While Peppers says that sitting out the four games last year didn't depress him, Carey sensed his pain during daily telephone conversations. Back in Peppers's hometown of Bailey, N.C. (pop. 690), his mother, Bessie Brinkley, saw it in his slumped shoulders. Peppers barely watched those four games. "It crushed him," Carolina coach John Fox says. "He was on his way to breaking records." Then, one day in January, Carey and Peppers were talking, and Peppers quietly said, "I'm coming out of this better."
Since then Peppers has taken charge of his life. Once reluctant to do interviews, he's consenting to more of them to tell his side of the story. He has become less trusting, remaining closest with former Tar Heels like Thornton and New York Giants linebacker Quincy Monk. Of course he says he is done with mysterious supplements, too. "Even if he's taking cold medication," Carey says, "he's showing it to the trainers first."
Peppers can't say exactly what it will take to satisfy his hunger for redemption this season. He knows it won't be easy, though. There will be more double teams, more exotic blocking schemes. "He won't sneak up on anybody," Fox says. "But Michael Strahan had 22� sacks once, and everybody saw him coming too." Peppers's main priority is clearing his name. "People are going to see a better version of everything I was last year," he says. "I want to remove all doubt that I need any help to play this game."