Thursday, July 2, 2020

A career of perseverance has led former Spartan Taybor Pepper to his shot in the NFL

October 19, 2019
	<p>Sophomore snapper Taybor Pepper celebrates at the end of the game against Michigan on Nov. 2, 2013, at Spartan Stadium. <span class="caps">MSU</span> defeated the Wolverines, 29-6. Danyelle Morrow/The State News</p>

Sophomore snapper Taybor Pepper celebrates at the end of the game against Michigan on Nov. 2, 2013, at Spartan Stadium. MSU defeated the Wolverines, 29-6. Danyelle Morrow/The State News

Photo by Danyelle Morrow | The State News

Taybor Pepper slowly pulled into the driveway of his family's home in Saline, Michigan. Hours earlier, his life and football career once again took an off-road path down a lane of uncertainty.

Hours earlier, he was on an NFL roster — the New York Giants.

Following the team's final preseason game against the Patriots on Aug. 29 in Foxborough, he returned to his New Jersey apartment around midnight. Pepper managed to get some sleep that night, up until he woke up to his phone ringing.

“It was basically the call that comes whenever you are getting cut, to come to the practice facility," Pepper said. "I went up to the front offices, got cut.” 

This was the beginning of the most fast-paced, weird, mind-boggling, life-changing and whatever other words that fit the mold, 72-hour span of his life.

Pepper went back to his apartment, packed his stuff and just like that, was gone. He made the nine-hour drive back to Saline. He pulled into his driveway as a free agent, wondering if he will find his way back onto the road of the National Football League.

The next afternoon, Pepper went to brunch with his girlfriend and parents, Cam and Donna. Shortly into the meal, his phone rang again. This time it was his agent, Kelli Masters.

Less than 24 hours ago, a phone call let Pepper know he was unemployed. This time, it brought him back.

“Things happen fast. Miami (Dolphins) wants to bring you down for a workout tomorrow,” Masters said to Pepper.

Pepper went back home, packed a bag and by 7:30 p.m. was on a plane out to the Sunshine State.

“I don’t think he had still gotten over getting released by the Giants yet," Masters said. "His head was still there and the experience he had there. I think it all came very, very quickly. He had to adjust, he didn’t have a choice.” 

This is the life of a free agent long snapper waiting for his big break. The Dolphins, who just cut 14-year veteran John Denney provided it. For Pepper, it just took a little longer than he had hoped.

Pepper finished his college playing days at Michigan State following the 2015 season. He went undrafted in 2016, sitting out the entire year, before signing a reserve/futures contract with the Green Bay Packers on Jan. 27, 2017. They waived him in May. Then, in August, Pepper signed with the Baltimore Ravens, only for them to waive him four days later.

The Packers brought Pepper back in September to replace the injured Brett Goode. But after four games, a broken foot ended Pepper's season. When his contract expired, the Giants took a chance on him.

And then came his opportunity with the Dolphins.

To say Pepper had to have perseverance to stick with football long enough to get his shot is an understatement. But along the twists and turns that left him struggling with the facts of unemployment, beginning a passion of streaming video games and — just to make this story a little more strange — a brief acting career, Pepper knew that all he needed was one more phone call.

“I always held with me that I knew if I got a shot that I would be able to take advantage of it," he said. "And so far I’ve been doing a pretty good job of that.”

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Pepper may hold the record as the quickest player in the Michigan State football program to make history. He says he is the first long snapper to be offered a scholarship out of high school at MSU.

During the 2012 season, his freshman year, Pepper appeared in 13 games for the Spartans and ranked tied for first on the team with four tackles on punt coverage. As a sophomore, Pepper was the starting long snapper in all 14 of Michigan State's games. He played in all 27 of Michigan State's games in the two following seasons.

His 54 career games played is tied for the most in Spartan football history.

Fifty-four games can give a guy a lifetime of memories. To pick a couple is hard, but Pepper said the 2013 Big Ten Championship is one of his favorite accomplishments.

Cam Pepper won a conference title when he was a starting offensive lineman at Illinois in 1989-90. So, that is an honor that Taybor is happy they both share.

“Playing at Michigan State and being with that staff, I grew a lot as a person," Pepper said. "I had a lot of growing up I needed to do while I was in college. I'm really glad that it was Coach D(antonio) and his staff that were around us that was able to help on that journey, not only as a football player but as growing men as well.

“The maturing process that happened when I was in college, if that wouldn’t have happened I would have never been able to make it in the NFL, like at all," he said. "I wouldn’t have had a glimmer of a hope.” 

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Nathan Senter relocated to Michigan from Los Angeles, and, coincidentally, into the house directly next to the Peppers in Saline. Three years ago, he opened up his own gym.

After signing with Masters out of college, Pepper went undrafted in the 2016 NFL Draft. The following year out of football was a dark time for Pepper.

But, his free agency coincided with the opening of Senter's gym. Senter has trained professional athletes throughout his career. It was a natural fit.

"For him, more than anything, maintaining a semblance of a routine when it comes to training and having some regularity when you’re between your collegiate football career and your professional career, there's some requisite stability that needs to be there,” Senter said. 

Pepper didn't want to get into specifics of what he went through.

“He kept the darkest places, I think, to himself," Senter said. "It's like anybody, you’re just going through the motions.” 

