Julius Peppers preps for 17th season with 'small doses of excellence'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Julius Peppers arrives at practice in a golf cart, stretches with his teammates and then heads back to the stadium on a golf cart to do an upper-body workout.

The next day, the Carolina Panthers defensive end works off to the side of the field, pulling and pushing a weighted sled and doing agility and get-off drills to strengthen his lower body. Then he heads inside on the golf cart to continue his workout.

He does that routine every other day.

Most days, he returns to the field in time to watch a few series of team drills and hear coach Ron Rivera's final words.

This is Peppers' dress rehearsal for the Sept. 9 opener against Dallas (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox).

The 38-year-old, entering his 17th NFL season, won't be part of Friday's preseason game, in which his teammates face the New England Patriots at Bank of America Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET).

In fact, he won't take a snap in any of the four preseason games. He won't take a snap in practice until the week before the opener, in small part because he's recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and in larger part because the Panthers want to save everything the future Hall of Famer has left in his sculpted, 6-foot-7, 295-pound body for regular-season games.

Peppers spends as much or more time with strength and conditioning coach Joe Kenn as he does with his position coach. Rivera is fine with this because there isn't much he or the other coaches can teach the nine-time Pro Bowl selection, who ranks fourth on the NFL's all-time sack list, with 154.5.

"Me and Julius call it small doses of excellence," Kenn said of Peppers' daily routine.

Like Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, 41, and a select few of seemingly ageless players, Peppers still performs at a high level, despite being an age when most players are retired.

Unlike Brady, Peppers doesn't have a trendy organic- and plant-based diet, though he does watch what goes into his body more carefully this time of year.

He has a rare combination of genetics and desire that allows him to be physically and mentally ready for a season without the normal daily practice grind. That he plays a position that doesn't require him to develop timing with other players -- like with quarterbacks and receivers -- also helps.

Daily practices or not, what Peppers has done is impressive.

"I've played against a lot of older players at the defensive end position and played with them too, and that's a hard position to play," Brady said. "You have to set the edge, rush the passer, dealing with the size all day long at tackle.

"But he's a freak. He's been a freak probably since he's been in high school. It's amazing watching him do it."

Time machine

Mike Rucker was a three-year NFL veteran when Peppers arrived at Carolina in 2002 and took the locker next to him. Rucker has been retired for 10 seasons, so to see his former teammate still playing brings perspective to longevity.

"I feel like I'm in a time machine," said Rucker, an analyst for the Panthers' television network. "I don't think just anybody can do this. ... You might have a body type that is similar to his, but at 300 pounds and to be able to run and have soft hands and a gentle touch, but also can hit you like a bulldozer ... it just doesn't exist.

"So the rule book of what you can and can't do is completely thrown out the window with him, and he's rewriting that."

Peppers is on his second go-around with the Panthers, having returned last season for what appeared to be his final season. After his first stint, he left for Chicago after the 2009 season in part because the Panthers wouldn't pay what he wanted and in part because he felt the need to get away from the Carolinas, where he had lived his entire life.

The No. 2 pick in the 2002 draft signed another one-year deal -- a bargain $5 million contract with $2.5 million guaranteed -- this past offseason after tying Mario Addison for the team lead in sacks with 11. He came back because he still yearns to win a Super Bowl and because the Panthers allow him to train at his own pace instead of forcing him to practice. Even during the season, Peppers typically doesn't go through a full practice more than one day a week.

"I used to watch Walter Payton," said Rivera, who was Payton's teammate in Chicago in the mid-1980s. "Walter used to practice on Wednesday, take a day off on Thursday, practice on Friday, walk-thru on Saturday and play on Sunday.

"That's kind of what you have to do with those guys."

That the NFL's collective bargaining agreement passed in 2011 eliminated two-a-day padded practices in training camp, shortened camp overall and increased the number of days off also helped extend the careers of players such as Peppers.

"I wish they had these kind of rules when I was coming up," said Rivera, a former linebacker who played for nine seasons (1984-92).

Carolina safety Mike Adams, 37, knows the league's new rules extended his career by two years. But even he is amazed by the level at which Peppers is able to perform at a position where the body takes a constant pounding on game day.

