CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Julius Peppers is on the verge of joining some elite company — although the 37-year-old defensive end seemingly couldn’t care less.
Peppers picked up a half-sack in his first game back with the Panthers last Sunday and now has 144 for his career, inching closer to joining Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Kevin Greene and Chris Doleman as the only players in NFL history with 150 career sacks.
Peppers shrugs his wide shoulders and rolls his head to the side at the thought of potential milestone.
“I’ve never been into all of that statistical stuff,” Peppers told The Associated Press on Thursday. “It’s a big deal, there’s no question about it. That’s big time. But I just don’t get caught up in that.”
Peppers is more focused on securing a Super Bowl ring, something that has eluded him the past 16 seasons.
“Sometimes we get defined by rings and things like that. You want to have it on the resume,” Peppers said. “But at the end of the day it’s about the relationships, the people that you come to work with. That’s the important thing. But yes, we do want to get one.”
Peppers returned to his native North Carolina this offseason in hopes of doing just that.
He even agreed to take a lesser role, coming off the bench for the first time in career.
The nine-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro is backing up Charles Johnson as part of a defense that regularly rotates its defensive ends. Peppers played just 47 percent of the defensive snaps against the 49ers, a number that would have been woefully low and unheard of when Carolina first drafted him No. 1 overall in 2001.
Peppers’ only tackle against the 49ers came on a sack that he shared with defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, but he did add two quarterback hurries and was disruptive at times.
His next opportunity comes Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.
Peppers said he’s fine with the role.
“I’m here to win,” Peppers explained. “Everything else is secondary. How many snaps (I play), even the stats and things like that, all of that is secondary. We just want to win. That’s what we want — to win.”
Peppers left Carolina after the 2009 season following a contract dispute, and went on to play for the Bears and Packers.
Coach Ron Rivera likened Peppers’ return to Carolina to LeBron James returning to the Cavaliers.
“Guys like him who have had such a great career like that and have a chance to come back home, all they want to do is win,” Rivera said.
Even while he was away, Peppers was never forgotten.
Old Panthers teammates like Johnson and linebacker Thomas Davis politicked internally for the team to re-sign Peppers.
It took seven years, but it finally happened.
To the players it was a significant addition even with Peppers in the twilight of his career, and a signal the Panthers were pulling out all of the stops to win the Super Bowl.
Three-time All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly doesn’t get star struck by much, but even he acknowledged that seeing Peppers for the first time up close in the locker room was “pretty cool.”
“You grow up watching him and once I got here as a rookie everybody talked about, ‘Maybe we can get Julius back,'” Kuechly said. “Now we finally got him back. He still has a ton of ability and he is hungry to be successful and win.”
Panthers safety Kurt Coleman and others marvel at the size of the chiseled 6-foot-7, 295-pound Peppers and how he’s remained in such great shape.
“I want to eat some of his Wheaties,” Coleman said.
Coleman called Peppers a “gentle giant.” He said while Peppers has a quiet demeanor, “you can walk up to him and poke him but you know better.”
Peppers said he’s embraced with open arms by the organization and his teammates and it “it feels like I never left.”
“These guys are reliable, dependable teammates,” Peppers said. “You can count on these guys. Not that I couldn’t count on anybody else. It’s just a comfort level I have here in this locker room.”
So Peppers is happy.
As for how much longer he wants to play in the NFL, he’s keeping that to himself.
“I want to play this weekend,” Peppers said with a laugh.