From afar, Masters could sense a change from the kid she had just signed not too long ago as well.

“I think the hardest part is just the not knowing, kind of the mystery of am I doing enough? Is there anything else I could be doing? Should I go get a job? Should I move on with my life? Or, should I keep chasing this dream," Masters said. 

The first call came from Green Bay — and lasted just a couple of months.

After getting waived, Pepper said he hosted snapping lessons in East Lansing and Grand Rapids just to keep the money flowing. He said he also applied to a couple of jobs and internships.

But the nature of the business could have him walking away at the drop of hat.

“The only issue was I wanted to be completely upfront and honest with the people that were going to be hiring and basically told them that football comes first," Pepper said. "You just never know when you are going to get a call and ... absolutely have to go.” 

After a four-day stint with the Ravens, Pepper again was searching for income. That's when former Spartan- basketball-player-turned-director Keenan Wetzel messaged him on Facebook.

“He asked, ‘Do you think you could snap a ball through a car window,'" Pepper said.

"Really," Wetzel said.

"I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t even think it would take me 10 tries to make it through a window,“ Pepper said.

The Ford commercial coincided with the college football season and college football playoff promotion. So, not only was Pepper making money during his third football hiatus, but he also qualified himself for the Screen Actors Guild.

As tough as this time was, Pepper did everything to stay on his feet. He didn't know if another shot would come, but he kept hope, which is probably the hardest thing to do.

"... He did everything that I asked him to do," Masters said. "He stayed ready. He jumped through every hoop that he needed to, just to be in a position to succeed when the call came.” 

**********

Masters is walking into a New York City restaurant with her friends. That's when she gets a call from her client.

Pepper was four games into his second stint with the Packers. This time, he was actually making an impact on the field.

The team was on a bye week, preparing for an upcoming game in Detroit against the Lions. But, he won't be there for it. On a practice punt, an offensive lineman accidentally stepped on Pepper's right foot, breaking his second metatarsal.

Pepper said he knew it right away. When the diagnosis confirmed his fear, he had to tell his agent.

Masters described the call as a moment that she will always remember where she was.

“My heart just dropped for him," Masters said. "It was such a freak thing that someone stepped on your foot and it breaks bad enough that you are done for the season. It was devastating for him and my heart just — it was a horribly emotional moment for him because I could feel his disappointment and discouragement and wondering, ‘I fought so hard to get to this point, am I ever going to get this opportunity again.’"

The injury put Pepper on IR and ended his season. As quick as the road to the top was, Pepper came crashing right back down.

“I don’t know if he ever viewed the injury as an end, but I definitely think that when you suffered enough disappointment and then the fluke injury happens, you know, somebody just steps on your foot and breaks it, it's kind of one of those Murphy’s Law situations, you know anything that can go wrong will,” Senter said.

The injury kept Pepper off the field the following year as well. However, the fact that he had regular season film kept Pepper optimistic another opportunity will come.

“I was more hopeful that something was going to happen almost immediately after I was healthy and my contract had run out because I had those four games of experience," he said.

**********

Pepper got a pretty hefty bonus when he signed with the Giants this past offseason, so he splurged a bit.

“I got a computer and two monitors," He said. "I've been watching streams on Twitch since early 2012, 2011. It's my main form on entertainment, even today.” 

Video game streaming has been a little hidden hobby Pepper has explored since his days in East Lansing. Back then, he would watch the top streamers on Twitch as they played through the newest games available.

“You watch LeBron James, you watch Tom Brady, you watch Eli Manning because they’re the best of the best and that's what you want to watch," Pepper said. "You want to watch high-level game play.” 

With his own monitor and computer, Pepper joined in. He said he averages around 200 viewers per stream, which may not sound like a lot, but someone just starting to build a following, that viewership puts them on the right track.

Pepper has used it as a source for extra money as well.

“I'm so excited for him," Masters said. "I wish I knew more about Esports, he knows vast amounts. That's just not my world, but I’m so proud of him. I'm so excited to see him continue to develop a brand and a following in gaming. It's not my world, but I support him 100% and excited to really kind of see him follow both of his passions. And the fact that he can do both, and do them well, is pretty remarkable.” 

***********

It took a lot of patience, trust and yes, perseverance for Pepper to tough every cut, every injury and every missed chance up until he got his shot with Miami.

"He wasn’t going to stop," Senter said. "I don’t think it was your typical perseverance story of continuing to overcome setbacks. It's just how long can you weather the storm.” 

He's played, and started, at long snapper in each of the Dolphins' five games this season. Pepper has not only weathered the storm, he re-climbed the mountain and perched himself right at the top.

“As a person, I want to see him fulfill his dream, and I think that locking the Miami gig and being the only guy on the roster in that position — like any other story it validates the perseverance," Senter said. "It wasn't worth nothing. It was worth everything. For me, it was like, ‘Yeah man, the ends justifies the means. You worked your ass off for it. Congratulations.'"

Pepper took chances — did what he had to in order to keep his football career on life support. He's come a long way from that nine-hour drive that left him wondering what will come next.

That, in itself, takes a lot of perseverance.

“That is such an important trait for an NFL player, especially at his position. Hopefully he has a long career in the NFL, and that's going to take perseverance too," Masters said. "Now that he is there, he can’t let up. He has to keep persisting. I think it has served him well and will continue to serve him well in his career.” 

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