CHARLOTTE – Countless times during their seven years together on the Panthers roster, left tackle Jordan Gross and defensive end Julius Peppers did battle in practice.
Over time, practice helped make both nearly perfect.
"I owe a lot to going against him," said Gross, who will face Peppers in a game for the first time Sunday when Peppers' new team -- the Chicago Bears -- visits Bank of America Stadium. "You come in and you go against the rookie of the year and a Pro Bowler, it makes you better.
"And I'd like to think that hopefully I made him a little better."
Peppers said Wednesday that Gross did indeed help him season his game. Gross was the Panthers' first-round pick in 2003, one year after the Panthers picked Peppers in the first round.
What Peppers doesn't know is how he'll match up with his former sparring partner in a game.
"Me and Jordan, we helped each other grow as players a lot, practicing against each other and having those training camp battles," Peppers said. "It's really going to be a challenge for me, because I've never played against him in a game situation. I'm wondering how I can do against him."
Gross also isn't sure how it will turn out – even though he's pretty sure how Peppers will try to attack him.
"I've probably done a thousand one-on-ones with him, but just because I knew it was coming didn't always mean I could stop it," Gross said. "I've seen it all, and I've done well against it all and not so well against it all at times.
"This Sunday is going to be a good test for us as a team and for me personally."
Peppers said he's looking forward to returning to the place he played his first eight NFL seasons. Peppers became an unrestricted free agent following the 2009 season and joined the Bears, but he still maintains a home in Mooresville.
"It's going to be emotional," said Peppers, adding that he wasn't sure how the crowd would respond to his return. "I have a large fan base down there, I know that for sure. I also know I have people that don't really care for me too much, either. So which crowd shows up, I don't know.
"But that doesn't matter. What matters is what happens on the field."
Gross thinks he has a pretty good idea of how Peppers will be received. In addition to his lengthy stay in Charlotte, Peppers grew up in the small town of Bailey, N.C. – a half-hour east of Raleigh – and played football and basketball at the University of North Carolina.
"There are a lot of '90' jerseys still around Charlotte, so I think he'll be welcomed," Gross said. "He's not a Panther anymore, and it didn't go down the way that everybody would have liked it to, I don't think. But he meant so much to this team for so long that I'd be surprised if people didn't welcome him."
While Gross will have more interaction with Peppers than any other Carolina player come Sunday, he isn't the only one interested in Peppers' return.
Linebacker and team captain Jon Beason said he's kept in contact with Peppers as well as former Panthers safety Chris Harris, who was traded to the Bears in the offseason.
"It will be fun to play against those guys," Beason said. "We've been talking about it all year."