When he takes the field against Connecticut in two weeks in the Papajohns.com Bowl, defensive tackle Nathan Pepper will make history as the only player in South Carolina history to play in four bowl games.
"If he doesn't get hurt between now and the bowl game," USC coach Steve Spurrier said.
Given the injuries and turmoil he has endured in his personal life, it seems fitting that Pepper's place in the Gamecocks' history books will be one of longevity.
"I've been around here long enough to be a part of four of 'em," Pepper said after a recent practice. "It's been tough, man. It's been hard. It's been a lot of ups and downs."
It took a bit of fate for Pepper to be in position to become USC's only four-time bowl participant. The fifth-year senior from Greenville sustained a season-ending knee injury against S.C. State in 2007, when the Gamecocks were bowl-eligible at 6-6 but saw the Independence Bowl pick Alabama for the SEC's final bowl slot.
But Pepper's bowl mark involves more than luck, coaches say. In addition to coming back from reconstructive knee surgery, Pepper was shocked in 2007 to learn his older brother shot and killed a Prosperity woman during a daylong crime spree that ended with his arrest outside Williams-Brice Stadium during the Gamecocks' spring game.
Demetrius Pepper, 27, is serving a life sentence for murder at McCormick state prison. Pepper visited his brother this past summer before the season started.
"I often find myself thinking about it. It's hard not thinking about it. It's my brother, and he's gone," Pepper said. "You've got to keep going. A lot of things haven't happened directly to me. But I've been through a lot of things on my own, with the injuries and things like that. Just have to keep my head down and keep going."
Some of Pepper's best moments with the Gamecocks have come with an asterisk.
During an interception return in a win against Clemson in 2006, Pepper slowed down near the goal line, allowing a Tigers' player to jar the ball loose and prevent a touchdown. Pepper was suspended for the first quarter for the Liberty Bowl for loafing on the play.
The following season against S.C. State, Pepper tore the ACL in his left knee in a freak injury that occurred after he crossed the goal line on a 19-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Spurrier believed Pepper was starting to celebrate when he was injured, although Pepper said the knee buckled when he planted his foot awkwardly in the end zone. That cost Pepper the rest of the '07 season and forced coaches to monitor his practice and game reps when he returned from the medical redshirt last year.
Pepper has never put eye-popping numbers: His 27 tackles and two sacks this season are career highs. But the 6-foot-1, 300-pounder has been a steadying presence for the Gamecocks, fighting through a high ankle sprain and hand injury this year when injuries and suspensions threatened to gut the defensive line.
"He's a unique player," assistant head coach for defense Ellis Johnson said. "Just on the hoof, all the measurables and all that, he's not a prototype, big-time SEC lineman. But he's a very talented player. He's really an athletic kid for a defensive lineman. He played quarterback in junior high, played tight end in high school."
Johnson and USC defensive line coach Brad Lawing praised Pepper's football IQ and fundamentals.
"I think that's where he's made his living," Johnson said. "Putting all those things together and the character that makes you come to work every day and get better."
Pepper last week became the first member of his family to earn a college degree. He hopes an NFL team will take a look at him and is considering a career in coaching when his playing days are done.
"I think he'd be a great one," Lawing said.
First, Pepper has another bowl game to play. He has seen much of the Southeast in late-December, with postseason stops in Shreveport, La., Memphis, Tampa, Fla., and the upcoming trip to Birmingham, Ala.
While teammates speculated about where the Gamecocks would go bowling, Pepper was not picky.
"The whole time, I'm just sitting back and smiling because I know we're going to another bowl, get some more gifts, get to play another game. Just add on to that bowl (history)," he said.
"I don't want to go to the same place twice. I can say I have been all over for some bowl games."