How Julius Peppers keeps defying Father Time

Despite the mileage, his body still feels 26 years old, even if he knows he isn’t.

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GREEN BAY - He could’ve spent his offseason on the beach, sifting through sand. Palm trees. Ocean view. Maybe an umbrella in his drink.

Julius Peppers is 36 years old now. He’ll play his 15th NFL season this fall. If there was one player permitted to cut corners in organized team activities, permitted to wave goodbye in January and show up in July, it would be the nine-time Pro Bowler with 136 career sacks.

Instead, he is here. Ninety minutes after walking off Ray Nitschke Field during OTAs, Peppers wears workout attire. His hair, cut shorter this season than last, is no resistance for the sweat washing over his face. In a hallway outside the Green Bay Packers’ locker room, Peppers looks like he stepped out of the shower and forgot a towel.

Most of his teammates have changed their clothes. Lunch is over. For some, meetings are next. A half-dozen players cluster near a side exit, vigorously debating the NBA Finals.

Peppers has more work to do.

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Despite the mileage, Peppers said he still feels 26. He knows he isn’t anymore. His body needs more maintenance. That means a 20-minute trip to the sauna before his workout is complete. Inside, temperatures can reach 180 degrees. The heat dilates his blood vessels, pulls sweat from his pores, stimulating his recovery.

It’s one of several adjustments Peppers made over the years. A decade ago, Peppers said, he could take two, three months off during the offseason. Training camp arrived, and he was ready to churn out another Pro Bowl season.

“Now,” Peppers said, “I can’t do that. I’ve got to stay active.”

Peppers spent one month away from football this offseason, he said. Then it was back to workouts, conditioning. He worked smarter in the weight room, not harder. More reps. Less weight.

It’s a schedule he has kept since coming to Green Bay two years ago. The results are undeniable. Peppers has unlocked a secret few players at his position ever found.

Exaggeration may be the best way to describe him. Peppers is 6-foot-7 with a 10-foot-6 stature. Larger than life. Picture Paul Bunyan with shoulder pads.

“Julius Peppers is ageless,” coach Mike McCarthy said, aggrandizing only a little.

His accomplishments bend logic, but they’re real.

In a decade and a half of playing a violent sport, Peppers has missed two games. In two seasons with the Packers, he has missed one practice — not by his choice — and never appeared on the midweek injury report.

In offseason conditioning, he runs wind sprints with defensive backs, players he outweighs by 100 pounds.

“I’ve been doing that since college,” Peppers said. “I like to run. That’s my thing. I like to run in the offseason. So I have a chance to get with those little guys and try to push myself and use one of those guys as a rabbit. I try to jump in there with them and see if I can keep up.”

Fifteen years in, Peppers keeps up just fine.

Last fall, he finished with 10.5 sacks. A good season. Chances are you have no idea just how good.

Since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, Peppers was only the ninth player with double digits after turning 35 years old. At 36 or older, only four players have done it: Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Kevin Greene, Chris Doleman.

“The top four pass rushers,” Doleman said.

Smith, White, Green and Doleman are members of an exclusive club, the only four men to officially reach 150 sacks in their career. Each is a Hall of Famer.

So it’s clear what this season could mean. Peppers’ candidacy for Canton probably doesn’t need a boost — at least not if you ask Hall of Famers — but nearly unprecedented late-career production wouldn’t hurt. Joining that elite list should leave no doubt.

The question, though, is how Peppers has kept giving quarterbacks cold sweats this deep into his career. Lawrence Taylor’s last great season came at age 31. Richard Dent was 33. Same age for Jason Taylor.

For answers, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin spoke with Peppers and the top three living sack leaders, examining what it takes to keep harassing quarterbacks after most players retire.

‘The saving grace for my career’

Some things, you can control. Diet. Sleeping habits. The key to a long and healthy career is staying on the straight and narrow.

Just ask Bruce Smith.

In his second offseason with the Buffalo Bills, red meat was Smith’s biggest weakness. He was young, brash, invincible. The top overall draft pick in 1985 had a fine rookie season. So Smith ate late — stayed out later — and munched on whatever he felt like.

Usually, Smith felt like eating steak. Four or five times a week, he said. If not red meat, Smith ate something fried. Chicken. Fish. Didn’t matter.

It’s a diet he started in college, when coaches at Virginia Tech encouraged him to eat his way to 270 pounds.

“They wanted you big,” Smith explained, “and they wanted you strong and bulky.”

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It worked in college. In his second NFL offseason, Smith ate his way to 310 pounds.

No, slimming down to his playing weight wasn’t fun.

“I said to myself, ‘I can’t put my body through this drastic transformation year in and year out and try to have to lose that weight for training camp,’” Smith said. “That’s when I went through this metamorphosis that I lost 40 pounds and never looked back. That was the saving grace for my career.”

