Scott Fowler

Prodigal son, best athlete in Panthers history, future hall-of-famer: Julius Peppers is back.

Kill the fatted calf.

All hail Julius.

At age 37, the prodigal son is coming home.

Time to dig out that Julius Peppers jersey deep in your closet or else go find one at Goodwill for $5. The leading pass rusher in Carolina Panthers history is returning to the team he left rather messily seven years ago, and all will be forgiven if the man will just produce 10 sacks.

I like this move, both for its symmetry and its substance.

Although Peppers is at the age that some players sign one-day contracts with a former team for nostalgia’s sake before retiring, this defensive end can still play. He’s not the same guy who once had a 97-yard interception return for Carolina or who plucked a Michael Vick fumble out of the air and took it 60 yards for a touchdown. And no one is going to be lining him up at wide receiver this time around.

But Peppers had 7.5 sacks for Green Bay last season and is still quite effective, at the least as a situational rusher on third-and-long. He is not that far off from the sort of athleticism so wondrous that Steve Smith once told me of Peppers: “I’m just happy I’m No. 89 and he’s No. 90, so I get to stand next to him in team pictures.”

Peppers over Ealy? Absolutely

With apologies to Cam Newton, Michael Bates, Lamar Lathon and Smith himself, the Panthers have never employed an athlete quite like Julius Frazier Peppers.

Named for boxing legend Joe Frazier and basketball legend Julius Erving, Peppers was as good of a pure athlete as either one of his namesakes. The man has played in both a Final Four and a Super Bowl – he told me once that the Final Four, to him, was the bigger deal – and will one day almost surely make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Yes, he could disappear on the field for long stretches at a time. Yes, he never had that 20-sack season that he always seemed capable of producing. But you also have to appreciate Peppers for what he is – a steady, durable quarterback chaser who has produced at least seven sacks in 14 of his 15 NFL seasons. Peppers has also missed only two games – two! – because of injury in those 15 seasons. (He missed four more because of an NFL-mandated suspension in his rookie season.)

In other words, give me Peppers over defensive end Kony Ealy anytime. And were the Panthers ever ready to get rid of Ealy! They practically gave Ealy away to New England Friday, in a figurative sense ushering him out the door at nearly the same time as Peppers was arriving.

‘If they wanted me to stay ...’

Now there is that nasty Peppers-Panthers breakup from 2010 – no sense in dodging that one. It would have cost Carolina only an additional $6 million over a four-year contract to have kept Peppers around – or at least that’s what Peppers said during an exclusive interview with the Observer’s Charles Chandler in March of 2010.

Instead, Peppers bolted for Chicago and then, in 2014, to Green Bay. Carolina tried to lure him back to Charlotte in 2014, too, but missed out.

Now he returns to the place where he started his NFL career in 2002 as the No. 2 overall pick out of North Carolina, played until 2009 and still holds the Panthers’ all-time sacks record with 81.

The Panthers tried to make Peppers the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL – twice! – during contract negotiations in the mid-to-late 2000s with then-general manager Marty Hurney. But Peppers said in 2010 in that Observer interview after signing with Chicago that in the summer of 2009 the two sides were ultimately split by only $6 million. Peppers said then he had wanted a four-year, $60 million deal and that Carolina was offering four years and $54 million.

Peppers said in the 2010 interview that he believed Carolina could have and should have come up with that final $6 million in the summer of 2009 if it had really, really wanted him.

“My feeling is they could have done that,” Peppers said in that 2010 interview. “If they wanted me to stay, it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal.”

People change – and Peppers has

Carolina used its franchise tag on Peppers for the 2009 season instead, paying him slightly more than $16 million for that one season – or a bit more than $1 million per game. The Panthers declined to use that franchise tag on Peppers for the second straight year in 2010, when they would have had to pay him more than $20 million to do so. They let him leave instead as an unrestricted free agent.

Peppers has said several times that his departure struck a “sour” note, and no one would argue that. His relationship with owner Jerry Richardson has apparently stayed pleasant, however, and that no doubt helped as he tried to close the circle on his career.

My belief both in 2010 and right now was that Hurney wasn’t really at fault for losing out on Peppers – I think Peppers was just ready to get out of Charlotte for awhile. He was the rare player who had gone to both high school (Southern Nash) and college in the same state where he became a star NFL player. He was a huge deal statewide, and blending into the woodwork like he often wanted to off the field was not an option.

Introverted by nature – especially early in his career – Peppers was happy to go somewhere that the team had a much more lustrous legacy and he did not have to shoulder as much of the attention.

But people change, and obviously Peppers has. I had heard he was very interested in this return happening back in January, but I never was totally sure it would happen.

Peppers is back, though – older, wiser and not with quite the same speed as he had early in his career. The burst he had then was so ferocious that some players in the locker room – even the wide receivers – would speculate as to whether the 6-foot-7, 287-pound defensive end from tiny Bailey, N.C., could outrun them all.

He can’t do that anymore. But Peppers can still play.

And man, this is going to be fun.