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For Muhsin Muhammad and Julius Peppers, Hall of Honor is a homecoming

For Muhsin Muhammad and Julius Peppers, the lists of career achievements that started them on their paths to this weekend’s Hall of Honor enshrinement were long.

Muhammad’s in the league’s top 35 all-time in both receptions and receiving yards, and catching passes was just part of his game. Peppers is fourth all-time in sacks, a two-time All-Decade player, and almost certain to go into the Hall of Fame shortly.

But both of them achieved one of the most rare feats in football.

“Being able to play here as a young guy, going into my veteran years and leaving, but also coming back, and tying up some loose ends,” Peppers said. “So that whole circle, the whole career circle, it’s something that I’m proud of.

“I’m happy to have come back and played my last game as a Carolina Panther.”

Few players are able to play as long as they did — 14 years for Muhammad, 17 for Peppers — and practically none get to do it in the same place.

But to leave and come back allowed them to complete their hero’s journey in a way that few could.

Because football can be a cold and calculating business — on both ends of the equation — the landscape of the game is littered with players who finished their careers in places they perhaps should have never been.

Who can forget Raiders and Seahawks wide receiver Jerry Rice, or Cardinals running back Emmitt Smith, or Chargers quarterback Johnny Unitas, or even Panthers legend Reggie White?

And for both Muhammad and Peppers, the road that led them back to this place was winding. But for both of them, there was something that called to them like a beacon, bringing them back to Bank of America Stadium, where they’ll be honored Sunday.

After his best statistical season in 2004, he was released by the Panthers. It was purely a financial decision then, as his contract was built with a huge-at-the-time $10 million roster bonus they weren’t going to pay, not with another superstar receiver in Steve Smith on the roster as well.

“And at 30 years old, I go out and I get 16 touchdowns, lead the league in receiving yards, and have a phenomenal year,” Muhammad recalled. “And at the end of that season, the Panthers decided that they wanted to go in a different direction, and so it was hurtful.

“It was a blow to your ego, a blow to your pride. A lot of different things. But I knew that some of my best years were ahead of me.”

So off he went to Chicago to catch fewer passes but make more money, a lucrative detour but one that never felt right. It lasted three seasons, and he helped the Bears get to a Super Bowl.

But for him and them, there was something missing. The Panthers kept trying to find the next version of him, and those are names that are barely remembered as Panthers, the Rod Gardners and Keyshawn Johnsons and DJ Hacketts, the Drew Carters and Keary Colberts and Dwayne Jarretts.

So when his time in Chicago ended, it felt natural, it felt right, and it didn’t take long for both sides to decide. He was coming back to Charlotte anyway to raise his family, and the Panthers had this Muhammad-shaped hole in the roster that they never quite filled.

Steve Smith Sr., Muhsin Muhammad

And though his relationship with Smith was initially a complex one, Smith was first among those lobbying for his return.

“I’ll never forget when he got released,” quarterback and fellow Hall of Honor member Jake Delhomme said. “The first phone call I got was from Steve Smith and he was like, ‘Hey, I just got off the phone with Marty (Hurney, the general manager); we’ve got to get him back.’

That just goes to show you, Steve knew, I’m going to lose some catches to this guy, but I know what he brings, one for me as a person, but for me as a player. And I mean, I wanted him back, obviously.

“I think when Moose came back, I don’t know if I saw a different player because I saw when I got here, he was in year eight. So I saw the mature player.

I just know it was a lot of the same version, the toughness that he brought, his inspiration, and Steve was on another level at that time, and it just fit right in. And Steve was happy to give up catches to Moose because that meant we were going to be a better football team.”

The Panthers brought Muhammad back in 2008, hoping he might be their Ricky Proehl from 2003. He turned out to be much more, making plays at his previous level and helping that team to a 12-4 record with a top-10 offense.

“That was a magical season,” Muhammad said. “You know, I think that people who remember that season when I came back to play for the Carolina Panthers, they said the Moose is back, the magic is back.

For Peppers, it was at once more complicated, and simpler.

There was a financial component alongside, but his leaving home was part of a personal quest, a chance to step outside the small bubble where he had lived his entire life.

Growing up in this state, starring in two sports at North Carolina, and being drafted to his home team created the opportunity to become mythical. He’s our state’s Paul Bunyan, except he was real.

