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Peppers faces ‘emotional’ return to Carolina

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - In the little more than 20 years since major pro sports arrived in this town, Julius Peppers has little competition as the most polarizing pro sports figure.

A local kid who starred at the state college, Peppers arrived in 2002 with great fanfare as the No. 2 overall pick of the Carolina Panthers. Yet he never was comfortable as face of the franchise and always kept a distance from fans and media.

Freakishly athletic, Peppers routinely did things defensive ends aren't supposed to do. He made five Pro Bowls, was selected to the NFL all-decade team, led the Panthers to the Super Bowl and put his name all over Carolina's record book. Yet he would also disappear for long stretches _ even an entire season in 2007.

His coaches and teammates would vehemently defend him, yet Peppers declared more than once he wanted to play elsewhere despite a salary that swelled to $18.2 million last season. When the Panthers let him leave in the spring, he insisted it was the team's decision and he had no choice but to sign with Chicago.

Carrying all that history, baggage and contradictions, Peppers returns on Sunday with the Bears, unsure how he'll be received in a stadium that used to be littered with fans dressed in his No. 90 Panthers jersey.

"I have absolutely no idea," Peppers said. "I know I have a large fan base down there. I also know that I have people that don't necessarily care for me too much, either. Which crowd shows up? I don't know."

Peppers' return was circled the day the Panthers' schedule was released in the spring. Few could have guessed it would come under these circumstances.

Chicago (3-1) is coming off a brutal performance last week, falling 17-3 to the New York Giants with Jay Cutler sacked nine times in the first half before leaving with a concussion. Cutler remains sidelined, meaning 38-year-old Todd Collins will start against Carolina (0-4), which is in even worse shape.

Letting Peppers leave in free agency was part of an offseason youth movement that gutted the roster. Now with star receiver Steve Smith sidelined with a sprained ankle, rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen will have few options leading the NFL's lowest-scoring team against the disruptive Peppers.

"That 0-4 record they have doesn't really speak to how that team is playing," Peppers insisted. "I know those guys. They still have the best running back tandem in the league. They still have a solid O-line. They still have No. 89 (Smith). They still have a solid defense."

But they don't have Peppers, who collected a franchise record 81 sacks in an eight-year stint that ended with a prolonged and tense contract dispute.

Peppers turned down a deal after the 2007 season _ during which he managed just 2 1/2 sacks _ that would have made him the NFL's highest-paid defensive player. The Panthers went against his wishes and used the franchise tag to keep him in 2009, then decided to cut him loose in the spring.

Peppers took some fresh shots at his old team last week, saying he was upset general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox never told him personally they wouldn't try to re-sign him.

"I haven't actually spoken to either one of them," Peppers said.

Mix that fresh angle with surly fans who have watched Carolina score five touchdowns in four games, and boos or cheers are possible for Peppers Sunday.

"There are a lot of 90 jerseys still around Charlotte, so I think he'll be welcomed," said Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross, who will line up opposite Peppers for real after seven years of intense practice competitions.

"He's not a Panther anymore, and it didn't go down the way everybody would have liked it to I don't think, but he meant so much to this team for so long that I'd be surprised if people didn't welcome him."

While Peppers looks to rebound after being held without a sack by the Giants, Cutler's streak of 57 straight starts will be snapped. Collins will try to jump-start a Chicago offense that managed just 110 yards and allowed a franchise-worst 10 sacks last week.

"I've been around for a while," said Collins, who turns 39 next month.

Chicago may not need a lot of offense against the Panthers, who are averaging a league-low 11 1/2 points a game in their worst start since 1998. Things bottomed out three years later when Carolina went 1-15 and coach John Fox replaced George Seifert.

Fox made Peppers, the Bailey native and North Carolina star, his first draft pick and rode him to the Super Bowl in the 2003 season.

Now Peppers is gone and Fox is coaching a winless team in the last year of his contract. Both guys could end up being booed Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in what Peppers acknowledges will be an "emotional" experience.

"I really don't know what to expect or what I'm going to be feeling once I get to that stadium," he said. "I'm sure it's going to feel funny running out there and being on the opposing sideline _ but I think that will last for about 10 minutes."

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