"When you see him playing, you don't think about his age," Adams said. "You only think about his age when the lights is off and everybody is sitting around chilling, like, 'You've been in the league this long?'

"When he's out there, he's just like that young kid having fun."

Hoops influence

Kenn doesn't have scientific evidence to back this up, but he insists that the years Peppers spent playing basketball in high school and at the University of North Carolina factor into his prolonged football career.

"I know as an ex-college strength coach what's helped Julius' longevity inadvertently was not having to do offseason training with the football team because he was with the basketball team," he said. "It is highly demanding.

"By him playing another sport, that just enhanced his athleticism and skill set without him taking another beating."

Rucker agreed, adding that the flexibility it takes to play basketball likely helped Peppers avoid some of the injuries football players often get.

"He has basketball ankles, so he doesn't get all those sprains and stuff average people do," Rucker said. "When he does some of his moves, I actually see him being in the post box backing somebody down. Very flexible. All those things are going to help you with flexibility, which he's had since day one."

Combine that athleticism with freakish size, and it's no surprise that Peppers is only 5.5 sacks from catching Kevin Greene for third place on the NFL's all-time list.

Rucker credits a workout routine and mindset that were impressive even when Peppers was a rookie. He credits Peppers with making him better the day he walked in the door.

"He made me accountable, even though I was older than him, because of what he brought to the table," Rucker said. "If he's going to sacrifice himself, that means I have to do more, not only for him but for the team to make sure that sacrifice was worth something."

What impressed Rucker more than Peppers' athletic ability was his willingness to listen and remain humble. He wasn't surprised to learn that Peppers hasn't done interviews since training camp began because Peppers never liked talking about himself or his accomplishments.

"We always say God gave you two ears and one mouth to listen more and talk less," he said. "That's what he does. One of the reasons he doesn't talk as much is because he's always listening."

Still imposing

Peppers towers over most teammates the way the Duke Energy building towers over the practice fields in uptown Charlotte. Those who stand beside him are amazed at how physically imposing he is, almost as if they're in the presence of a Greek god.

Kenn feels privileged to be part of keeping Peppers on the field, claiming that he gets more out of the daily workouts than he gives.

"You learn a lot from a guy that has been in the league as long as he has," Kenn said. "When you're dealing with somebody with that kind of longevity, it's good for me as a coach, so when you get with others in that 10- to 14-year span, you understand better how to train, how they listen to their bodies, because obviously they've done something right on their own."

Kenn doesn't get fancy with Peppers' routine because Peppers' athleticism takes over naturally.

"I've told other coaches, it's amazing how every time we run a drill, I never have to tell him to touch the line," Kenn said. "And you want to know why the guy is getting ready to be the third-best sack leader in the history of the league and why he's still there? Because that stuff still matters to him.

"There's pride in that."

Peppers has that in common with Brady and most other veteran players who continue to perform at a high level.

"You take care of all the things you need to do to be a professional, whether you're the quarterback or D-lineman," Brady said. "Obviously, your skill at your position needs to be elite, but then you have to put everything else together in your life, which is really hard, I think, for all of us.

"As you get older, there are different disciplines that come into it. Anyone who probably excels at their job has to figure out how to deal with all things happening in life as you get older."

Panthers defensive tackle Kyle Love, who played with Brady from 2010-12, calls that "love for the game."

"That's what it takes to continue to push yourself when you get to the later years of your career when you could easily say, 'I don't want to do this anymore,'" he said.

Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly agreed.

"They respect the game," he said of vets such as Peppers and Brady. "They know how to take care of themselves. But the biggest thing is those guys love playing the game. I don't think you play that long unless you enjoy playing it."

Kenn sees Peppers' love for the game on a daily basis, whether it's doing squats to strengthen the lower body or lifting weights to strengthen the upper body. He doesn't worry that Peppers won't be ready for the Cowboys because he hasn't been practicing or that he'll be naturally sore the next day.

"He's a unique blend of a guy with extreme talent who is willing to put in the work," Kenn said. "That's why he's where he's at. This doesn't work if you don't have both. The guy is special. Just special."

ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss contributed to this story.