That came with a certain celebrity that he was never comfortable with.

“And it was set up for that,” Peppers said. “The plan was set up, right, to go that route. But that’s not what I wanted. I didn’t want that. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t my personality. I didn’t want it.”

He asked to leave, and the Panthers resisted in 2009, using the franchise tag to keep him here for an eighth season. The following year, they allowed him to walk away (again, it was complicated, as the pre-lockout financial decisions of that time made the unthinkable seem justifiable), and he followed Muhammad’s path to Chicago and then a stop in Green Bay.

“I was happy with my experience,” Peppers said. “I wouldn’t change anything. Well, I would maybe change a couple of things. But as far as leaving and going somewhere else, seeing how other things work in other places. I was happy with it.

“There were a lot of things going on at that time. But yeah, the personal growth was one of the things that was like a driving force and that decision. You know, I loved it here. I love the Carolinas. But there was a part of me that just wanted to go, go see something different.

I think that if I had gone to high school here and gone to college in, I don’t know, Miami, or New York or wherever, anywhere, any other city, right, and then got drafted by the Panthers, I probably would have had a different feeling.

“But the thing from being born and raised, going to school here, coming to the Panthers, it was lovely; it was a perfect scenario.

But I think I got a little bit fatigued with the whole thing. It was overwhelming at times. Whatever you want to call it, the celebrity, you know, it was a little bit much at the time.”

But at the end of that seven-year sabbatical, he did what Muhammad did again.

The Panthers were hanging onto the core of an incredible team and still looking for that final piece (after bringing in Panthers legend Jared Allen to rush the passer that year). In 2017, the time was right to come back.

“I think that it was like the perfect ending to a career for him,” his former teammate Mike Rucker said. “I played here; we had some good times. I went somewhere else. It was mutual that I wanted to come back, and you wanted me.

Like Muhammad, the Peppers that came back was a different man. He could still make plays like before (he had 11.0 sacks in 2017), but he was changed.

There were flecks of gray in the beard and a new ease with being in the middle of it all. Even surrounded by stars as he was lining up alongside Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen, Peppers was able to embrace the impact he was having — to be comfortable being Julius Peppers.

“Just watching him, it seemed like he found his voice when he went away,” Delhomme said. “He started to, I don’t want to say mature, but just kind of understand the effect that he truly has on people and on organizations. So when he came back, I think he understood that, you know what, I can, I can really be something more than what I already was.

Julius Peppers

In the history of football, there were others like him. But not many, and not many of them got to come home.

Those who got to experience both their careers here realize how rare it is.

Long snapper JJ Jansen has played more games than any player in Panthers history (232 and counting). He’s the de facto historian of the place, an eyewitness to half the existence of the franchise.

He got here as Muhammad was winding down his career, and his locker was next to Peppers’ just as he was departing. He’s also a person who has made this place his home, has settled here, and become one of us.

So for him to see his former teammates return this weekend, to come home again, makes sense to Jansen, a man who knows a good story when he sees one.

“I think what’s really special about this place is that this is a place you want to come back to,” Jansen said. “Obviously, two players that were drafted here had some of their very best years left, had other good years in other places. Julius had seven years, Moose had three.

I mean, those are the lengths of other people’s NFL careers someplace else and then come back and be productive when they come back. So it speaks to how special they are that they’re able to have this sort of career rejuvenation two or three times; that’s very unique in the NFL.

“But it also speaks to this is the type of place that players want to play in and want to come back to. And I think that’s the connection between the players, the team, and the community. I’ve always said that this place operates best when it is very well connected to the community around it.

There are still people that talk about those 2003 and 2005 teams and the connectedness, the family. I certainly played on one in 2013, ’14, and ’15, where you felt connected to the fans and to the community at large. And so I think I would like to think that a good part of the reason why they came back is because this is the place that they want to have the end of their career.

“This is the type of place that they want to have their families and loved ones be around, and now we get to do that one more time, and that’s really special. And for their names to always be in that stadium and to be honored as really two of the most unique players in Panther history is special — for not just them but the city and the whole organization.”

Plenty of players have great careers. All of them end. But few of them get to bring it home for a final curtain call, a chance to be celebrated again, to accept the embrace of the people who loved them when they went away and perhaps even more when they returned.

Sunday, Muhsin Muhammad and Julius Peppers will be home again.

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