUGH, MICHIGAN FOOTBALL COACH
One week, it could be a Vine-worthy punt return or a forced fumble. The next, a rushing touchdown, a pass breakup or a couple of sacks. No player in the country impacts the game in as many ways as Peppers, a sure future first-round NFL draft pick who will likely play his final regular-season game Saturday at Ohio State.
Even after mentoring him for two years, Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh continues to marvel at Peppers each time he watches him play.
"If there was a Bible sitting here," Harbaugh says, "I'd say, 'No, I have not coached a more versatile player than Jabrill Peppers.' There's nothing he can’t do.
"It's the darnedest thing I've ever seen."
Still, while his weekly appearances on highlight reels have made him the most recognizable college football player in the country, there's another narrative about Peppers unfolding in Ann Arbor—a tale that makes Michigan fans cheer for their star even louder, one that makes it easy for parents to shell out $25 for the No. 5 jerseys sold on street corners each game day.
And this story has nothing to do with football.
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After making a pit stop in the front office to introduce himself to the principal, Peppers marched into the auditorium and onto the stage last month at Community High School in Ann Arbor.
For the next 30 minutes, the 21-year-old and a few of his friends answered questions about study habits, time management and the transition from high school to college. Peppers spoke about what drives him on the football field—and the things that motivate him off it.
Then, with approximately 200 students staring back at him—hanging on his every word—one of the biggest stars in Michigan's athletic history closed with some poignant advice.
"Be you!" he said. "Embrace all of the things that make you unique. Don't let anything or anyone change you. Be you!"
Impressed as they were with Peppers' speech, students that day were even more enamored with what he did next. Nearly everyone in attendance had pictures and memorabilia for Peppers to sign and selfies to take, but Peppers went a step further.
"He literally had an individual conversation with every single person who approached him," says Brandon Jackson, a friend of Peppers who teaches world history at the high school. "I mean, we're talking about 200 people. He asked every one of them something about themselves and answered more questions if they had them.
"Every kid that day walked away feeling good about themselves, feeling uplifted."
Even more notable about Peppers' visit to Community is that it was partially his idea. The plan was hatched about a month earlier in the living room of the home he shares with four of his brothers from the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. Peppers joined the organization last spring—but unlike in football, he wasn't recruited.
"He sought us out," says Terence Browner, a Michigan senior and member of the fraternity. "The more he learned about it, the more he felt the connection, the vibe. I could sense the excitement oozing off of him. He wanted to be a part of something."
The brothers of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity pose for a picture. (Courtesy of Raymond Smith-Byrd)
In Omega Psi Phi, Peppers found a group of men who share his passion for community service. With the fraternity, Peppers has participated in backpack drives for less fortunate children, arranged for speakers to address his chapter and others and served on panels about leadership and setting an example.
Coaches and teammates have always praised Peppers for the energy and spirit he brings to the field and to the locker room. Joining Omega Psi Phi has enabled him to affect people in a similar fashion away from the gridiron.
"He's embracing the pedestal that sports has given him," says Jackson, the high school teacher—and fraternity alumnus—who mentors Peppers. "He has a spirit and a charisma that you rarely see. He knows he has the ability to impact people, and that makes him feel good.
"He's growing up right before our eyes."
In Omega Psi Phi, Peppers is surrounded by positive influences both socially and in the classroom. Browner studies economics and sound engineering, and Smith-Byrd studies engineering. Another roommate, Leon Johnson, is a sports management major who will work for Adidas this summer.
Just like on the football field, if one fraternity member is slipping in the classroom or struggling in his personal life, someone is there to boost him up.
"Friendship is essential to the soul, and Jabrill is someone who cares deeply about relationships," Smith-Byrd says. "For him, it was about more than joining an organization. He wanted those deep, personal connections.
"We give him a safe haven because we value him as a person. To us, he's not No. 5 from the football team. He's Jabrill Ahmad Peppers. That’s our brother."
Jabrill Peppers throws up "the hooks," a salute to his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, before a game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium on November 12, 2016, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Getty Images)
Peppers says his involvement with the fraternity has given him a new sense of pride, and that's often visible on the football field. When he scores a touchdown or makes a key defensive tackle, it's not uncommon for Peppers to salute Omega Psi Phi by forming the Greek symbol for Omega with his arms and hands. The gesture is known as "the hooks."
Instead of Michigan garb, Peppers often hits the town sporting his fraternity's colors: purple and gold. Peppers says his fraternity brothers keep him grounded. "I've got a second family up here now," he says. "It's all love."
