GREEN BAY – Julius Peppers leaned into his locker at Lambeau Field and smiled.
A little more than halfway through his 13th season, the 34-year-old seems revitalized on a new team and at a new position in Green Bay, one that has put him in a position to score two touchdowns off interceptions, break up an additional six passes, record five sacks and force two fumbles.
He has every reason to smile, of course, but this had nothing to do with that.
No, it was about a gift to his already-impressive career stat book, courtesy of his former Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman and current teammate, kicker Mason Crosby.
It was Sept. 27, 2010 at Soldier Field, and Crosby lined up for a 37-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter of an eventual 20-17 Bears win. The Bears special teams unit collapsed the protection, and Peppers got a hand on the kick – one of 13 in his career.
"That was actually one of those luck plays," Peppers said with his trademark toothy grin. "I got through. I was able to squeeze through. I can’t remember how; what happened, I was able to swim through. But actually ‘Peanut’ (Tillman) had got a piece of that ball before I did. He came off the edge and laid out, and the ball snipped his hand and he deflected it and then it my hand after that. They gave me the block, but he really hit it before I did."
Now, Crosby can smile about it, too.
He also remembers the first time Peppers got him – Nov. 18, 2007 at Lambeau Field, when he swatted a 49-yard attempt out of the air in a 31-17 Packers victory.
"I might have been one of the happier people whenever I saw that he was signing with us this offseason," Crosby said with a laugh.
The Packers coaching staff has made it a point this season to put the best players on the field, in whatever capacity, to succeed. Randall Cobb is back on punt returns. Clay Matthews has been moved inside.
But seeing Peppers’ No. 56 on the line during field goal attempts is nothing new. He proved to have a knack at blocking kicks dating back to his days at the University of North Carolina, and became a player opponent’s had to watch for even on seemingly routine extra points.
Packers special teams coach Shawn Slocum wouldn’t exactly admit that he ever specifically game-planned against Peppers on field goals, but he, Crosby and long snapper Brett Goode all admitted they looked to see where he was lined up.
"I’m glad he’s here. Let’s put it that way," Slocum said. "You had to be very conscious of where he was because of his impact there."
"Every time we played Chicago it was ‘where’s Julius going to be? Where’s he lining up?,’" Crosby added. "We watched all his blocks, all his disruption."
Peppers has 13 blocked kicks – 12 field goals and one extra point – in his career, his last coming in 2012. He has also blocked two kicks on three different occasions.
So, how does he do it?
"Well," Peppers grinned again, and paused.
"There is a little bit of scheme to it. Some of it is luck. Because you can’t necessarily … it’s not like you can tell where the ball is going to come out at. You try to get in the flight path of the ball, but you don’t always know where it’s going to come out at, so sometimes you just get hit by the ball. That’s how a lot of my blocks have happened. I just get through, get my hand, and somehow the ball hits my hand."
He did allow, though, that rule changes prior to last season have made that job harder. Defenders can no longer "overload," or place more than six defenders on one side of the center, push one another from behind, and interior rushers have to have his entire body outside the long snapper’s shoulder.
Last year was the first time since Peppers’ rookie year in 2002 that he did not redirect an attempt, and he has yet to get his hands on one this year.
"It’s a little tougher to get back there," he said.
Peppers credited former Panthers teammate Kris Jenkins, a 6-foot, 4-inch, 335-pound defensive tackle, with many of his early blocks in Carolina, saying the big man could easily clear out one or two players and create a lane.
"It’s a little scheme. It’s a little luck. And it’s a little bit of getting help," Peppers said. "Special teams plays are never about one person. It’s about everybody working together to get the job done."
But Crosby said the film belies Peppers’ humility.
"He moves so well without having to have – even when they could push, he didn’t need it," Crosby said. "He does these slide moves where he bounces off guys and finds seams. Then, he’s so athletic and so good at getting his hand up. He doesn’t have to even necessarily get a huge jump, he just times it right."
Goode and Crosby said they marvel at Peppers’ work ethic at that part of the game as well – it’s not an afterthought for him, even after all these years.
"I think it’s a huge asset to have a guy that caliber to be on our side, not only that he has blocked a lot of kicks but he can also educate our current guys and young guys who have come in," Goode said. "He’s got a lot of education to pass on, and it’s good that he can still do it himself. He leads by example. It’s great having him around here."
"I watch him every practice, every game," Crosby said. "He goes hard every time and just tries to be disruptive and if he can find that seam, he might get one this year too."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.