PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Ivory Bryant wears a big campaign-style button with a picture of her son on it and the words “Mr. Everything.”
Jabrill Peppers is most certainly that to Michigan, where he’s a three-way player and Heisman Trophy contender. To Bryant, though, touchdowns and tackles aren’t what makes Peppers her Mr. Everything. For her, Peppers is all a mother could hope for a son to be.
“We have a strong bond,” Bryant said after Peppers led the fourth-ranked Wolverines to a 78-0 victory Saturday night against Rutgers in his home state. “So when I think about all that he’s gone through and how he’s persevered through it all, it’s just amazing. It makes a mom proud to see your son go through such hardships, trials and tribulations and yet they stay focused on their dreams. So it makes me feel good. He is very blessed and we just thank God for that.”
Peppers, who is from East Orange and won four state titles in high school, put on a show for dozens of friends and family members who were getting to see him play a college game in person for the first time.
Against Rutgers, he was part of a defense that did not allow a first down until the fourth quarter, and he ran for two touchdowns. Peppers would have had three TDs if his 44-yard punt return in the first quarter didn’t get called back because of a penalty.
Bryant had a great view of Peppers’ spinning and ducking return, sitting with the rest of Team Jabrill — as the T-shirts read — in the stands behind the corner of the end zone into which he raced.
“It counts to my mama so that’s alright with me,” Peppers tweeted after the game.
Peppers turned 21 just a few days ago, but his mother said enduring tough times hastened his maturity. When Peppers was 7, his father, Terry Peppers, was sent to prison. Seven years later, his big brother, Don Curtis, was shot and killed.
“I was just 14 years old, and for the second time in my life, the most dominant male figure in my life was gone,” Peppers wrote for the Players’ Tribune before last year’s Ohio State game.
Football helped Peppers stay on the right path, Bryant said.
“It was definitely a structured activity. So when you’re living in an urban community there’s a lot of distractions, some positive, some negative,” Bryant said. “You always pray that your child would gravitate toward the positive and he did just that.”
Bryant stressed education. If Peppers didn’t make the grades mama wanted, he was not allowed to play. She said she held him out of a game during his sophomore season in high school. He was mad, but it never happened again.
“He is very intelligent,” Bryant said. “But certainly the experiences he had, he had to grow up faster. His brother died. You ask yourself, ‘Am I going to stay on the path or am I going to allow this to distract me?’ And he used it to propel him forward, even higher.”
Peppers plays offense, defense and special teams and has numerous roles within those phases. The bio page on Michigan’s website lists Peppers as linebacker/defensive back. Really, though, he is a position-less player, which allows defensive coordinator Don Brown to change formations without changing personnel.
On offense, Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh said the staff has been installing more plays with Peppers at quarterback. Peppers scored twice on direct snaps against Rutgers and he’s not just a runner. Peppers had an option to pass on one of those plays, Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh turned his postgame news conference Saturday night into a Heisman infomercial for Peppers, calling him the best player in the country and comparing him to the legendary Jim Thorpe.
“To be able to coach a guy like Jabrill Peppers is a real joy,” Harbaugh said.
As the clock wound down at High Point Solutions Stadium, Peppers was behind the Michigan bench, slapping hands with Wolverines fans in the stands and giving away gloves and other small pieces of equipment.
Before he headed for the tunnel, he ran over to where his mom was sitting. The seats are a good 10 or 12 feet up from field level so he couldn’t do much more than call up a “Love you,” before bounding away.
“I didn’t cry, but my heart was definitely warm,” Bryant said. “Just to see him come home, to do very well as he always does, but to see him do well in front of his home state was rewarding.”