CHICAGO — Julius Peppers briefly met with Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman in the hours before kickoff Sunday morning. He gave his former teammate a quick hug. They shared some laughs, reminisced.
A little later, Peppers chatted with Bears linebacker Lance Briggs. Then, tight end Martellus Bennett. Right there on the Soldier Field grass, where Peppers returned for the first time since signing this offseason with the Green Bay Packers, a reunion unfolded.
Peppers called Chicago "a great chapter" in his career, one that likely will end in Canton, Ohio. Hug after hug, former teammate after former teammate, he made sure to spend quality time.
"Those are my friends. Those are the relationships that matter to me," Peppers said. "What the fans in the stands do, what people around town do, that really doesn't concern me. I couldn't care less about that."
In his 13th season, Peppers lets the fickleness of fans roll off his shoulders. He knows better than to take anything personally. It's a good thing, too. Peppers' return was going smoothly — just love, no hate — right up until the first snap of the Packers' 38-17 victory.
Most of the 61,736 home fans rained down their boos as Peppers tackled Bears running back Matt Forte. They continued for much of the afternoon. Whenever his name was announced, Bears fans let Peppers know he no longer was welcome.
Peppers heard the boos. Believe him or not, he said it didn't bother him.
"I didn't expect to come out here and get cheers playing for the Green Bay Packers," Peppers said.
All week, Peppers downplayed any personal vendetta. No chip on these shoulders. It's "negative energy," Peppers said. A waste of time.
So even after the Bears released him this spring — choosing to cut salary, but still counting him $8.3 million against the cap to not play, compared to only $3.5 million for the Packers — Peppers insisted this was just business.
Inside the Packers' locker room, Peppers told reporters and teammates that returning to Chicago was different than returning to the Carolina Panthers in 2010, his first season with the Bears. For the North Carolina native, the Panthers were home. Chicago was just another town, he said.
Aaron Rodgers didn't believe him.
The Packers quarterback might not know what it's like to face a former team, but he imagined the emotions are a little extra. Asked if Peppers ever shared the importance of this game, how special it would be to enter Soldier Field wearing green and gold and walk out with a win, Rodgers didn't hesitate.
"He did with his body language," Rodgers said. "If you know Pep, he's not a big talker. I think we all knew it meant something to him to come back. Now, he actually talked a little this week when I talked to him about going back to Carolina. He spent more time in Carolina than he did here in Chicago. But no, it meant something.
"We all wanted to put a good effort forward."
After his first tackle, Peppers didn't do much on the stat sheet. Just two stops, far from the numbers he produced the past two weeks. Still, his presence was felt.
On the field, defensive end Datone Jones said Peppers "got us really hyped" a few times. His inspiration helped turn a sluggish, confused first-half defense into a second-half shutout.
How much did this mean to Peppers?
"Oh, I know it meant a lot," Jones said. "He's done a lot for the Chicago Bears. He's done a lot for this city. I'm very excited for him to be able to come back and just play hard again. I'm very excited that we got the win."
Peppers' new teammates heard the boos, too. On Sunday, they had his back. Cornerback Sam Shields called Peppers a "brother." Cornerback Tramon Williams said the whole team wanted to win for him.
After Peppers left the locker room, Jones was asked about the boos and showed his disgust.
"I feel really bad, because at the end of the day, fans have to remember that this is a business," Jones said. "We don't choose the teams. They choose us. It's a business. They've got to understand he has a family.
"I'm pretty sure he'd want to finish here. You can't get mad when a player leaves. You don't boo people when they get cut. So if they go to a different team, don't boo them. It's kind of wrong."
Instead, Peppers likely will finish his career in Green Bay. His new teammates — and new fans — don't mind at all.
Last week, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Peppers has been everything he hoped. He's a leader on the field, a veteran voice in the locker room. In the pass rush, he's provided plenty of punch.
Now, Peppers also is 4-0 playing against former teams.
It's a quick trip back to Green Bay. With the Minnesota Vikings coming to town Thursday, it'll feel like an even quicker week. Peppers stressed the importance of moving on. There's no time for a celebration, but would Peppers take a few moments on the flight home to appreciate what happened Sunday?
His face lit up.
"Yeah, yeah," Peppers said, flashing a rare smile. "(Expletive), I might just lay back. I'm going to enjoy this one."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood