CHARLOTTE, N.C. --- The good times didn't end when he finally left the field, surrounded by cameras, saluting the crowd. For Julius Peppers, this reunion likely spilled over into today. While his teammates flew back to Chicago on the team charter, their star defensive end was expected to remain in his home state to bask in the moment.
Nobody could blame him. As far as homecomings go, it's will be hard to top this.
Not only did the Bears pull out a 23-6 road win despite a wretched performance from backup quarterback Todd Collins, but the defense got back on track after a dismal fourth quarter against the Giants last week, holding the run-oriented Panthers to just 85 yard rushing while forcing three turnovers, racking up five sacks and allowing only 62 passing yards.
But that wasn't the best part. For Peppers, the pinch-myself-I-must-be-dreaming moment came midway through the first quarter when he made a play few defensive ends can make.
"The guy is incredible," said defensive end Israel Idonije, who had three sacks himself. "That's just one guy out on the field taking over. Tip the ball, dive. The quarterback goes to knock it down and he catches it. The only thing left for him to do is jump up and run it into the end zone. The guy is outstanding. He's going to make his presence felt in the game. No matter what, he's going to do that."
The play will forever be included in his personal highlight reel. First he deflected Jimmy Clausen's pass. The ball fluttered straight up in the air, and Peppers, like an infielder calling for a pop fly, never took his eyes off it.
He was on his knees, and the ball seemed impossibly far away, but he dove and cradled it to this chest for an interception that set up a field goal that gave his new team a 17-3 lead.
"[Geoff] Schwartz tried to cut me and he didn't get me down," Peppers said. "I was able to get my hand up. The ball popped straight up into the air. I was on my knees and everyone else was falling down around me. The ball just came right back to me and I pulled it in."
Peppers grew up in North Carolina. He was a two-sport star for the Tar Heels. He spent his first eight years in the league with the Panthers but was still booed whenever his name was announced. No big deal. He expected it.
But he couldn't help himself from leaping to his feet and putting his index finger to his lips and holding it here after his interception, shushing the crowd.
"That was right on the spot," Peppers said when asked if his celebration was premeditated. "We had a little fun out there. It was a good time. It was all in fun."
The much-anticipated matchup between Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross and Peppers never materialized for a lot of reasons. The Panthers were determined to run the ball, limiting the opportunity for Peppers to get into the backfield.
But as Bears fans have learned through five games, their prized free agent doesn't always have to record sacks to make an impact.
"It was a funny game plan because they didn't really throw a lot," Peppers said. "The times they did throw it was out of funky formations with running backs and tight ends chipping. The matchup with Gross didn't materialize the way a lot of people wanted it to. We didn't really get to see each other too much."
Several of his Bears teammates said Peppers would remain behind to spend a few days in his Charlotte-area home, where he still maintains his primary residence. Peppers said he hadn't decided whether to say or fly home with the team, but he was dressed in a sweat shirt while his teammates wore suits and ties for the flight home.
If he spent an extra day here, which he almost assuredly did, it was well deserved.
"Come on, it's home," he said. "I was here for thirty years or so. Of course I missed it a little bit. As far as the football part of it, I don't really miss anything. I'm happy where I'm at now."