It's easy to see why Peppers would yearn for a sense of family.
Peppers was seven years old when his father, Terry Peppers, was sent to prison on weapons charges. The two talked each week on the phone, but establishing a meaningful relationship was difficult. Jabrill went nearly 11 years without seeing his dad, who was released from prison in 2014.
Instead, Peppers looked to his older brother, Don Curtis, as a male role model. But when Jabrill was 14, Curtis was killed, shot in the face at a Chinese restaurant just a few blocks from their home in East Orange, New Jersey.
Even though Curtis had lived a wayward life in the streets, he was the one who sensed something special in Peppers and encouraged him to stay out of trouble as he pursued a career on the football field.
"Little bro, you've got a gift," Peppers recalls Curtis saying. "If anyone can make it, it's you."
The words motivated Peppers, who won four state football titles—two at Don Bosco Prep and two at Paramus Catholic—and excelled in the classroom. While others in his neighborhood succumbed to the temptations of drugs, violence and gangs, Peppers channeled his energy toward sports and music. Peppers is an aspiring rapper who has already shot a music video.
"He has a spirit and a charisma that you rarely see. He knows he has the ability to impact people, and that makes him feel good."
— BRANDON JACKSON, OMEGA PSI PHI ALUMNUS
Academics were rarely a problem for Peppers, thanks in large part to his mother. Ivory Bryant once held her son out of a high school game simply because he got a C. Peppers is close with his mother and credits her for the person he's become.
"Jabrill was always much older than what he seemed," Bryant said after Michigan's victory at Rutgers on October 8. "He was an old person in a young person’s body. Certainly the experiences he's had, he had to grow up faster. You face a crisis, like when his brother died, and you ask yourself, 'Am I going to stay on the path, or am I going to allow this to distract me?' He used it to propel himself higher."
Indeed, Peppers was the second-ranked player in the class of 2014 by ESPN.com and No. 3 according to Rivals. The summer before his senior year, he announced his commitment to Michigan on ESPNU by rapping lyrics to a song he'd written earlier that day.
"He was as well-known [in New Jersey] as anyone in the entire state," says Roy Manning, the former Wolverines assistant who recruited Peppers. "I've been around some great athletes. I played at Michigan and in the NFL.
"Jabrill is a different breed. I'm not sure I've ever seen anything like him."
As intense as the spotlight was back then in New Jersey, Peppers hadn't seen anything yet.
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When Jabrill Peppers visits Benny's Family Dining for breakfast, waitresses at the popular Ann Arbor restaurant don't need to ask what he wants.
They already know.
Four eggs and double orders of corned beef hash, toast and hash browns. "And orange juice," owner Benny Shehaj says. "I guess you could call it the Jabrill Special."
Jabrill Peppers leaves the field after a 49-16 win over Rutgers on November 7, 2015, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Getty Images)
Name a high-profile Michigan athlete or coach from the past two decades, and they've probably been a regular at Benny's. Charles Woodson was in a few weeks ago. Lloyd Carr and Bo Schembechler ate here, and there's an autographed poster of Michael Phelps on the wall.
As close as he's become to so many of the big names, Shehaj admits that Peppers has a personality like no other. Peppers and his mother eat breakfast at Benny's after every home game. Just two weeks ago, the owner says, a heavily tattooed motorcyclist stopped Peppers as he was leaving and asked for a picture. Peppers was happy to oblige—just like he was seconds later in the parking lot, where a group of fans was waiting.
"Every time I see him, he's smiling," Shehaj says. "Something about him just makes people want to come up and talk to him. I told him, 'Pretty soon you're going to have to start driving around with tinted windows like Charles Woodson.'"
He may be at that point already.
Just like Woodson, who won the award in 1997, Peppers is believed to be in the mix for the 2016 Heisman Trophy. While the honor almost always goes to an offensive standout (Woodson was the last defensive player to win), Peppers' versatility will surely be attractive to voters.
Peppers has played five defensive positions this season and has been used in multiple offensive formations, including the Wildcat. He also returns kicks and punts. Harbaugh wasn't joking back in October when he compared Peppers to Jim Thorpe.
Peppers appreciates the praise his success has generated, and at times, he enjoys its rewards. Football has allowed him to meet childhood idols such as Woodson, Braylon Edwards, LaMarr Woodley and Deion Sanders. A few weeks ago, he received a message from Reggie Bush, a player he's long tried to emulate and the reason Peppers wears No. 5. Bush passed along his phone number.
"That's dope," Peppers says.