This Sunday, the Carolina Panthers face the New England Patriots in a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII. Of the 22 players who started that game for the Panthers in February 2004, 21 have been retired for a combined 181 years. Ten of them have been retired for at least a decade.
Then there’s Julius Peppers.
Peppers was one of eight Super Bowl Panthers still active when he left the team as a free agent in 2009. Now, the 37-year-old defensive end has returned to Carolina as a veteran leader on the defense.
“Veteran?” he said with a laugh. “I was a veteran then.”
Peppers, a former football and basketball star at the University of North Carolina, was in his second year in the NFL when the Panthers made their first Super Bowl trip. He wouldn’t make the first of his nine Pro Bowl trips until the following season.
“I’m a little bit older now,” Peppers admitted. “This is a different role, different responsibility. It’s a role I’m comfortable with. I was in it at Green Bay — kind of the elder statesman of the defense. It’s a good role.”
Currently fifth on the NFL’s all-time sacks list, Peppers’ role doesn’t include starting for the Panthers, after making 120 starts in 122 games in his first stint with the team. Still, the old man has plenty left, racking up 2.5 sacks for the team in the first three games of the season.
“Awesome,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Peppers. “I think he’s kind of found a niche here with us, the way we rotate our guys to try and keep them as fresh as we can.”
After playing five seasons in Chicago and three in Green Bay, coming back to the warm South has also helped keep Peppers fresh.
“The weather is nice out here,” he said. “It’s a little warm, so the muscles get loose a little better.”
The reborn Peppers has taken his place in the defensive end rotation, along with veteran, Charles Johnson, and role players Mario Addison and Wes Horton.
“I don’t think the guys up front get enough credit,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “We’ve got a million guys up front who play hard, play fast, get after the quarterback and stuff the run game. They make it so much easier for me and everyone on the back end.”
Peppers is just as impressed with the people behind him.
“This is the best defense I’ve ever played on,” he said.
In the home opener against the Bills, his first home game in Bank of America Stadium in 3,179 days, Peppers received a little special attention during pregame introductions. Kuechly gave up his usual spot as the final defensive player out of the tunnel, allowing Peppers to get introduced last.
“It’s Julius Peppers, man,” said Kuechly, who was 12 years old when Peppers played in the Super Bowl. “I think it’s great to have him back on our team. He deserves that with everything he’s brought to this franchise.”
“It was cool — a nice reception,” Peppers said. “I thought the fans really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it.”
The following week, Peppers again made headlines during pregame. While the rest of the team stood, many linking arms, during the national anthem, Peppers chose to remain in the locker room in solidarity with players around the league and against President Donald Trump’s call for owners to fire players who protest.
“I thought it was appropriate to stay in,” Peppers said. “I felt like he attacked my brothers in the league. I thought it was appropriate to stand up for them.”
Peppers joined his teammates after the anthem, in time for the start of the game.
“This wasn’t about disrespecting the military or disrespecting the flag, police or first responders. It was about me making a decision as a man on my two feet,” he said. “I know a lot of people might not understand or might be upset, and that’s fine. I’m not living my life trying to make everybody happy. There are only a few times in a man’s life where you have a chance to stand up for something you believe in and make a statement. Today, I thought that was that chance, and I took it.”
Elder statesman, role player, social conscience. It’s a new role for Julius Peppers his second time around, and at this rate, who knows how long it can last.
“The guy’s a beast, man,” said Captain Munnerlyn. “He’s an animal. He looks like he still can play another four or five years, easy. I’ve got to find out his secret.”