Smith considers himself lucky. Early in his career, he said, the light bulb clicked. Smith started hanging with veterans. In training camp, he was their shadow.

He wanted to know how they stayed productive at an age when raw talent and athleticism weren’t enough. He saw vets taking care of their bodies in a way younger players never considered.

With better off-field habits, Smith went on to have the most productive career of any pass rusher in NFL history. The only man to record 200 career sacks played 19 seasons and didn’t retire until he was 40. He had double-digit sacks twice after turning 35, nine sacks at age 39.

“Being 40 years old,” Smith said, “you can understand (why I retired). I don’t know if there’s another defensive end that played 19 years in the National Football League.”

It’s remarkable Smith played that long, but it wasn’t by accident. Smith kept his ideal weight by eliminating red meat and fried food from his diet.

Kevin Greene’s diet fluctuated with his weight. On Sundays, Greene remembers, he wanted to hit the field between 242 and 245 pounds. He stepped on a scale every day, monitoring through game week.

When he was underweight, Greene said, “fatty foods” were on the menu. An extra doughnut for breakfast. A cheeseburger for lunch.

Overweight, his diet was rigid.

“I didn’t want to go into a game at 248 (pounds),” Greene said. “I wanted to go in at 242 to 245. Because I could do my entire job description as an outside linebacker the best right there at 242 to 245. So if I got a little heavy, I would start to thin out my diet. I wouldn’t eat that extra slice of pizza, and I’d replace breakfast with a protein powder milkshake instead of the eggs and the biscuit.

“I think your diet has to be really boned up at the end of your career. Your diet has to be better than it ever has been before.”

Unlike Greene, Peppers said he doesn’t have a strict playing weight. He will push 300 pounds — “I can be 295, 297,” he said — and feel more explosive than a slimmed-down 285.

Peppers swears he doesn’t eat that well. There is no fast food in his diet. Occasionally, red meat or fried chicken finds his dinner plate.

Most meals incorporate fish — his favorite is tilapia, Peppers said — and brown rice. Sometimes, he’ll splurge on some salmon.

“A little fatty,” Peppers said, “but it’s still good for you.”

It isn’t calorie counting that makes a difference, Peppers said. It’s sleep. When he was younger, Peppers soaked up the celebrity life. He stayed out after midnight. He was young, brash, invincible.

Misery was his 7 a.m. alarm.

Now, Peppers tries to be in bed by 9 p.m. No later than 10, he said.

“If I can say anything is more important than anything,” Peppers said, “it’s been the sleep. It’s definitely been the sleep.”

‘I blew them up’

This late-career renaissance wasn’t supposed to happen. Two years ago, Peppers was discarded. An unexpected free agent.

The Chicago Bears no longer found value in his services. So they released him. For Peppers, it was new territory. He was the No. 2 overall pick in his draft. The best player for every team he ever played.

Now, a team was telling him to go away.

Peppers didn’t need to search for extra motivation when he arrived in Green Bay. It came naturally. Even if he won’t reveal just how much the release irked him.

“I feel like that stuff is temporary,” Peppers said. “It’s a temporary motivation. It’s not sustainable. So when guys, say, somebody in the media writes a bad story and people are piling on you and you find motivation in that, that’s temporary.

“I always knew myself. I knew I could still play. So it never really got to me mentally.”

Doleman doesn’t buy it. Not even a little. He’s been there.

The Vikings traded Doleman to Atlanta before the 1994 season. He was 32. Supposedly entering the twilight of his career. Nobody in Minnesota expected the trade would haunt them. Not with John Randle in his prime, a ready replacement.

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Doleman was banished to NFL purgatory. Far from contention, he stewed through 1994 and ’95, eventually signing with the San Francisco 49ers before the 1996 season. A year later, he got payback.

In December, the 49ers hosted a Vikings team fighting to make the playoffs. Doleman had 2½ sacks in his first game against Minnesota, forcing fumbles on consecutive fourth-quarter possessions. He recovered one of the fumbles, sealing a 28-17 win.

“I blew them up,” Doleman said.

That perpetual chip on his shoulder helped only so much. Winning, in general, made the biggest difference, Doleman said.

In San Francisco, Doleman played for a team fighting to return to the Super Bowl. Each season was championship or bust. With Steve Young behind center, the 49ers’ defense constantly protected a lead.

Powerful offenses, Doleman said, are a pass rusher’s best friend.

“If you’re able to control the tempo of the game,” Doleman said, “if you’re able to win more than you’re losing and you’re up more than you’re behind, then the play is much easier. It’s a lot harder when you’re going to a team that’s below .500, and your defense is struggling. You’re just always trying to finish out the season. That’s something that wears on players that don’t go deep into their 30s.”

