Julius Peppers in retirement: Green Bay 'felt like home'

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It was a chance encounter near the players' exit at Bank of America Stadium shortly after the Carolina Panthers beat the Green Bay Packers in December 2017, and Julius Peppers stopped for a chat.

Earlier that afternoon, Peppers sacked Aaron Rodgers. At the end of the play, Peppers appeared to adjust to avoid pulling down Rodgers with excessive force. Rodgers had just come off injured reserve that week after missing half the season with a broken collarbone. The Panthers' 31-24 win ended any hope that the Packers could make the playoffs, and Rodgers returned to injured reserve to finish the season.

Peppers, on his way out of the stadium, said two things: That upon hitting Rodgers, he wanted to "get the ball and make sure Rodgers didn't get hurt" and then he asked his interlocutor from Green Bay to "be kind to the guys back there."

With that, Peppers offered an embrace and went on his way.

Peppers spent only three years in Green Bay, which equates to just 17.6 percent of his NFL career. He recorded 25 sacks in those three regular seasons, representing just 19.1 percent of his total, which ranks fourth on the all-time sack list. But Peppers' retirement, announced Friday after 17 NFL seasons, resonated in Wisconsin.

And clearly, based on Peppers' response on that late 2017 day and in his retirement essay posted on The Players' Tribune, Peppers cherished his time in Green Bay -- which followed eight years in Carolina and four years in Chicago and came before he returned to the Panthers for his final two seasons.

"I guess more than anything, Green Bay just felt like home," Peppers wrote. "You know, small town, good people who love their football ... it was a really great experience being a part of that culture. I was sad to leave Green Bay, and I don't think I would have left to go anywhere but home to Carolina.

"So to Chicago and Green Bay: Thank you for embracing me and allowing me to be a part of your families."

Peppers signed a three-year, $26 million contract with the Packers in 2014. He did so with the hope that he'd finally get another shot at a Super Bowl -- something he experienced, and lost, in his second year in the NFL. He reached the NFC Championship Game twice with the Packers, following the 2014 and 2016 seasons, but they lost both times.

He brought instant credibility to a Packers locker room that didn't often get the chance to welcome veteran free agents. He was respected both for his productivity and durability. He never missed a game during his three seasons with the Packers and missed only six games in his career (four due to suspension). To that point, he had never undergone a single surgery.

"I love my time with Julius. I love him as a person, as a teammate," Rodgers said in a tribute video posted on the Panthers website. "He's still a dear friend to this day. My sadness in playing with him is not giving him a chance to win a ring because of all the players who have played in the NFL, there's not many that deserve a ring like Julius Peppers because he's one of the all-time greats."

The admiration was mutual.

"Aaron Rodgers, just for being an all-time great player and teammate ... and for making me believe that somehow, a Hail Mary can be a high-percentage throw," Peppers wrote. "I've never seen anybody do some of the things you can do, man. I'm glad I had a front seat for some of it."

He not only bonded with his teammates but also with his coaches.

Peppers included Mike McCarthy, who coached Peppers in Green Bay and was fired with four games left in the 2018 seasons, in his list of thank yous.

"To my other coaches -- Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli in Chicago, Mike McCarthy (who got a raw deal in Green Bay this year), Ron Rivera and all my coaches in Carolina: Thank you for being incredible leaders and great men," Peppers wrote. "I'm proud that I got to play for each of you."

Peppers, a North Carolina native who played both football and basketball for the in-state Tar Heels, dreamed of playing professional basketball, and his college coach, Matt Doherty, thought Peppers could have played in the NBA.

Without football, he never would have come to Green Bay. Peppers didn't need Green Bay to solidify his Hall of Fame career, but it sure seemed like he appreciated it.