CHARLOTTE – After walking through the halls of Bank of America Stadium and sitting down to sign his one-year contract, defensive end Julius Peppers said it felt like he never left.
"It feels great to be back home," said Peppers, the Panthers' all-time leader in sacks with 81. "I feel really good about it. I'm pumped about the season."
That said, Peppers' departure for the Chicago Bears in 2010 was a significant moment in his life and football career.
It was emotional for both sides 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. He spent four seasons with the Bears, then three with the Green Bay Packers, posting 62.5 sacks over those seven years.
"The growth as a person was important for me," explained Peppers, a North Carolina native. "Going away and seeing something different, having that experience made me realize that home is where the heart is. That's what led to my motivation of wanting to come back, missing this place so much."
Time can heal wounds. And after seven years in the Midwest, Peppers knew he wanted to end his decorated career in Carolina.
"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. "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."
Panthers captains Thomas Davis and Charles Johnson actively recruited Peppers, hoping for a chance to reunite with their former teammate. Davis even flew to Miami to discuss the opportunity in person.
In the end, their efforts confirmed to Peppers that he was making the right call.
"It was an easy decision, but I appreciate those guys reaching out and putting in the effort to try to get me back," Peppers said with a smile. "They did a pretty good job, I must admit."
Peppers, a nine-time Pro Bowler entering his 17th NFL season, knows he can help Carolina's defense. He may be 37, but he's still got that ability to get to the quarterback.
In other words, he knows how to get home.
"My role is to come in and offer some leadership, offer some experience and still be able to produce in certain situations," Peppers said. "I think it's the perfect fit, not only for me but for the team as well."
View photos of defensive end Julius Peppers throughout his decorated NFL career.