Peppers’ release from Chicago became a blessing. The Bears languished at the bottom of the NFC North each of the past two years. Nothing to play for, just finishing out the season.

The Packers provide Peppers a chance to chase an elusive Super Bowl ring, but that isn’t the only benefit. The right scheme, Smith said, can add “an extra year or two” to a career. Peppers believes he found the right scheme in Green Bay.

The Packers are flexible with Peppers’ usage, lining him up as an outside linebacker but also an interior pass rusher in sub-packages. Peppers has proven he can hold an edge defending the run, even drop into coverage. To maximize his effectiveness, Peppers said, he expects to rush from the interior even more this season.

Doleman believes the Packers can get “more mileage” if they make Peppers an A to B player. See the quarterback. Hit the quarterback. No distractions.

“He’s a matchup problem in there,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “We’ve used him in there sometimes where you pick out who you think their poorest pass protector is, and you put Julius in there on him.”

‘When you know you’re done’

Trace Armstrong won’t be in the Hall of Fame. He was a good player for 15 seasons. Not an all-time great.

There is one distinction Hall of Famers can’t match, though.

Armstrong had 16.5 sacks with the Miami Dolphins in 2000, the most ever for a pass rusher 35 years or older. His uptick started the previous postseason, Armstrong said, when he had three sacks in an AFC wild-card playoff win at Seattle.

Momentum carried through the offseason, into the fall. Armstrong had 2.5 sacks in the Dolphins’ opener, a rematch against the Seahawks. He entered the mid-October bye with 10 sacks in six games. He ended the season with a Pro Bowl berth.

“The key for me,” Armstrong said, “was I had good health. I really didn’t miss any practices in that time. I didn’t have any injuries to speak of. So I really got to enjoy being at that unique window where I felt really good physically, and I was able to leverage that with my knowledge of the game.”

It was a rare reprieve in an otherwise injury-riddled career. Armstrong’s 15 seasons included 21 surgeries, he said. His knees had nine operations.

Taking care of his body became an obsession. Armstrong’s best friend on any team, he said, was the strength coach. His second-best friend was the trainer.

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Good health didn’t last. Armstrong left for Oakland after the 2000 season, joining a contender. In his third game, he tore his Achilles and never regained old form. Each of Armstrong’s final three seasons ended with him on injured reserve.

Mondays were his least-favorite day of the week. It wasn’t lingering pain from playing the previous afternoon. He despised the film room.

“I hated watching myself on film,” Armstrong said. “I hated it. You know the whole deal where you hope the teacher loses your report card? I would say, ‘Oh, God, I hope they didn’t get that on film.’ My speed, my quickness was gone. It looked quick enough, but my Achilles was too long. So when I would run, I would see my heel collapse. It was kind of like running with a shoe that was three or four sizes too big.

“What happened there was I could see things that I couldn’t take advantage of. I couldn’t do anything about it. I had an injury every year in Oakland, my last three years. You keep thinking, ‘If I could just get past this, I’ll be OK.’ Then something else would happen. That’s when you know you’re done.”

Peppers is not done.

Fifteen years in, he still keeps up. Still runs wind sprints with the defensive backs. Still sacks quarterbacks at a prodigious rate. He expects to keep going, so long as he stays healthy.

At this age, Peppers understands, any injury has the potential to be his last. It’s why only four pass rushers in NFL history have double-digit sacks after their age-35 season, not five. Armstrong expected to follow 2000 with another big year. His body wouldn’t let him.

“You’ve got to do everything right the older you get,” Armstrong said. “You can cheat on sleep (when you’re younger). You can cheat on food. You can cut corners in the weight room, and your ability and your talent and your knowledge of the game will allow you to get away with it. You get in your mid-30s, if you don’t do everything right, you feel it the next day. If you don’t do everything right, you may not be able to practice on Wednesday.”

For the rest of his career, Peppers knows, he will be asked the same questions. How many more seasons can you play? When will you retire? Right now, he doesn’t have an answer. His body still feels 26 years old, even if Peppers knows he isn’t.

Peppers might be the rare player who avoids deteriorating at the end of his career. He might escape that awful feeling of watching a ghost on game film. Doleman was one of the lucky few.

After one more season with the Vikings, he retired at age 38 not because his skills diminished. He had eight sacks the previous season, enough to purchase another year.

Instead, Doleman decided, it was time to be home with his family.

If Peppers stays healthy, Doleman sees a similar ending in his future. It isn’t when Julius Peppers can’t play, Doleman said, it will be when Peppers doesn’t feel like playing anymore.

Said Doleman, “Julius can play for as long as he wants to play.”

rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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