Jabrill Peppers sat on the Browns' bus Oct. 21 at Raymond James Stadium when a member of the team's communications staff found him and explained reporters had requested an interview.
Peppers didn't hide. Within minutes, he addressed media in the visitor's locker room and blamed himself entirely for the Browns losing 26-23 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because he fumbled at the end of a 14-yard punt return in overtime and Chandler Catanzaro made the 59-yard, game-winning field goal six plays later. Peppers found no consolation in setting up a touchdown late in regulation with a 32-yard punt return, stressing his miscue in OT negated any good he had done.
The scene was reminiscent of last year, when Peppers, as a rookie first-round draft pick, routinely took responsibility for his poor performance at free safety during an 0-16 season. The coaches conceded Peppers should have been playing in the box as a strong safety instead of often lining up 20-25 yards away from the line of scrimmage as a free safety. However, they also concluded he was the best option on the roster at free safety, so they stuck him there.
Peppers, who turned 23 last month, repeatedly emphasized his tendency to overanalyze plays before and after the snap. The resulting hesitation resulted in disappointing production. He refused to point a finger at anyone but himself, though, and he never complained about being tasked with playing out of position.
"I learned at a very early age no one is going to feel sorry for you," he said. "Everyone's going through things. Everyone has circumstances they've got to make it through. It's how you overcome."
A missed tackle, a blown coverage, a fumble, a loss.
What passes for adversity in football pales in comparison with adversity in life, and Peppers knows the difference as well as anyone.
Coping with tragedy
Peppers grew up surrounded by gang violence in Orange and East Orange, N.J. He was 14 when his older brother, Don Curtis, was fatally shot while standing at the takeout counter of a Chinese restaurant in Newark. Curtis was 20 when he died, and an arrest has never been made in the case.
When Peppers was 7, his father, Terry, was arrested and later sentenced to 10 years and 10 months in prison after pleading guilty to weapons charges connected to a larger racketeering investigation into the Bloods gang. Peppers' interaction with his dad became limited to weekly 15-minute phone calls from a federal prison in Pennsylvania. They didn't visit in person.
Meanwhile, Peppers wound up viewing Curtis as both his main male role model and another cautionary tale.
"He was in the streets gang banging, doing all those kind of things," Peppers said, "and as a young male, you look up to your older brother.
"The guy got all the money, all the girls, the clothes, giving me money, food in the house, so it was appealing. But no matter how good it seems, you know how that story ends."
Curtis, who had been in and out of jail, urged his younger brother to pursue his football dreams and avoid a life of crime.
"Once he passed away, that's when I just put everything into football," Peppers said, "because the person who saw all this potential in me, he wouldn't want me to waste it."
Darren Fisher, Peppers' mentor and former Pop Warner coach, said Peppers "was no angel," but the death of Curtis provided a wake-up call.
"He saw the streets because his brother was in it, and that's what kept him away from the streets," Fisher said. "Once that happened to his brother, it definitely put him on the path to where, 'I can't get caught up there.'"
When Peppers was 19, his father was released from prison. Picking up where they left off has been difficult. They're still working on their relationship.
"When you think about his father and where he had been for a great portion of his life and then to lose his brother and still remain focused and on course speaks to his character and his ability to persevere," said Ivory Bryant, Peppers' mother. "His brother's death hurt him in ways that he'll probably never be able to articulate, but knowing what his brother wanted for him, he didn't get lost in that grief. He could have gone the opposite way."
The memory of Curtis has been a driving force for Peppers since he was in eighth grade.
"There were a lot of [standout athletes] where I'm from," Peppers said. "It's either they get caught up with the streets or don't have the grades. It's always one of the two. I was one of the very lucky ones who had the grades, didn't get caught up in the streets and had the talent on the field. Everybody was in my ear, but [my brother] was the main one who was like, '[Football] is what you've got to do.'"
Peppers rose from a Pop Warner prodigy to star at Don Bosco Preparatory High School. In an effort to keep her youngest child on track, Bryant set academic standards. Peppers had to maintain a B-plus in all subjects to play football. A progress report with a C in Spanish cost him a game as a sophomore.
"Jabrill was very upset with me, and as a mom, it doesn't feel good when you have to make those kind of decisions," Bryant said. "But in the long run, he understands it."
After winning two state titles at Don Bosco, Peppers transferred to Paramus Catholic High School, sparking a controversy and accusations about recruiting. Nevertheless, he won two more state titles.
An aspiring musician who has a recording studio in his downtown Cleveland home, Peppers rapped his commitment to the University of Michigan on ESPNU. He had previously gotten carried away when media asked him about comparisons to Wolverines great and future Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back Charles Woodson.
"I was a little too bold in high school. I said I would be better than him, not really understanding his legacy," Peppers said. "It's easy to say that as a high school kid going into college, but once I got to Michigan, I was like, 'Holy s***.'"
In Ann Arbor, Peppers got to know Woodson and became an ultra-versatile playmaker for the Wolverines. His skill set compelled former Browns head of football operations Sashi Brown to draft him 25th overall last year after trading down from No. 12, where the Houston Texans took quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Peppers started all 13 games in which he appeared last season, missing three with toe and knee injuries, and had 57 tackles, three passes defensed, a fumble recovery and an interception. His deep alignment in the scheme of defensive coordinator-turned-interim coach Gregg Williams became a running joke among Browns fans.
"I felt like the only reason there was any critique on how coach was playing me was because I wasn't making the plays that I make in my sleep," Peppers said.
General Manager John Dorsey's offseason trade for free safety Damarious Randall freed Peppers to move to his more natural position of strong safety, where he has shared playing time with Derrick Kindred. Peppers has started every game this season for the 3-6-1 Browns, logging 58 percent of the snaps, 46 tackles, three passes defensed and a fumble recovery.
He's also still seeking the consistency needed to live up to his draft status. For example, in the fourth quarter of last week's 28-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons, he lowered his right shoulder and knocked running back Tevin Coleman flat on his back at the 1 en route to a goal-line stand. But during the Falcons' next possession, tight end Austin Hooper caught a pass on fourth-and-goal and spun away from Peppers to score a 3-yard touchdown.
But Peppers has made strides. He has the fifth-highest grade from ProFootballFocus.com among Browns defenders this season.
"Each and every week this year he has improved," Williams said. "He has had some outstanding games this year that somewhat have been masked because maybe we haven't won games, but he's played well, and in the last couple of weeks, he's even played better. Then this past week, he had some great contact plays, but he also had some great awareness plays that prevented some long gains. So I think he's taken the next step in what we want around here."
Of course, the journey has just begun, and it's been challenging thus far. Peppers revealed last month angry Browns fans often confront him in public, creating "hostile" situations.
Despite those negative experiences, Peppers insisted he still loves Cleveland and is committed to helping the Browns turn it around.
"He wants to be there because I've definitely talked with him about going elsewhere," Fisher said, "and he's like, 'No, this is a good fit for me. I like it here. It's not too far from home, and we're going to change this environment.'"
Peppers is determined to do his part.
"You write your own story about yourself," he said. "I just try to stay hungry just to prove to myself I am who I say I am and prove everybody wrong."
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read his Browns coverage at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByNateUlrich and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.