CHARLOTTE – Julius Peppers always knew how he wanted the story of his NFL career to end.
In a Panthers uniform.
It was an emotional breakup when Peppers, who the Panthers drafted out of North Carolina with the No. 2 overall pick in 2002, decided he wanted a change of scenery in 2010. He left for Chicago and spent four seasons with the Bears, then three with the rival Packers, posting 62.5 sacks over those seven years.
When the decorated defensive end became a free agent in 2017, Carolina was on his mind.
"I always wanted to come back and repair the relationships and build that bridge back, not only with the team but with the fans, the people," Peppers said moments after signing. "That's what this game is about, it's about relationships. That was the most important thing for me to come back and tie up these loose ends and give the fans and everybody another chance to see me wear this uniform again."
The 2017 season was Peppers' 17th in the NFL, and the nine-time Pro Bowler proved he still had plenty in the tank.
"Julius looks like he did seven years ago when I had the first opportunity to coach him in Chicago," defensive line coach Eric Washington said during spring practice. "He still looks like he's a dynamic player. The combination of his size and the ability to move - I don't see a lot that's changed with him. He's aged extremely well."
The 37-year-old Peppers went on to record 11 sacks in 2017, tying him for the team lead with fellow defensive end Mario Addison.
"People think he's a freak of nature and it's all true," Addison said. "He's an alien. He's from Mars."
Teammates were simply in awe of Peppers. He has an undeniable presence; an understated ability to lead and command respect. Everyone in the organization felt that.
And this reunion was incredibly special for the fans. Seeing Peppers wreak havoc in that No. 90 uniform again was worth the wait.
"He's everything we expected him to be," linebacker Luke Kuechly said.
View photos from Carolina's 11-5 campaign in 2017.