Playing For Something

Julius Peppers: Comin’ from where I’m from

For North Carolina native Peppers, support for families ravaged by Hurricane Florence ‘is personal for me’

The smell of moldy furniture, carpet and insulation — not to mention the sight of children’s toys scattered across Tonia McGirt’s front lawn — wiped the smile clear off Julius Peppers’ face as soon as he pulled up to the condemned house in Lumberton, North Carolina.

“We’ve lost everything,” McGirt said, turning to look at her house, which was ravaged by Hurricane Florence in September. “The neighbors washed our clothes … we’re waiting on FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] for relief.”

Sadness filled McGirt’s eyes as the veteran Carolina Panthers defensive end stood next to her with arms folded, trying to find the words to console the mother of two who has lived at this property for all of her 46 years.

“I know what it is to come from a rural area like this,” said Peppers, who is from Bailey, North Carolina, less than a two-hour drive from Lumberton. “I can’t even imagine something like this happening and not being able to have certain things, like a house that’s in living condition. I just wanted to come down here and help — offer some hope — just to try to do my part with this recovery.”

After Hurricane Florence hit, Peppers started a relief fund through his foundation and contributed $100,000 of his own money. Teammate Cam Newton matched his donation with an additional $100,000. Two days after the Panthers’ come-from-behind win over the Giants, Peppers made his way to Lumberton, the poorest city in the state, to help with recovery efforts.

“It’s definitely personal — because I’m from a small town not far from here,” explained Peppers, 38. “So it’s personal in that aspect, and I can feel it. Thankfully the hurricane did not affect my hometown that much, but it’s still the community, man, and the Carolinas, and it’s only right that we do something to help. It’s definitely personal, ’cause this is where I’m from.”

Just two houses up on the same street, McGirt’s parents — Barbara, 65, and French, 72 — accessed their own home, which is in the process of being rebuilt. The couple, married for 51 years, have all of their belongings, at least what’s left, in boxes and small piles. When Peppers, along with members of the United Way, arrived, the couple had reason to be hopeful after spending their first night in their home since being flooded out.

“Thank the Lord we could save a little of what we had,” said Barbara McGirt. “We couldn’t wait to get back.”

Asked later what struck him about the McGirts, Peppers reflected. “She was talking about how she grabbed her Bible and her picture albums. Those are the first things that she thought to take. Seeing this for yourself makes it real. If you can help them rebuild a home, that’s fine. But if you can help them feel better in some kind of way, that makes me feel a lot better, too.”

Julius Peppers wears a mold respirator while touring the home of Latisha Jones on Tuesday, October 9, 2018 in Lumberton, NC. Jones’ home was severely damaged by Hurricane Florence with flood water reaching her window sills. Jones was renting-to-own this home from her grandmother but after Matthew and Florence her grandmother has decided to demolish the house. Jones not only lost the majority of her belongings to these hurricanes, but she lost the home she intended spending her future in. (Katie McClean for The Undefeated)

Da’Quan Moore, 10, stands outside his neighbors flood ravaged home on Tuesday, October 9, 2018 in Lumberton, NC. Moore’s home was also flooded and is currently being rebuilt with the help of the N.C. Baptist Men Disaster Relief Ministry. (Katie McClean for The Undefeated)

Barbara McGirt of Lumberton shows Julius Peppers the carport of her home, where she and her husband are sleeping, now that their home is under a complete remodel due to storm damage on Tuesday, October 9, 2018 in Lumberton, NC. (Katie McClean for The Undefeated)

A large tree fell during Hurricane Florence and is pictured at the intersection of N. Chestnut and 15th on Tuesday, October 9, 2018 in Lumberton, NC. (Katie McClean for The Undefeated)

Julius Peppers shakes hands with members of the N.C. Baptist Men Disaster Relief Ministry on Tuesday, October 9, 2018 in Lumberton, NC. (Katie McClean for The Undefeated)

Julius Peppers serves free lunches provided by the Christian Aid Ministries Loaves & Fishes Food Kitchen on Tuesday, October 9, 2018 in Lumberton, NC. (Katie McClean for The Undefeated)

Marilyn Miller, a volunteer with Christian Aid Ministries, serves free lunches as a part of the Loaves & Fishes Food Kitchen on Tuesday, October 9, 2018 in Lumberton, NC. (Katie McClean for The Undefeated)

Shirelle Walters of Lumberton laughs excitedly as Julius Peppers signs an autograph for her on Tuesday, October 9, 2018 in Lumberton, NC. “This is such a blessing,” Walters says of Peppers visit and hurricane relief efforts, “I am the Panthers biggest fan and for him to take the time to visit, wow.” (Katie McClean for The Undefeated)

Gene Burleson of Hendersonville works to tear up the flooring in a flood damaged home as a member of the N.C. Baptist Men Disaster Relief Ministry on Tuesday, October 9, 2018 in Lumberton, NC. (Katie McClean for The Undefeated)

Julius Peppers and Deputy Mayor, John Cantey talk on the phone with Cantey’s son Jaylon, 17, on Tuesday, October 9, 2018 in Lumberton, NC. Jaylon Cantey, who plays football at Village Christian Academy, is a huge fan of Peppers. “Search my gram and take a look at my highlights!” Jaylon requests of Peppers, eliciting laughter from his father and Peppers. (Katie McClean for The Undefeated)

Julius Peppers puts his hand to his heart while touring homes that were severely damaged by Florence on Tuesday, October 9, 2018 in Lumberton, NC. (Katie McClean for The Undefeated)

Born in the UK and raised in Jamaica, Mark W. Wright is a writer and director of special projects at The Undefeated. A quick glance at his work and it’s safe to assume that soccer – and coverage of Historically Black Colleges and Universities – are among his passions.